One of the fitness chicks I follow is Tracy Steen. She’s a strong smart woman in her 50s who posts workouts and interviews and lectures, all geared toward helping folks get healthier. Over the years, she and I have gotten to know one another a bit, at least virtually. Our daughters are the same age. Last year I introduced her to a friend who wrote a book about her eating disorder, and Tracy hosted her on one of her live feeds.
Anyway, this past February, Tracy packed up all her weights and fitness gear and relocated to St. Thomas for two months. She wanted to get away from the harsh British Columbia winters and film her workouts with the ocean as her backdrop, instead of her basement wall. She also went, she admitted with nervous honesty, that she’d never traveled or lived alone and was anxious to give it a go.
Every day I checked her new workout uploads, admiring her ability to exercise so strenuously in such heat and humidity. (If you are at all acquainted with me, you know I can hardly brush my teeth in hot and sticky environs.) I tried following along on a couple of the workouts, but watching Tracy having to constantly move her yoga mat out of the rain or skirting the ever-present reptiles and insects scurrying about, made my muscles tense up. Sure, that brilliant blue ocean behind her was picturesque enough, but, darn, I missed her cool clean basement gym.
On Instagram, Tracy posted stories of her taking walks along the beach, going into town, cooking delicious meals. In most of them she was, as she’d planned to be, alone. It was obvious she was fine; content even, but I silently wondered if maybe she wanted to be more social. Perhaps make a new friend or two.
II. FIRST MATE
I attended Sonoma State University back when it was a small laid-back hippie college surrounded by wild mustard fields. Its dorms were famous for being named after grape varieties (I lived in Chardonnay) and you could minor in enology. The cafeteria served vegan meals before it was even a thing. And, if you wanted to lounge topless by the pool or eat magic mushrooms and dance around the duck pond, no one took much notice.
During my sophomore year I met Douglas, a tow-haired southern California beach babe who lived for adventure. Up until the first time he kissed me, I’d spent most of my days hanging out in dark spaces writing sulky poetry. Douglas hauled me out of my dorm room and into the wilderness. We hiked every Sonoma County park; backpacked throughout the Sierras; and during our first summer together, we road-tripped the entire California coast. When he joined the sailing team, he pushed me to sign on too.
At first, I was a complete and utter klutz on the Flying Junior sailboat we raced. I tripped on ropes. Fell overboard often. And my wind-reading skills were laughably nonexistent. With Doug’s help, I was soon jibing like a well-practiced amateur: ducking under the boom without getting a concussion; quickly tugging the ropes taut and hiking my tiny frame out over the sea, my long dark hair skimming the sea’s surface as we flew through the salty air.
Fast tacking and fierce determination aside, we never ever won a regatta. Our old boat wasn’t as efficient as the fancier, newer boats the teams from Stanford and the UC schools raced. While we competed in cut-offs and bathing suits, the other teams wore uniforms. To be sure, we were a ragtag club, but we had a lot of fun.
Our losing streak came to an abrupt end when Peter Holmberg transferred over from a junior college. A white guy with sandy-colored dreadlocks who wore a grommet as an earring, Peter’s parents had honeymooned on St. Thomas, and never left. Peter learned to sail when he was six. He lived and breathed sailing.
Naturally, Peter joined our team and soon after we unanimously voted him Captain, he managed to convince a local winery to sponsor the team and buy us a better boat. After that, we started winning. A lot. Peter’s aggression on the water intimidated me, but I marveled at his ability to capture even the slightest breeze and turn it into forward momentum—momentum that, more often that not, sailed us into first place.
III. TRADE WINDS
Doug and I broke up but we’ve held onto a deep, if intermittent, friendship. A couple years ago I submitted an essay I wrote about him to Modern Love (rejected). As for Peter: he went on to win a hulls-worth of championships, including a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics and the 2007 America’s Cup. Like all the people in my life who made even a tiny impact, I never stopped thinking about Peter. I know he still lives on St. Thomas because I send him birthday emails every year (October 4), and usually get a quick “This is what I’m up to” message back.
Which is why, when Tracy moved there I thought, “Hey, I bet Peter would be happy to take Tracy sailing or maybe he could show her around St. Thomas!”
