The Cliffs of Insanity

There is something in being carried by the waves.

Perhaps it is beautiful, although it is hard to say, really. To me, it is more the vague yet overwhelming sense of greatness, of beyond, which pulls me to the sea. There is wonder, yes, but there can also be fear.

Can you get used to being powerless? The waves can be your friends, but only if you know how to let them, otherwise, you realize very quickly that your life is not your own out there: you belong to the sea. There can be a release in this knowledge, however, and once you accept that you are no longer yours, you can, in fact, get used to being powerless. I know this, and yet it remains a daily struggle. Something I have to remember, and commit to everyday. Is it worth it? Every damn second.

—–

“You’ve got to pull it HARD.” My father’s voice called to me from the back of the skiff.

I didn’t look. I couldn’t. We were in the middle of a storm. And not one of those storms that roll in to Vancouver after losing half of their strength on the islands blocking the coast. No. This was a real storm, and it was like nothing I had ever seen. The swells rocking our boat were well over two meters high, and despite my familiarity with the open water, as well as my natural affinity for the ocean, I was having a hard time keeping my stomach calm.

I reached up again, having almost fallen overboard with my last attempt to pull the slip knot on the mainstay, but just as I did, we crested another wave and began tipping downwards once more. You’d think I would have seen this coming, as we had been experiencing swells like this for over an hour, but I was thrown off balance, and almost hurled over the side again. Gritting my teeth in fear and frustration, I regained my balance and quickly pulled the rope. The knot came loose, and I turned back around to see my father grinning at me in pride, his sailors hat dripping with salt water from the crashing waves. I grinned back at him, and returned to the prow of the ship.

“That’s my boy.” The silly smile was still on his lips as I came back beside him to where he was steering the ship into the oncoming waves.

“Thanks, Dad.”

He looked over at me sideways. “That was a close one, hey?”

“I guess. Almost went over the side at one point, but I knew I could do it.”

“Oh?”

“Ya. I knew I could.”

“Me too. You are my son, with whom–“

“Ya. Ya.” I said, punching him lightly in the arm, but he just looked at me sideways, a glint of amusement in his eyes.

He wasn’t a big man, and there was a vitality to him; a strength of will, and character that to me seemed almost superhuman, at least at the time. I always had the impression that he was stronger than he let on, too, but he was constantly checking himself, limiting his strength. Not for his own purposes, but for the sake of those around him.

“Self-control.” He used to say. “That is the real measure of a man. It doesn’t matter how big, it doesn’t matter how smart, how able, how rich, or how kind. If a man doesn’t have self control, he’s not really a man.”

I never quite knew what he meant at the time, but now that he is gone and I have more time to think about those words I think I am beginning to see.

——-

I can trace my own masculinity, my own feelings of manliness and my ability to be a man, right back to my father. This was the greatest gift he ever gave me. Not the money, not the house, not the friends – although many of them are wonderful – not even the boat compares. My father taught me how to be a man, and this has proven invaluable. I see men nowadays, although in most cases I am reluctant to call them that, and they have no idea who they are. They have no clue what it means to be a man. Their fathers never taught them. Perhaps their fathers were absent, although more likely than not, it was more of an emotional absence than a physical one. There was a time when fathers taught their sons, and brought them into manhood, but masculinity has been trampled on until it became nigh unrecognizable. Father’s used to teach their son’s their trade, but if you ask me, that was just a backdrop, a foundation for the larger goal: manhood. Nowadays, manhood consists of feats of physical strength, sexual pursuits, and drunkenness; and no fathers are required for these sorts of lessons, only other hormonal and developing friends who have no idea who they are or what it truly means to be a man. Thus, we have an entire culture that is bred on this sort of reckless selfishness.

Self-control. A simple concept, yet extremely difficult to achieve. I grew up reading fantasy novel: stories like the Princess Bride, and Harry Potter, with men who would brave anything for the ones they love. That seems pretty manly, but was my father on to something? Is the true mark of manhood self-control?

