At Sea

At Sea

In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Read on for Karen Lord's essay, and visit to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.

I was born in an independent nation. I have always been a Barbadian, expecting no more nor less than these four hundred and thirty square kilometres of land. I did not experience the moment when our borders shrank from outpost of empire to microstate. But when I stand on the coast, I am unbalanced. The immensity of ocean in my sight demands a continent of land beneath my feet, and I have only a rock to stand on.

My vertigo increases as borders tighten. The pleasure of a plane trip has become the terror of the airport, from the price and processing of the visa to the forgotten, full-size tube of toothpaste in your carry-on. Flying is now a miasma of anxiety resulting from the imperfect management of micropanics: the juggling of shoes, belt, bladeless multitool, snacks, laptop and dignity. That’s before you leave the ground. There will be plenty of time, en route, to consider a new suite of potential panics at destination.

I return to the coast. I tried out paddling, first a kayak, then a surfski. I asked my coach if it was possible to paddle to St Vincent, another microstate and our nearest neighbour, of whom our clear horizon holds neither hint nor shadow of a promise. He looked doubtful. Inter-island races do exist, but a launch from our shores would face many hours of open ocean with large, multidirectional swells.

I didn’t think I could do it, but I wanted to know if it could be done. I started paddling for fun and fitness, but eventually I admitted to myself that I needed to claim the wider ocean to compensate for a land that could not match my scope of freedom.

I didn’t think I could do it. Long before the anxiety of flight, I lived with a phobia of depths and dark water. Parents and teachers recited the common Bajan dictum – ‘the sea ain’t got no back door’ – and this became the society-approved box for exhibiting my unvoiced qualms and existential dread. Later, weary of boxes, I pushed back, countering it with another saying: ‘Your fear is only adrenalin seeking orders’.

What shall I order my adrenalin to do? Do I fight or fly, struggle or soar? This is a test.

I return to the sea. I do not paddle for the beauty of the bay, though beauty sometimes startles me – the flash of a leaping shoal of fish, the clear blues that draw the sight down and down to white-gold sand, the light kiss or spitting snarl of the wind. I narrow my focus to the swells, the rhythm of the stroke, and my body. I balance the forces of nature against my will to go forward. I am flying in dual element, like the fish skimming the water’s surface. I paddle to escape the limits that terror has placed upon me and many others. I paddle to go where I want, when I want, and as I please.

Recently, I visited the National Archives to do a little family research and found my great-grandmother’s marriage certificate. Her father’s name, mark and profession were recorded. He was of the first generation of the free, and he was a fisherman. Did he go to sea to avoid even the memory of bondage to land? Or was it simply the lure of paid work, the same need that later called his daughter’s husband to Panama?

Many Barbadians went to build the Canal, because outposts of empire are no more immune to lean times than microstates. Now there is no empire and far fewer Panamas in this age of tightening borders ... and so I, descendant of a fisherman, decide to find freedom at sea.

Choosing the sea gives my adrenalin orders. My coach compliments me on my willingness to push myself to greater challenges. I take the compliment gladly and without guilt. To be seen where you are, to have your work and efforts acknowledged, even appreciated – why does that feel like freedom too? Is it another trick of adrenalin, a mere rush of chemicals, or is it a kind of thanksgiving for the presence of flow and the taste of transcendence?

This is my transcendence: to excel for no reason but the pursuit of excellence; to be and not have to justify my being; to go where I want, when I want, and as I please.

But sometimes the ocean will not permit entry, closing the border between sea and earth with pounding surf and surging currents. My coach says it is wiser to pause, rethink the exercise, and launch from another shore or on another day. Even when the sea appears kind, I must be wary. Welcome is an agreement between guest and host, a thin line balancing the gift that does not burden and the gratitude that leaves none beholden. Welcome is always revocable, and not only with the sea.

Law and politics imply that the land belongs to us, but in truth we belong to the land. We are creatures in a habitat of food, shelter and family that we protect and that protects us. If disasters natural or man-made overturn that stability, we must seek a new habitat … which is hard when your land is a microstate and borders are tightening and fear is everywhere.

Irrational anxieties are echoes of real fears grounded in the futures that we cannot control. I fear that this small rock I am balancing on will disappear, and that I will not be allowed to build a fresh habitat and a new belonging. I fear that the sea and the empty horizon will be all that is left to me. And I am teaching myself to fall in love with the ocean and its mutability, so that when change comes at last, I will not be left drowning.

This is a test of my strength and resilience. This is me choosing freedom, real and symbolic, in all the ways I can.


Copyright © 2018, Karen Lord. All rights reserved.

Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.

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