Sailing into the sunset

On a cruise, hiding out from fellow passengers covered with American flag pins, my friend Buddy and I face the impending war. Part 1 of two parts.

Published March 14, 2003 10:07PM (EST)

When I am at my most exhausted, and unsound, empty and overwhelmed at the same time, I make a nest on the couch in the living room, with a comforter and pillows, magazines, cat, unguents, and cool drinks. I call this "the cruise ship." It is not the same as just stretching out on the couch with a book. It is more intentional, a psychiatric Sabbath, saved for end-of-the-rope unwellness. I know I need the cruise ship when my hypochondria reaches a certain level, and I develop the symptoms of phlebitis, heart cancer, diverticulitis, or start trying to decide whether to have an elective colostomy. Exasperation is another symptom, especially toward myself, about my ineptness, wickedness, laziness or, ironically, workaholism. It does not take Anna Freud to diagnose that I'm losing it: Once when Sam was young, we were racing toward a lecture I was late for and I was spilling papers and books and coffee. And this elfin voice behind me said, "You are going too fast, and carrying too much." I've remembered this many times. To go faster and get more done is to move in the direction of death. The cruise ship carries you back toward life.

I used to have to get sick to baby myself, and even then it could be dicey. I might have the flu, fever and aches, and yet somehow talk myself into getting up to clean the cat food crust off the placemat under the cat's dish. And if I do get up to do it, and am lightheaded from standing, my next thought might be, a brain tumor. A cerebral bleed.

The cruise ship is always inconvenient -- you have to set aside some time to do nothing, like two hours. You can't hurry doing nothing. And since spirit isn't about what you do -- God says, Be, be, be -- it works best when you're not doing anything at all.

But you'll get to see the sweetest thing of all, one person tenderly caring for another, even if it's crabby, mealy-mouthed you taking care of hysterical, shirking you. You take the action, and then the insight follows: Spirit heals spirit. Nothing besides kindness and quiet can realign and contain the chaotic, wailing, whining forces that pull us apart, that weaken us.

I pretend my old couch is a lounge chair on the top deck of a ship. The heater should be on low. Being warm in air or water is like being inside a great breathing being. It buoys you up gently, like an adult you trust when you're learning to swim, where, paradoxically, you have to rest down into the water to float.

But a couple of weeks ago, I did an astonishing thing: I got on an actual cruise -- the floating kind. It was an Italian liner, with 1,500 passengers, Fellini Satyricon meals, ice swan centerpieces, Internet cafes, stops in Caribbean ports. My son, his friend Alex and I went, the guests of a group that was taking 80 sober people on a cruise. I was one of two speakers, along with my Jesuit friend Father Tom, and his wonderful buddy, Buddy Kronberg.

We boarded in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and headed toward the east Caribbean. I was a wreck. Everyone was. But I am the world's worst traveler even under the best of circumstances. I am terrified of the impending war, and of snakes, sharks, undertows and group hugs. I am also afraid of VX gas attacks, huge amounts of food, and strangers wanting my e-mail address. I love to swim in warm seas but hate getting to them. I subscribe to the motto of travel agents Karl and Carl, "Trust no one; see nothing."

We sailed for the first two days, surrounded by seas of kindergarten blue. I found it rather peaceful, and Buddy was great company. He is in his mid-50s, and great looking, in a unique and sort of seedy way: He has gained a lot of weight since he quit smoking, and has flyaway hair like a newborn bird's and bright blue eyes. But the arresting thing about him is that he has two missing front teeth. He is a man of enormous intelligence and humor and has done well as a freelance computer genius. Everyone falls in love with him. For instance, Sam, who can be cool and distant these days, had a couple of meals with Buddy and then confided to me, rather mournfully, "I just love Buddy so much."

Buddy had not been on a boat since Vietnam, so he was a little tense about several things. He was afraid that the ship would tip over, he was worried that a revolution was brewing among the cabin help. And also, that John Ashcroft was spying on the three of us -- him, Tom and me -- as we grimly checked the news at the Internet cafe every few hours, expressing tiny opinions on George Bush's humanity, sobriety and deft diplomatic touch.

Buddy kept saying things like, "We need to be on the lookout for possible security breaches." And, "We should suck up to the captain." And, "The revolution is being led by unseen forces. In the boiler room." I got into the spirit of things, to take my mind off Iraq, North Korea and, mostly, Sam.

Sam was hanging out until all hours at the disco, with Alex. They were in a room across the hall, and had fallen in with a pack of roving teenage reprobates, who met every night near the Internet cafe to plan the evening's sorties. Sam is mostly sweet and funny and thinks I am hilarious, but sometimes an adolescent phantom uses Sam's body as a host. I call the phantom "Phil." He is full of contempt, boredom, secrets, poor judgment. Phil does not think I am funny. He thinks I am a moron. Friends who've had teenagers tell me to love and respect him enough to release him to the consequences of his actions, but some days go better than others. I wish I were God's Deputy Under Secretary Of How Everything Turns Out. But instead, I'm Mrs. Afraid.

I turned to Buddy for help a few times, although he has no children. I told him how contemptuously Phil had answered my prying, invasive questions that morning, like, "What are your plans today?" Buddy said, "You could let God be in charge of surveillance. Maybe your fear makes Sam more afraid. My friend Blanche could ask her husband a question, answer it herself, and go away mad."

