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Suffering is Optional

Count on John for our travelog, which is usually going to be a few weeks behind where we actually are. Count on Rochelle to post in real time her ponderings about this nomadic life. This one is hers.

Awakened once again by the most obnoxious and irresistible of all of the alarms on my cell phone, I opened my eyes to the red glow of the light that we use to illuminate the cabin while underway at night. John's watch was ending, and I had 20 minutes to use the head, make a thermos of hot tea, don my foulies, and get out to the cockpit to spell him at the top of the wee hour.

There is such discomfort in that last paragraph. It's early morning. I do not have the luxury of snoozing the alarm because I know that as his four-hour watch comes to an end, John is cold and tired. The boat pitches and rolls as I climb up the step and onto the head, hoping not to be catapulted off if I make a move at a moment that the ocean sends the boat in another direction. My base layer of clothing, and virtually everything else on the boat, feels damp with the sea mist, and nothing takes that dampness away. My foulies are heavy and stiff: a pair of overalls and an overcoat that protect me from the dampness and cold that await me on watch but hamper my movement. Nevertheless, as is my duty as a committed first mate, I pull myself together and relieve the skipper on time. He tells me about the other boats that I should watch carefully on the radar screen, confirms our course, and heads below for his much-needed rest. He will be back on watch in four hours, and until then, the safety of Karma and her crew is in my hands.

In the darkness of early morning, my mind wanders. Why am I spending my retirement like this? Did I really work 32 years for a new life of sleeping three hours a night (or trying), in dampness and eerie red light, living without the comforts of my luxurious bed, deep bathtub, dishwasher, unlimited hot water, my car, freedom to dash out and grab whatever I wanted? More basically, without the company of my family and friends whenever I wanted? Without my dog? My chickens? My goats? For this? What was I thinking? What am I doing?

And then I heard the words of our cruising coach, Behan of Sailing Totem: “Suffering is optional.” The full quote is, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional." It has been attributed to the Dalai Lama, Haruki Murakami, and M. Kathleen Casey, and while it does seem Buddhist in nature, who really said it first doesn't matter to me as much as the meaning. As I watched the radar for the fishing boats that always seem to be doing their level best to give me worries, I thought about all of the conveniences of land life and their correlating complications on a boat.

Land Laundry: The laundry room is right down the hall. Just throw the clothes in when it's convenient and you’ll have them put away in an hour and a half, or as long as you want to just leave the clean clothes in the dryer. They’ll be waiting right there when you’re ready for them.

Boat Laundry: Hand wash everything in a five-gallon bucket and then pin it up to dry up on deck. Don't feel modest that everyone in the anchorage can examine the museum that is your underwear. If it doesn't dry in the dampness of day one, pull it down before sunset and put it back in the five-gallon bucket. Hang it up again tomorrow, and hopefully that will do the trick. Whatever you do, do not put it away in your teeny tiny clothes locker before it is completely dry, or a sour stench will permeate all of your clothes, and everything will have to be washed again to get rid of it. An alternative to this boat laundry method is to load up the heaps of dirty clothes into bags and carry them, Uber them, or dinghy them to a laundromat where you can spend between $5-7 per load to wash and dry, then load it up again and heft it back to the boat. Note: I understand that in Mexico, taking your clothes to the laundromat means that someone washes them for you, and that it is no more expensive than washing them yourself at a US laundromat. I am looking forward to this change, though I doubt that they will pick them up from the boat to avoid the hefting.

Land Dishes: Scape all the dishes into the compost receptacle and don’t worry too much about the leftover little bits. Just grind them up in the garbage disposal. Put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Voila! They are clean before you know it but leave them in there as long as you like, since they aren't in your way.

Boat Dishes: Rearrange everything on the galley counters in order to make room for the dish drainer. Scrape every crumb and morsel of leftover food off of the dishes and wipe any trace of oil off with a paper towel because if any of it goes down the sink drain, you are going to pay dearly. To get hot water, either turn on the hot water heater, which takes too much precious energy if you aren’t connected to shore power, or heat a kettle of water on the stove. (You weren’t in a hurry, were you?) Hand wash. Play Dish Jenga, balancing the clean dishes on the dish drainer, and hoping that the boat doesn’t roll and send them all flying. Put them away ASAP, because even though they’re clean, they’re taking up a lot of space there on that teeny tiny counter. Tamp down your frustration that there isn’t a good place to store everything.

