When I decided to leave high heels and dayplanners behind to travel a different path through life, I chose to varnish boats. When Roz Savage left her life as a management consultant and investment banker, she decided to row a boat across the Atlantic. The only woman in the 2005-2006 Atlantic Rowing Race to singlehand from the Canary Islands to Antigua, she competed with twenty other boats; only one other was single-handed. Boats in the rest of the fleet were crewed by two or four people, and all arrived in Antigua ahead of Ms. Savage, who crossed the finish line after 103 days at sea.
Even at the time, the fact that she arrived in last place seemed a bit beside the point. After breaking every one of her oars (and patching them with duct tape), losing her satellite phone and stereo, watching clouds put her solar-powered water desalination unit out of commisision and having to cut free her sea anchor while dragging through the water held only by her safety harness, being alive seemed the point.
But the troubles she endured didn’t quell her enthusiasm for her sport or her determination to meet the challenge she’d set herself – to row around the world. After completing the Atlantic race, an interviewer asked how it was possible to accomplish such a feat with so many odds against her. Although she rowed during her time at Oxford, she wasn’t a professional, and certainly didn’t fit the physical profile of an open-ocean rower.
Ms. Savage replied that drive and passion were the keys- simple desire, fueled by perseverance. “Stay dedicated and work hard,” she said. “and only worry about the things you can control. In life there is so much we want to do but we scare ourselves out of living the life we want, because of all the ‘what ifs’. I only concentrate on what I can control. That is how I rowed across the Atlantic.”
Having conquered the Atlantic, she set her sights on the Pacific, and began a single-handed row in 2007. That attempt had to be aborted due to rough weather and several capsizes. After a redesign of the boat, including the addition of 200 pounds of lead ballast in the hull and some fine tuning of her provisions, she again rowed out of San Francisco, early on the morning of May 25. This Pacific crossing will take place in three stages. Despite some issues with wind and currents, she still is on track with Stage 1.
The Pacific Challenge
Stage 1 (2008): San Francisco to Hawaii (2324 statute miles, course 247 degrees)
Stage 2 (2009): Hawaii to Tuvalu (2620 statute miles, course 224 degrees)
Stage 3 (2009): Tuvalu to Australia (2324 statute miles, course 252 degrees)
Since her departure last week, I’ve been following her progress through her blog. I find her delightfully direct, filled with common sense and without pretense. As befits an Oxford grad, she’s unapologetic about adding the occasional literary tidbit to her musings. On May 30, she confided,
“Sisyphus might sound like an unpleasant disease, but in fact he was the guy in Greek mythology who was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity. As soon as he stopped pushing the rock would roll backwards, so he just had to keep pushing away. I know how he felt.”
“I continue to row hard just to stand still. The wind has continued to strengthen, so despite rowing all day I have slipped back slightly towards the California coast. The seas have been rough, and once in a while a wave slaps into the side of the Brocade sending a torrent of cold salty water over me. The skies are leaden, with no sunshine to help dry me out. Everything on the boat is damp and dank.”
“The weather forecast is for the winds to get stronger and the waves to get bigger – and all coming out of the northwest. It seems that my Sisyphean task is going to be a tough one, and it’s hard to put that out of my mind for long.”
Sisyphus ~ Franz von Stuck
When I found “Sisyphean” in Roz Savage’s daily entry, I felt as though I’d found a sister. The title of this blog, The Task at Hand, is taken from one of my original poems about the work of the “Sisyphean poet”. For the poet, “even the right word takes effort”, and it is effort that Ms. Savage understands as well as anyone on this planet. The irony is that I first learned about Sisyphus in the context of drudgery, mindlessness and resentment. After all, he’d been condemned to his fate, and those who introduced him to me seemed to assume nothing positive was going to emerge from all that effort.
A woman who commented on Roz Savage’s blog had quite a different take. As she said in response to the Sisyphus reference, “If he wasn’t a guy with a boulder, a mountain and a task, there would be no story to remember him by. It’d be like, ‘You remember the guy. Well, he was a guy.’ So, you see, you are the gal in the rowboat on the ocean going to Hawaii.”
That woman has it exactly right: Sisyphus isn’t remembered for his status as a god, his history of making trouble, or his ability to get his own way by garden-variety deceit and trickery. He’s remembered for his boulder, his mountain and his task. And even though we speak of him being condemned to fruitless labor, having no power over his fate or circumstances, I sometimes wonder about the nature of his effort, and the limits of our understanding.
When I first encountered the image of Sisyphus shown above, I was absolutely startled by intimacy I saw between Sisyphus and his rock. He didn’t seem to be pushing it, he seemed to be resting against it, almost as though his struggle to move the rock higher and gravity’s determination to tumble it down had been perfectly balanced. This was a man who knew his rock, living in relationship with it and embracing it with intensity. Albert Camus, in his exploration of The Myth of Sisyphus, was equally fascinated by the sight of Sisyphus walking back down the mountain to find his rock and begin his task anew. Reading Camus, you can’t avoid the sense that Sisyphus not only is rolling and re-rolling his rock, he’s re-deciding his fate on a regular basis.
For von Stuck and Camus, there is a vibrant humanity that shines through Sisyphus, and I find myself thinking, “Perhaps Sisyphus had more choice than we realize.” Perhaps that is why his story, his image and his myth continue to resonate as they do: not because of his condemnation but because of his choice.
The obvious question is, if Sisyphus had a choice, why would he continue to roll that rock? The answer may be as simple as another question: why do any of us do anything? Why would Roz Savage endure isolation, fear and exhaustion to row across oceans in a glorified tin can? Why do perfectly well-adjusted men and women withdraw completely from society and journey into the desert to live in silence, contemplation and prayer? Why do researchers follow their hunches and their data for years, or artists refine their vision for decades? Why do athletes train, or poets write?
Part of the answer is that effort, like virtue, is its own reward. Contrary to what some believe, work is not a curse, exhaustion can be cured, and simple desire, fueled by perseverance, can move mountains, climb mountains and, if necessary, do some rock-pushing straight up those mountains.
Sisyphus has his boulder and his mountain. Roz Savage has her rowboat and her ocean. I have my words and my night. Each of us has our task, and our obstacle. The only question is whether we will embrace those tasks and continue on, or step aside and let gravity have its way.