Grace sat quietly at the large central table which took up most of the fore deck on the graceful sailing ship The Katharina, one of the two ships that belong to Sea Trek Sailing Adventures out of Bali (www.seatrekbali.com). On the far end of the table was a smorgasbord of gorgeous food, ranging from dark green salads to spiced pink shrimp to squid on a bed of rice. And, of course, desserts.
She sighed. She’s faced gorgeous food like this before with no permission to enjoy it.
Grace (not her real name) is in her seventies. Short and round, she has been rotund her entire life. It’s how she was made. From the time she was very, very young her family began to hide food from her. Her mother complained about how she was shaped, as though this were a character fault.
“Well nobody else in the family is shaped like you are,” her mother would say caustically, as she handed sweet biscuits around the table, avoiding Grace’s chubby outstretched hand.
Grace’s mother bought plenty of goodies for the rest of the kids, then hid the sweets in the cupboard.
Grace knew precisely where they were. And regularly raided the kitchen.
This escalated into a cat-and-mouse game, with her mother locking, then padlocking the cabinets against Grace’s pilfering. The entire family conspired to keep the child away from chocolates, sweets and puddings that were so obviously available to everyone else BUT Grace.
Grace felt horrible about her body, which she couldn’t change. She felt far worse about the verbal abuse from her mother and the general disapproval of the entire family about a body she couldn’t help. Short, stubby and with little definition around her waist, she didn’t look like she was part of the family of slim, athletic kids and parents. She felt like an outsider, was verbally demeaned about her body. Then she had to sit at the table and watch while everyone else got the sweet treats she so desperately wanted.
In other words, she was punished over and over and over again, simply for being who she was. To feel better, and to assuage the pain, she became a master at finding the hiding places for her mother’s stash. It didn’t matter how severe the punishment, the treats made up for everything else.
We both looked at the plates and plates of sumptuous food. I didn’t move.
Now in her seventies, and of course still round, but married (of course) to a tall, perpetually thin man whose metabolism scorches anything he eats, she still struggles. Not only with her weight, but her lifelong guilt.
“My husband goes out and gets donuts,” she says. “I can’t help myself. I have to have a few.”
Now, as she sits on the swaying boat, she eyes the mounds of delicious food just a few feet away. Then she gets up and loads her plate, her face a picture of happiness. When she settles down next to me, she digs in with gusto. The aromas waft to my nose before being snatched away by the sea breezes.
“Out here I feel so free,” she said, waving her arm at the turquoise Indonesian ocean. Above us the sails of the Katharina were full of wind. Occasional spray touched our faces. Grace was grinning.
“Nobody but nobody out here tells me what I can or can’t eat. I can just be myself.” She closed her eyes as she chewed in pleasure. There were so many wondrous impressions: the excellent food, the excited islanders, the sweet breezes, the friendly crew, long lazy days aboard ship with the option to snorkel, swim, relax, or adventure.
An eight-day ocean journey on a sleek sailing boat does wonders for a girl. It can even begin to erase bad memories. Far away from familiar places, Grace can experiment, play, try new foods, and enjoy a biscuit from the supply in the bar without a single pang of guilt.
This is how we heal the wounds of our past. Part of the intense magic of taking the time to get completely away from everything we know, all the influences of our daily lives is to see differently, experience differently, and learn to build healthier perspectives. As I spent time each day with Grace, I could see her visibly relax. Her body lost its tension. She enjoyed her food, and reveled in the long, easy days. She could choose to hike and explore or sit and read, as the boat swayed softly in the surf as we moored off yet another island. Knowing she could have anything she wanted, any time she wanted- including biscuits and chocolate-rewrote the emotional rules.
No matter what we’ve experienced, no matter how deeply ingrained some of our life lessons, a deep re-set is possible. What that takes is a full immersion in a wholly different way of life, and an opportunity to rewrite our life’s novel. In the best sense of the words, it’s never, ever too late. When we permit ourselves to dip our emotional spoons into a wholly different way of being, we also give ourselves permission to rethink those events which have shaped us.
Indonesia does that. Half a world away from everything we know, surrounded by breathtaking beauty, time in the tropics provides an opportunity to imagine a life without strictures. Unfair rules.
It’s never, ever too late. Grace was as giddy as a schoolgirl. The laughter took years of care off her face.
Permission to play.
Grace got up for seconds.