——-

For many years, when I was a child, my father would take me sailing in the summer, and so from an early age I learned to yearn for distant shores and the salty wind rushing through my hair.

“See those cliffs?” My father asked me.

I looked over. “Yep, how could I miss them?”

“Those are the Cliffs of Insanity.”

“The what?”

“The Cliffs of Insanity. It is rumored that they are impossible to scale, but they draw people to them because of their haunting beauty, like water you can’t drink, an itch you cant scratch. They drive people mad.” His face was serious, but I could see his lips curling ever so slightly, so I knew he was trying to pull one over on me.

“Well,” I said, “Are you going to go crazy too?”

“Nope.” Slinging his one arm around my shoulder while steering the wheel with the other, he replied, “I don’t need to climb them to prove anything. I have everything I need right here.”

We watched for a bit, looking at the cliffs and soaking in their warmth and allure.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“Why did mom leave? I know you asked her not to.”

My father sighed then, and as I looked up at him from the crook of his arm, I saw a sadness come over his recently happy face.

“Son, I made a mistake.” He paused briefly and then continued. “Well, actually, I made a lot of mistakes. I did things I am not proud of, and I pushed your mother away.” He knelt down to look me straight in the eyes. “She didn’t want to leave. Not at first anyways, but eventually… I guess she didn’t feel like she had a choice.” His words trailed off then, and he looked past me, off into the distance.

“What did you do, Dad?” My voice was small, but I had to know.

He looked at me then, and there was pain in his eyes. “I put myself before her.” He swallowed. “I allowed my desires, the things that I wanted, to take me over, so I lost her, and the only reason she didn’t take you with her is because I’m a lawyer, otherwise, I would have lost you too.”

I thought about what he said for a while, and he just looked at me, and I could tell he half expected me to hate him after what he had just said, but for some reason, I didn’t.

“But you would never do that to me?”

“NO.” He said it firmly, and now I could see something different in his eyes. Resolve. “Never you. Son, I would never hurt you, and I’ve learned my lesson. I …” I could see him fighting back tears, but I let him finish. He smiled shakily, and a lonely tear dripped down his face, but when he spoke, his voice was strong. “I’ve learned my lesson,” He repeated.

 “So then why hasn’t mom come back?”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Doesn’t it?” I asked, desperately wanting him to change his answer.

“Life doesn’t always go the way you want it son, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy, okay?”

“Okay.”

——-

What happens when you give up power; when you cede your own control over a situation in order that someone might learn to grow? This act of giving up, of becoming powerless, requires hope; but ultimately, it requires trust that the circumstances will work out favorably, and that you will not be burned as a result. Knowing when to use your power, and when to limit it. This requires wisdom, sure, but it also requires an act of the will, and if a man is not in control of his will, is he truly a man?

——-

Have you ever seen the Princess Bride? Or perhaps read the book? Either way, in the beginning, as Vizzini, Inigo and Fezzik make off with the princess (followed closely by the man in black), they sail to what are called “The Cliffs of Insanity,” which are impossibly high crags that overlook the sea. Just off of Nanaimo, and on the far side of the Georgia Strait when coming from Vancouver, there is an Island called Valdes which contains similar cliffs. Although they are by no means a match for those in the Princess Bride, my father and I used to call them by the same name as we sailed past: The Cliffs of Insanity.

I am sailing past them now once again, many years later. They are much the same as they were then – daunting as ever, and quite a spectacle. Especially when hit by the setting sun they become streaked with soft hues of pink and yellow. The furrows and pockmarks have been weathered into the cliff like the lines of age on an old mans face – a lively and vigorous old man, to be fair.

It is a perfect day. There is a strong north-easterly wind pulling me up through the Broughton Archipelago, and the sun has yet to reach its zenith. I can hear the waves gently splashing the sides of my skiff as I make my way steadily up past the cliffs of insanity, and on towards my destination.

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