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The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman's Search for the Meaning of Wifeby Janna Cawrse Esarey
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Motion of the Ocean includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Janna Cawrse Esarey. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. The book opens with the author thinking her husband is an asshole, but after they survive a small calamity together, she says she's never felt so in love. When have you experienced this sort of flip-flop of emotions about a person you love? Throughout the story, how does Janna reveal both the positive and negative aspects of marriage? Of her husband? Of herself?
2. When looking at the mint color of the walls in her foyer, Janna says, "those little color squares are cruel jokes; they trick you into thinking you know what you're getting when really you never can tell." Is this an apt metaphor for choosing a life partner? Why or why not? What can prepare us to make this monumental decision? How does one choose the One?
3. Throughout the book Janna demonstrates that she finds it difficult to be on time or do tasks in a timely manner — in her words, she is a "Pokey Person." Graeme, on the other hand, is "one of those super-efficient so-called humans who gets twice as much done in half as much time." What are the pluses and minuses of each of these approaches to time? What kind of person are you when it comes to time? In what ways do time issues affect your own relationships?
4. The pink and blue division of labor aboard Dragonfly challenges Janna's sense of worth in their sailing endeavor and raises questions about her new role as a wife. What perspectives do the other female cruisers provide to Janna about the division of tasks and, by extension, her role? Is Janna able to develop an appreciation for her value as a sailor and wife? If yes, how? If no, why not? How do you see the pink and blue division play out in your own life? Do these divisions impact your sense of worth as they did Janna's? Why or why not?
5. On the crossing, when sea and sky are ever constant yet always changing, Janna observes that "there's also a monotony in marriage that's equally delightful and dangerous." What does she mean by this phrase? What were some of the dangerous and delightful moments for Graeme and Janna while at sea? Were they able to make peace with this tension between extremes? Why or why not? How do you think this idea of staying attentive despite — or because of — monotony can help you to re-envision the moments in your own life?
6. Once in French Polynesia, Janna and Graeme "mark the passage" by getting tattoos together. How does this help them make sense of their ocean crossing and their first year as a married couple? Are anniversaries (birthdays, weddings, new years) important to you as a way to reflect on or celebrate the passage of time? Why or why not? What sorts of ceremonies or events help you mark your own passage through life?
7. Graeme and Janna's reactions to their engagement, approaches to sailing, and experiences along the way reveal that they often hold completely different views of the exact same event. How do these diverging perspectives strain and/or enhance their relationship? When has your experience of an event totally diverged from someone else's? How did you react when you realized you weren't on the same wavelength? What did you take away from the interaction?
8. Janna believes that their sailing honeymoon is a test of their boat, their seamanship, and their relationship. Do you think that Graeme would agree with this assessment? Why or why not? How else might Janna have viewed their honeymoon and the challenges they encountered along the way? If their journey is a test, how would you evaluate their success and/or failure?
9. Discuss the pros and cons of Janna's notion of the One, Graeme's anti-One thesis, and Frits's Green Box Theory of Love. Whose idea of love is most in line with your view? Why? Do you have your own personal theory of love? If yes, what is it and how have you developed this theory?
10. At the outset of their trip, Janna wonders if marriage is about agreeing to drink only from the relationship's cup and being satisfied with whatever sustenance it offers. By the end of the voyage, however, she argues for a couple's need for otherness in order to thrive in their togetherness. Do you agree with her contention? Why or why not? How does one go about building and maintaining otherness while staying close and committed to the person you love?
11. What does Janna mean when she says, "It's the space between, the getting from point A to point B, that terrifies and teaches us the most"? How is this sentiment borne out in both the actual and figurative crossings and spaces that develop between Graeme and Janna on their journey? What do you believe Janna and Graeme learn about themselves and their relationship in these spaces between? Identify some of your own crossings from one stage of life to another and discuss the strategies you used to overcome the challenges of the space between — whether it be between a new self and an old self, or between you and a loved one.
12. Back at home in Seattle, Janna says that what matters is "not the what but the how" — that one can have an extraordinary existence no matter how ordinary one's life appears. How is this philosophy true or false? What is your own big, hairy, audacious goal? What have you done or might you do to pursue it?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Janna discusses her excitement in teaching "Meditation 17" by John Donne because of its message about the connectedness of humanity. Read "Meditation 17" at the website below and discuss the questions after. It's helpful to know that 1) church bells were rung as a call to worship and also when someone died, and 2) the essay opens with Donne on his sickbed, realizing he's so ill that the bell he hears could actually be for himself. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/meditation17.php
2. Visit Janna's website (www.byjanna.com) and listen to "The Rock Song" with your book club.
3. Cooking for your group? Visit www.byjanna.com for easy recipes (besides Top Ramen) that Janna and Graeme enjoyed aboard Dragonfly.
A Conversation with Janna Cawrse Esarey
You deal with your depression in a very straightforward manner in this memoir. Was that deliberate? Have you always struggled with depression and do you continue to struggle with it? What would you recommend to readers who see parallels in their experiences of depression?
I wanted to be frank about my own experience with depression because when we keep things hush-hush, we endow them with much more power than they already have. That's dangerous. My depression has visited me since high school — it drops in every now and then like an uninvited houseguest — but it doesn't define me. I find that the best way to give it the boot is to talk about it to a friend or a loved one, or — if it sticks around for a while or keeps banging on the door — a professional. And, yes, I still deal with it. In fact, one of the many factors in our decision to end our voyage was an intense, albeit brief, bout of pre-baby blues in Hong Kong. That made me worry I might also have post-partum depression (thankfully, I didn't). I didn't mention all this in the epilogue because it felt like opening a huge can of worms. But, since you ask, there go the worms.
