In the Present with Chelsea Kline: Staying anchored amid rough waters 

Published: 6/24/2022 2:37:35 PM
Modified: 6/24/2022 2:35:13 PM

When I was 7 years old, I lived right near the Boston harbor, and would frequently walk along the water with my father. Gulls swooped and shrieked overhead as we watched the ships gently bobbing along the wharfs.

I wondered aloud why the boats didn’t just tip over, given their height and girth. My father had used his sculpture degree to work professionally building canoes, and he thoughtfully explained about how ballast keeps a boat balanced and stable in the water, even when the waters are rough and choppy.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my father was struggling with living up to all the expectations that he’d built around himself as a father, employee and husband. He absented himself from our family soon after I completed second grade. I continued to walk along the harbor, and sometimes saw gaggles of moon jellyfish silently pirouetting just below the water’s surface, a reminder that life on earth is indeed bizarrely fantastic, and there’s so much we don’t know.

A few years after my father left, my paternal grandmother gave me a tiny golden ring. It barely fit to the second knuckle of my pale freckled pre-teen fingers, and I squinted at the delicate curly cursive letters engraved along the small band. The ring had belonged to my father when he was just a baby, and the thought of his calloused woodworkers fingers ever having been soft and dainty seemed downright preposterous.

My grandmother gazed at the little circle of gold in my palm and recalled how her only child had suffered from an allergy to his formula, and she’d been instructed to tie his little arms to his crib. As a young immigrant mother, she’d worked long days as a roller in a cigarette factory, and was too poor and exhausted to seek an alternative approach.

Besides, a doctor’s word was above reproach in the 1940s, so she dutifully complied, even has her baby wailed and thrashed against his restraints. Her eyes misted and welled up as she let the memory of his cries pierce the silence we shared. This story shaped my perspective from then on, and although I never actually heard my father’s cries when he was a baby, they will echo in my heart for all my days.

In many ways, we know just as much about another person’s inner struggles as I did about my own father when I was a kid. We can guess, assume, and look for clues, but staying gently curious and humble can often prevent us from believing that we can ever fully understand where someone else is coming from.

I’ve noticed that the inner workings of strangers and even loved ones can often be as quietly mysterious as jellyfish just below the surface, stirring up the waters all around us. Sometimes, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the current of our own emotions swirling and churning in response. I’d mostly felt hurt and confused about my father and his choices throughout my life, but learning that he’d once been scared and alone through pain and illness helped my tenderness to flow towards him. His baby ring became a tangible reminder that compassion can keep me anchored when everything seems turbulent.

Today, I wear my father’s tiny ring on a chain around my neck, because it gives me ballast. Encountering all sorts of complex and unpredictable humans can easily throw me off kilter, but having a little reminder near my heart helps to balance and stabilize. That tiny golden ring reminds me that everyone was once a baby, and everyone has a small scared self that can lash out, or make messy, erratic life choices.

That simple ring teaches me that we’re all golden and sweet in our core origins, even when our calloused outsides present differently. When the waters of life are chaotic, I need reminders of how much I can assume, and how little I actually know. For me, staying curious grounds me in compassion. Like all humans, I’m rarely my best self, and I’m committed to practice returning to who I aspire to be. Keeping reminders or “compassion anchors” close at hand makes the return slightly easier, like tides rushing back in, flooding me with tenderness towards others and myself.

Please consider what stories or artifacts help to give you ballast in your life. I’m curious about what reminders or talismans serve to bring you back to your compassionate self.

Chelsea Sunday Kline is an author and big hugger who was recently appointed the executive director at Cancer Connection.

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