Land Groceries: Go to the app. Order what you want. A nice person delivers everything to your door in an hour. Forgot something? No worries, you can reorder whenever you like and another nice person will bring it to you.

Boat Groceries: Make a list. Think of everything that you might need in the foreseeable future, but don’t go hog wild because you’re going to have to have a place to put everything, and your fridge and freezer are teeny tiny, and your dry storage is limited. Choose wisely. Double check the list. Triple check it. Head to the store. You can walk or Uber; you might need to take the dinghy to get to shore. Whatever you choose, it’s going to be a long way and you will have to carry everything the distance back to the boat. You will marvel at how long the docks are and how far away your boat is. Unload the groceries. They will take over every available surface of the boat, and you will be vexed by where you are going to put it all. Then, you will begin remembering all of the things that you needed but forgot to buy. Start a new grocery list for the next time. Make due without those items that you forgot.

Those are just a few of the examples that I thought about that damp morning, while I waited for the sun to rise.

My mind wandered to my magnificent and magical grandmother, Effie Foreman. There has never been a kinder or harder working human. Ever. She washed their clothes by hand every week using a washtub, scrub board, and clothesline. Her four sons wore jeans, of course, and my mom wore those full skirts that were so popular in the 50’s. Everything was heavy cotton–I don’t think synthetic fabrics had been invented, had they? One day was wash day, the next was ironing day. She took pride in her family always having clean, well-pressed clothes. She *never* complained. She cooked three meals a day, from scratch, using a stove that had a broken handle that kept it from staying closed, so she propped it up with a broom handle. One summer, she cut grapes in vineyards in order to buy a new stove. She didn’t learn to drive until she was 45 years old, and so she walked or took the bus wherever she went and carried home everything she bought. I think about her a lot when I am doing hard jobs on the boat. She didn’t have modern conveniences. She just did what she had to do. And she didn’t complain. I was born when she was 50 years old, and more modern conveniences came into her life. I remember how thrilled she was the Christmas that my mom and her brothers gave her a Maytag dishwasher.

As the sun came up, I arrived at this conclusion: for this time in my life, I have given up the conveniences of modern life in America. Comfortable oversized bed, endless hot water, dishwasher, washing machine, car, blender, espresso machine, KitchenAid mixer, robotic vacuum–the list of my old conveniences went on and on. Modernization allowed American women to leave behind the days of my grandmother spending one day doing washing, the next ironing, the one after that with baking, so that we could spend more time doing other things, like working outside the home, or surfing the web for 12 hours a day. Things were physically easier, but as I liked to say at work all the time…Choose your hard. On a boat, without many modern conveniences, I live more like Effie: I walk to the store and carry the groceries home. I scrub the dirty clothes in a bucket, wring them out with my hands, and hang them to dry. Chores are harder. My feet are tired. My hands ache. But this “pain” of working hard to do chores only becomes suffering if I allow myself to succumb to self-indulgent self-pity that my boat doesn’t have all of those conveniences that I left behind on land, and if I lose sight of what I have traded them to gain.

And here’s where I arrived: I will gladly give up my blender, KitchenAid mixer, dishwasher, washing machine, and God help me–espresso maker–for the relief of laying down the burden of my J-O-B. I get to spend all day every day with the skipper. We are going to see beautiful places and magnificent things. We have the freedom to go wherever we want (at least what the weather, our insurance company and geopolitical climates will allow.) When I was a young woman, my wise friend Mary told me, “You can have it all, just not all at once.” For now, I choose this life. And one day, I will have a washing machine and a dishwasher once again.

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Recognizing strife fortifies the resolve! Such a great story of reflection.


Brought tears to my eyes, but many more smiles. You can be proud of yourself. I am so proud of you.


Mahvelous m’dear! Spot on ;-)

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