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It turns out losing everything is the best thing that ever happened to me

After graduate school, I got a job at an infamous yoga clothing store in San Francisco. It was a means to an end while I applied for academic teaching positions and editorial positions. Part of the company culture was an emphasis on employee education, which meant reading from their library, making vision boards and pretending that everything was awesome all the time.

I dutifully toed the party line, listed my two-, five- and 10-year goals in the break room to attract the assistance of the universe in achieving them, and took advantage of the outrageously good discount on stretchy pants. When I finally landed the editing job, I took the pants and left the self-made motivational posters behind. Half of my half-assed goal list was far-fetched anyway, because the man I loved was wary of the ocean. He had an irrational fear of the Kraken.

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Two years later, instead of checking off items on the first list of goals achieved, I’d lost everything but the yoga pants. The man I thought I would marry left for another woman, and without our partnership, nothing else made sense anymore either. The life we’d been building was ours, not mine alone, and one by one, I let go of my job, my city, my pets, my plans.

I could no longer afford our sunny one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. In fact, I could no longer afford San Francisco. And our rural future — a log cabin in the Rocky Mountains — seemed that much further out of reach now that I didn’t have a partner. Even my editing career was tied to who we were together. Everything I’d worked so hard to achieve had suddenly come to an end or seemed irrelevant. So I left it all behind. I drove back to Connecticut, where I rented a tiny, temporary space down the street from my mom. I kayaked. A lot. I went back on the academic job market just as the tenure-track jobs disappeared and the market was flooded with adjuncts. I got a job cleaning out the homes of the recently deceased. I reconnected with old friends. I waited for something to fall into my lap. Each of those things brought me to tears.

Sometimes, when we live through what we most feared, we become temporarily fearless. We crack, and the light gets in.

At the end of the summer, I reconnected with a friend—a sea captain on Connecticut’s tall ship, the S/V Amistad. He needed deckhands, but he also needed educators to revamp the teaching materials. I had little sailing experience and I hadn’t been on the open ocean since my college semester abroad, but I loved being surrounded by horizon — and as I was reminded by Mary South, the cure for anything is salt water. Besides, I needed a steady income (however low), and I needed to get a life. I signed on for a few months before the mast.

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Seven years and three ships later, I’ve gotten that life. One trip has led to another. I’ve sailed to 10 Caribbean islands and more than 20 Pacific islands and atolls. I’ve become a chef and mastered the ability to produce six meals a day for 40 people in 20-foot seas. I’ve learned how to prepare local island foods, and with some trial and lots of error, adapt them to the American palate. I’ve worked with university students to explore the interplay between food and culture. I’m learning French.

I was on the first non-educational ship to sail into Havana Harbor, sanctioned by both the U.S. and Cuban governments, since the 1960s. I own a home in Maine, and I’ve just put our garden seedlings in the ground. I’ve fallen in love again, with an oceanographer who makes love easy. We bought a boat, and with two years of work, we’ll be ready to bring her around to the Pacific. Sometimes, in casual conversation, I say that it’s nothing I could have imagined.

But I did.

I may have left the vision board of goals on a wall in San Francisco, but earlier this year, I stumbled across the notes I’d used to make it. By the time my west coast life crumbled, I’d long forgotten what my dreams once were — but the universe hadn’t. It turns out that nearly 10 years after writing them down, I’ve achieved or am well on my way to most. The notes read, in part: confident sailor, married, own a boat that’s at least 30’, travel extensively in South Pacific, divide time between east and west, on ocean and in mountains, buy a house, grow a garden, go to Dominica and Cuba before we ruin it, achieve fluency in another language. They also read: tenured teaching job in Maine, Montana or Colorado, and two kids. At least the universe got the Maine part right.

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Perhaps the yoga pants are magic (they have held their shape and color all these years), and maybe vision boards work even when your conscious mind forgets they exist. Or maybe, sometimes, what seem like endings are really the beginnings of where we’re supposed to be. What I know for sure is that if I hadn’t lost so much, I wouldn’t have achieved my goals. If I hadn’t endured the pain of falling apart, I wouldn’t know the beauty or the strength I found in putting myself back together. My life didn’t go as I planned, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

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