The inner journey and the outer journey are seldom explored together in a single work of nonfiction. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, from his field tent, wrote his musings on life and death and the immortal soul in “Meditations” without a single reference to how he planned to deploy his centurions in the coming day’s battle. And from the other direction, today’s beloved Car Talk Brothers will keep you loaded up with jokes and what to do about that grinding transmission without advising you to read “The Autobiography of a Yogi.”
But Island washashore Ed Merck, currently residing on the terra firma of West Tisbury, has achieved both in his self-published memoir “Sailing The Mystery” (FreisenPress, 2013) in which adventure mixes seamlessly with thoughts on what Garrison Keillor calls “life’s most persistent questions.”
In 2009, Mr. Merck — entrepreneur, chief financial officer of universities and colleges, and a musician with a specialty in Renaissance wind instruments — at the age of 63 experienced his own Henry David Thoreau moment: “In what seemed like an instant, I retired from full-time work, my marriage unraveled, and my son went off to college…This much was clear: I was done living out of our culture’s stock formulas for fulfillment. Instead, I felt a great determination within to discover my own version of what it meant to welcome in the final chapters with vitality and purpose.”
The echo is clear from Thoreau’s opening statement in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
The difference between Merck and Thoreau is that the latter began his quest by banging together a 150-square-foot cabin in the woods. Mr. Merck, for his part, purchased a 36-foot cutter rig with a double-headsail. He then plunged into two alternately harrowing and ecstatic trips up and down the eastern seaboard, from Ft. Lauderdale to Martha’s Vineyard, then back again.
Mr. Merck is in the vanguard of baby boomers in late middle age who, with advances in health promising longer, stronger, older lives, now attempt to make sense of what amounts to a mixed bag of opportunity and regret. And some of these boomers are writing from the heart of this demanding, idealistic, and histrionic generation in its dotage. From Nora Ephron to Ram Dass, and now our own recently home-grown Mr. Merck, these thinkers bend to the task of helping us to figure out where we’re going and what the heck we think we’re doing.
Boomers invented youth culture and the whole rebellious psychedelic circus that went with it. In intervening years, heaven only knows what we thought we were up to in our yuppie phase, except that now quite a great number of us are making amends for it. But now what? We’re the boomers! We’re a full-fledged 25 percent of the population — as ever its biggest bulge. We will, if we’re up to the task — and we surely are, put a whole new spin on geriatrics.
Mr. Merck in his memoir takes leave of his beautiful house in Foster, R.I., and heads down the highway. His ultimate destination, his new boat awaiting him in Florida. On the open road, he ponders this new nomadic epoch in his life: “Ah, that is the dreaded double curse. Becoming a nobody with nobody to share it with.” “Will I ever learn to trust more fully in the way of things?” and “One second of whole-body wisdom is worth a few days of rational agonizing.”
If it sounds as if “Sailing The Mystery” is all introspection and no outward fun, boaters and adventure story fans alike will have their thrills and chills. Mr. Merck takes us into tense situations out at sea and — the nemesis of all sailing excursions — unexpected scary weather. Additionally, he dwells with love and devotion on all the elements of his new life: mechanical delights such as reprogramming the GPS system, deep keels over shifting bottoms on the Intracoastal Waterway, and the sheer joy and terror of blue-water sailing.
Midway through his new challenging way of life, Mr. Merck makes an online connection with a fiery and determined — and gorgeous — woman named Samantha. With the skill of a seasoned writer that belies the author’s first attempt at the craft, Mr. Merck sows the seeds of the affair’s destruction before the memoirist comes to terms with it in the early days, quite basically before he could save himself.
In the course of the sailor’s return trip to Florida, Samantha flies down and comes aboard in Bald Head Island, N.C. Sparks fly, ancient injuries from childhood resurface and, after agonizing catharsis, let go. It’s a tragedy rich with human comedy, and Mr. Merck is brave of heart to share it with us.
Many insights are gained, including this one: “I sailed into the emptiness, only to discover that life is not about resolution; we just keep adding capacity to engage more of the mystery. And that is the miracle.”
This seeker, who for the time being resides on our island, has emerged from his nautical year a wiser man, a skilled sailor, and a writer of notable talent.
Ed Merck will discuss his adventures at sea in “Sailing The Mystery” at the Vineyard Haven Library on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at 7 pm. For more information, call the library at 508-696-4211.