I stopped by the chapel to pray a few times. It was very Italian, painted the colors of rainbow sherbet. Then I'd go to the Internet cafe to check my e-mail. I'd end up reading the news, what Michael Wolff called "the long, execrable, grinding buildup to war." And then walk dejectedly into sunshine, where there'd be hundreds of people clothed in American flags.

They'd be wearing flag pins, caps and hats, and beach totes, flag swimsuits, flag towels. It's like everyone went to Gift Shoppe USA before boarding. I felt very fragile. Michael Wolff was right when he said, "The slow motion is the weird, unnerving part." So I'd try to speed things up, racewalk around the boat past all the bodies sunbathing on deck, half of them glorious, half of them -- comment se dit? -- less glorious. I'd go looking for Tom and Buddy.

Buddy and Tom were just as worried as I was. Buddy said that in Indonesia, tour guides take goats along with them on tour buses, to toss over cliffs to the Komodo dragons below, to amuse the tourists. The goats have to be alive, because the dragon wants to play, and it's more fun for the tourists.

"Maybe the goat doesn't know what awaits him," I said.

"The goat knows," Buddy replied. "The smell of Komodo poop, and dead goats, gets stronger."

This is how afraid I sometimes feel now.

I talked to my pastor about my fears right before I left for this cruise. She told me about flying home from a vacation with her daughters, with the plane bucking, and people crying out. "We were petrified," she said. "But we stuck together, and I absolutely knew that in life, as in death, we belonged to God. We were safer with God and each other on that plane than we would have been without God, on the ground."

When she told me this, I thought, a fat lot of good that does me. But Tom said the same thing. "Sticking together is what saves us," he said. "Praying for the willingness to have mild spiritual well-being helps -- you don't need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity. Me? I'm just willing to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees. And if I stay sober, help other people, and not kill anyone today that's a lot."

While we were at sea, I hid in my room as much as possible and read magazines. I vacillated between faith and utter hopelessness. War could break out in the next breath, and yet, so far, it felt like when Mr. Magoo is about to fall off the beams of the skyscraper, and another girder appears at his feet. I don't know how long this can last, though. Once a government is convinced that it's right, and everyone else is wrong, and can be excluded from the family of man, then you're on the way to concentration camps. I never forget that Bush used the word "crusade," so he could baptize the slaughter. But by the same token, I also never forget that there is one who has all power, and it's not Bush. Then I'd go look for Buddy or Tom.

Buddy and Tom were never in the sun. We are all fair, and my father died of melanoma. My heart leapt whenever I found raggedy old Buddy. One morning, I found him by the fancy glass elevators in the center of the ship. People were getting out, or waiting to board. Buddy stared into the emptied elevator and clutched his head. The handrail had pulled free. Screws stuck out everywhere. When he saw me, he said, "What if the hull is like this." He covered his mouth. "I shouldn't say this in a crowd," he whispered.

It was easy to identify with him, and see how beautiful he is, even with the missing teeth, but I was having trouble identifying with most of the other people onboard. It was partly all those fucking flags, partly how boorish the Americans could be after a few drinks. Tom said salvation is when you identify with people, but I didn't identify with these flag people.

I was on the top walkway of the ship one morning. I stopped, and began to watch the people below bathing in the sun. I stood at the railing, outside the Internet cafe, and I looked at the old bodies, and the hideously perfect young bodies. Even from 15 feet up, at the rail, I could see the corrugated skin, the lumps and veins and chicken-skin knees. I saw huge guts, bad moles, flag towels, and flag beach totes, and fat, hairy middle-aged men wearing teeny bikinis. One old woman seemed to be wearing oversize pink-tinted pantyhose, which turned out to be her skin; and everything in me wanted to run for my room or the Internet. But then I had the simplest, cloth-coat spiritual awakening. That's all it took. A spiritual awakening almost never means that the world suddenly makes sense; it just means you stop, and remember something, that usually makes you want to do something kind -- call your parents, tolerate your children, or, in this case, to care for my sad, fretful self. And with blinding intuition, I knew I needed to be on a cruise ship.

I went down the stairs to the deck where people lay sunbathing. I found a lounge chair in the warm shade and stretched out. It was so unnatural for me. I must have looked tense and ridiculous, like Richard Nixon at Club Med. I looked at everyone, and thought, If Jesus was right, then these are my motley siblings. And they are so letting themselves go. I know this is not how Jesus would have seen things, but I saw an expanse of walruses, big wet bodies flopped down on towels, letting it all hang out.

It's the opposite of hibernation, resting in the sun. The people were putting cool lotion on their bodies, and on one another: They got up and returned with drinks for the people they were with. They handed each other caps and visors, and covered each other up with towels and T-shirts.

Surely they all knew what was going on, that we were about to go to war, but -- or so -- they lay there anyway. They chatted, or dozed, in the warmth of the sun. I thought of people warming themselves around the campfire on a battlefield. I know God doesn't see their walrus bodies; God sees their hearts at temporary ease. God sees babies, radiant, befuddled babies, and after a few minutes I could see how safe they were, just in that moment, because the warmth held them up like the sea.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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