I have always been in love with the sea. This is probably largely related to the many summers I spent with my parents and extended family on a small island in the Croatian Adriatic. There was no electricity or running water on the island. We washed our hair in the sea and drank rainwater collected in a tank during the past winter. We used candles if we needed them, but mostly we got everything that needed doing done before the nightfall. Then as the stars started to come out, we sat next to the sea and looked at the vast, dark summer sky and the equally dark sea below it. In the light of day, the sea dominated all the senses: the magical view, the fresh, salty smell, the sound of gently swooshing waves. I looked into the distance overcome with emotions so strong for this blue expanse that I was left breathless.
Neil Gaiman urges young artists to always take a step closer, not further away from the mountain of their dreams. I loved the sea. I loved boats. Today, when I am on the sea I feel not closer but on top of the mountain. When I hear about a boat being built, I shiver. And when I write I lose myself completely. Sea, writing, boats, – my trinity mountain! But when I was much younger, I didn’t recognize this for what it was. I had no notion of what I wanted to do when I grew up, no dream to follow, no mountain that I was aware of.
Instead, I followed what I was good at, passionless though I was about it. It is a fact that I was good at studying and that I could quickly figure out what the system or each individual professor wanted me to know, acquire that knowledge and reproduce it on tests. This ability, together with an extraordinary memory, were my guiding lights taking me on a path of higher education and towards academia, thus leaving the many, extraordinary careers, like boat building, skippering, and writing, as far away from my mind as a mountain on the moon is from the desk at which I sit and write now.
In the mid-1990s post-war Croatia, there was little talk about the mountain – something that one felt passionate about, something that one lost their head over, something that gave one chills. Instead, it was important, to those on the higher education path, to enroll into a university, whose diploma will give one the highest chance of securing a job. But four years of studying economics, organization and management were painfully boring, useless, and begged me not to get a job in that field. Still, onwards I went, studying some more, putting more degrees under my belt, perhaps in an attempt to postpone, for as long as I possibly could, getting a job I sensed I would hate.
The proverbial trinity mountain continued to remain obscured from my view, although the ocean theme wriggled itself into my studies, and I got to do quite a bit of writing, albeit scientific. In Croatia, I wrote a graduate thesis on strategic management of non-profits working to save marine mammals, giving my committee at the Faculty of Economics something to be tickled about, and so they giggled all the way through my defense. In Alaska, I studied people’s willingness to pay to protect the Steller sea lion in part of its range and in Oregon I studied fishermen’s choices.
With time, I justified my degrees and later my job choice in academia as those that will give me knowledge and power to work on protecting the sea and its dwellers and for a while this seemed enough. Then, as a rock under the tent doesn’t allow the tired hiker to sleep, something in my mind nagged me to reconsider my choices. Do I really want to spend my life sitting in an ivory tower with knowledge not that many people are inclined to care about, removed from the real world, removed from the sea, writing within the long-ago-established templates?
Academia, as a place where one is free to pursue one’s interests and create her own path that leads towards her own proverbial mountain and not away from it, happens to some people. For me, academia was too rigid, too full of rules, most of the times too afraid to be bold to really matter, too restrictive and too confining. I guess academia and I hit it off on the wrong note and for years I tried desperately to revive the spark that never existed in the first place.
And then, after thirteen years, I finally realized that the patient was dead and decided it was time to let go. But a few short months after, I was still clinging to my ill-fitted self-identity, figuring that it was better to be ill fitted than not fitting at all. At the age of thirty-six, a few months after quitting my job in academia, I underwent an identity crisis. Has my professional life so far been spent in vain? Who am I, if not a professor? How do I measure my accomplishments, if not by conquering the steps on the academic ladder? Warm, salty tears washed my face as I contemplated these questions fearing the answers.
And then it happened. As I continued to get up every morning at six o’clock, day after day, week after week, to write the first draft of my novel during the NaNoWriMo 2012, and later to dig into its revision with much fervor and loving every single moment of it, the mountain showed its face to me. Partly obscured by clouds, on a distant horizon, but visible to my eye.
In a timid sort of way, the writer in me emerges. Slowly I shed my tattered academic skin, several sizes too big, that hung over me all these years, and I grow an orange-purple one that shines, sparkles, and fits me like a glove. I look at my new skin, caress it gingerly and marvel at how life works. Without all the choices and experiences so far, this tender moment may never have occurred. And now it is here and I know what it feels like and I hold the feeling in my heart.
The fog lifts and the horizon expands. I see now that the mountain is surrounded by the sea. The mountain is, in fact, an island. I step on my battered but faithful boat and head for it. After a moments thought though I lower the sails and let her float. The mountain disappears. I smile. All that is left is now.