So I wrote him, asking if he, the coolest dude on the island, would consider inviting my “friend” Tracy on an outing.
I would be happy to meet your fitness chick and give her an adventure with the coolest dude on the island!!! I don’t have a sailing biz or anything, but I have a cool little boat and could take her boating with us one day. I’m sure she’d love it.
And maybe you could do me a favor-
My sweetie just published her own book and is doing all she can to get it out there. Not to get rich, but to share her story and hopefully help the planet. Could I connect her to a rock star like you to help her with ideas, tips and advice?
“Shit,” I uttered.
Here I’d gone and dug myself a favor hole from which there was no escape. If I replied, “Sorry, Peter, but I don’t have the time to read, let alone help, your sweetie with her planet-helping book,” I knew I’d sound like a selfish jerk.
So I did what I normally do: I ignored the email, leaving Tracy to her solitary wanderings.
And me to my guilty conscious.
The next day I wrote Peter and told him I’d be happy to help said sweetie.
By way of email, Peter introduced me to his GF, Sharon Wallen, who introduced me to her book, HATCHED: How Nine Little Chicks Cracked My Shell. When I read the description of it online:
Imagine yourself in the midst of your busy, modern life. There you are – overwhelmed, perhaps even teetering on the edge of exhaustion – when your child asks to hatch a bunch of chicken eggs. Your blood pressure instantly skyrockets when you think of adding even one more thing to your list … and a quick No falls from your lips.
But what sort of miracles might spring forth if you said Yes! instead?
I might have groaned a little. It sounded so…so…sincere. I could tell it was going to be a lot like the many (and I mean many) self-published memoirs I’d been asked to read, edit or write blurbs for over the years. Not that I hadn’t hit on some pockets of gold whilst traipsing through the memoir mines, but more often than not, navel-gazing autobiographers spend too much effort on recounting the past in all its semi-dull detail, and not enough time building enough tension and/or suspense to keep the pages flipping. Just because it’s a personal history, doesn’t mean it can’t read like a good novel [I’m looking at you, EG].
Regardless of my disinterest, I had to fulfill my side of the bargain. Right after I introduced Peter to Tracy, I wrote Sharon a long email glistening with ideas on how to promote her book. I sent her links to book marketing websites; went over social media strategies; critiqued her website; invited her to join a memoir group on Facebook. It wasn’t as if I was an expert—I’d done a crap job promoting my own memoir—but at least I could give her some immediate ideas.
Sharon wrote to thank me and attached a PDF of her book, adding that there was, of course, no pressure to read it.
Well, I read it.
You know what? I loved it.
And I believe it truly can help the planet. Or, at the very least, it helped me see why saying YES can open me up to magical thinking. To a life well-lived.
Here’s the 5-star review I posted on Goodreads and Amazon:
You know the old saying, “Big things come in small packages”? It was exactly how I felt after reading the beautifully-written “Hatched: How Nine Little Chicks Cracked My Shell” by Sharon Wallen. Coming in at a bantam weight of only 145 pages, I devoured this memoir in a single sitting. It was that good. Wallen’s story begins when her young son asks if they can hatch some fertilized eggs from a farm they’d just visited. Like any harried wife and mother who is juggling a blended family, work, and a marriage that has run into trouble, her immediate reply is “no.” But then…then she begins to think about the person she used to be—the person who was open to the universe and its infinite possibilities. The person who used to say “yes.” So, she does. She brings home the eggs and a makeshift incubator. New lives break from those tiny shells, and with them, the perfect metaphor for what it meant for Wallen, herself, to break free from her own limited beliefs. Filled with humor, honesty and intelligence, Wallen has written a small but powerful story that is sure to resonate with anyone who needs reminding that “there are many ways to practice saying YES.” Indeed.
Tracy and Peter never did meet up, BUT, because of Tracy’s yearning for solitude, I’ve begun what is destined to be a life-long friendship with a smart, beautiful, and inspiring human—a woman I happened to meet because she happened to be the new sweetie of a man who taught me how to harness the wind a million years ago and I happened to decide that he needed to befriend someone I hardly knew in the first place.
Don’t you just love it when you think you’re doing someone else a favor and you end up getting way more in return?
Yeah, me too.