You explored the question of what can and cannot be fulfilled by a marriage and one's partner and determined that it is best for each partner to diversify how his or her needs are met. Has your thinking about this question changed or expanded the longer you have been married? What have you found among others who are married?
I still believe it's true that we can't expect any one person to meet all our needs. However, now that Graeme and I have been together longer, and especially since we've had children, I see that how and where we get our needs met is a very delicate balance. At times Graeme and I have worried that we're getting too many needs met outside the relationship, and so we try to recalibrate and reconnect. We institute date night or red wine on the couch night or we read the entire Harry Potter series out loud to each other. We're very intentional about reconnecting because some baseline of needs (beyond the obvious: sex) need to be fulfilled within the partnership. Otherwise it stops being a partnership.
And if I may make a slight tangent: I feel like this otherness/togetherness balance becomes even more crucial for parents. It's so easy for moms, especially, to get needs for affection met by their kids, or to simply power through the day head-down because there's just so much to do. Connecting with a partner can go by the wayside. But I know that one of the best gifts I can give my children is to stay deeply in love with their dad. Often this is accomplished by spending more time with him. Sometimes it's accomplished by spending time with my girlfriends or time alone. I've realized that in order to be the best mom I can be, I have to stay connected to Graeme and stay in a healthy space myself — which, ironically, means taking regular time away from my children. It's that whole otherness-to-promote-togetherness dance again. Paradoxical but, in my girlfriends' and my experience, true.
You pay close attention to how our own particular lenses give us a biased view of the world. How do you think this memoir would have been different had Graeme written it? What do you think would have been some of his central questions or concerns?
If Graeme had written this book, it would have been about the weather and the sea and anchoring and sailing tactics and the ninety-nine uses of 5200 (his favorite marine epoxy). He would have included insightful anecdotes about the places we visited — he's a very good writer — and maybe a charming tale or two about love. But nothing about our relationship's doldrums. Nada about sex. That said, Graeme did have veto power, so this is a certified, Graeme-approved book, even if it is nothing like the one he would have written.
You discovered your purpose as a writer on this honeymoon voyage. How do you think your life would have been different had you not discovered your love for writing? Do you think your finding a purpose in life is in any way related to your notion of finding the One in love? Why or why not?
Several years before our trip, I told one of my oldest friends that I thought I might want to be a writer. I was really embarrassed telling her this because I thought it was such a ridiculous, impossible dream. My friend rolled her eyes and said, "Sheesh, Janna, you've always wanted to be a writer. Don't you see that?" Of course, I had no idea. So I guess I feel like I was bound to discover and rediscover and ultimately pursue my love for writing eventually. It just took the right timing — sort of like Graeme and me. Thank goodness I rediscovered writing on the boat, though, because otherwise I think I would have struggled even more with my role afloat.
But your question implies something more significant, more fascinating, too — namely, is there some One calling out there for each of us? I don't know. I'd like to think that everyone has something, many things actually, that makes them feel alive and useful and challenged and fulfilled. Writing does this for me in an intense, daily way, but other things ignite me too (teaching, making my daughters laugh, annual road trips with my mom). When it comes down to it, I think Graeme is right. We have to make our life the One we want every day, whether by pursuing a capital-P Purpose or by cultivating a certain attitude toward the little-p purposes that pepper our days. What's that wonderful Annie Dillard saying? — "How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives."
What were the challenges you encountered as you strove to tell your story? What did you leave out that you wished you could have included in the memoir?
In terms of actually getting the book written, the biggest challenge was the insane writing schedule — a chapter a week — while piecing together child care for a toddler. That took serious juggling. Also, I got the green-light to write this book literally the same week I conceived my second daughter, so I wrote my memoir while pregnant, which is a small miracle considering how a pregnant woman's brain shrinks in inverse proportion to her belly growing (at least it feels that way). I delivered my book baby just a few weeks before I delivered my real baby, and then I was typing edits in between — and sometimes even during — nursing sessions. In fact, my youngest is sitting on my lap, shaking and sucking a monkey rattle as I type this.
In terms of story, I found it very difficult to edit my life down to a single storyline. I mean, just think of the myriad things you do, think, feel, say, hear, and see on any given day. Your day is like a quilt square with a very busy pattern. And if you sew that together with another seven-hundred-some-odd crazy quilt squares, you've got the fabric from two years of life. So I had to extract a single, solitary thread, stretching diagonally from one corner of my quilt to the other, to have a story that was short and coherent enough for anyone besides my mom to read. Think of all that left-over fabric — days and months, ports and storms, best friends and entire countries — undulating out beyond that thread. It almost gives me a yucky-stomach feeling thinking of everything I had to leave out (e.g., Sorry, Central America, you didn't make the cut). But I feel better when I remind myself that my book is a single thread from my life. It's not my actual life.
One of the most dramatic moments in the story is when you and Graeme choose to continue with the wedding and the honeymoon in spite of his mother's cancer. Did you continue to struggle with this choice on the trip? What did it mean to you and Graeme for his mother to give you her blessing? What would you like your readers to understand about that choice?
First of all, my mother-in-law's support meant the world to us — literally, because we got to go explore it. But she'll probably laugh at the idea that she provided drama in our tale; she is the most undramatic, down-to-earth person I know. At the same time, she's a huge dreamer and doer (like moving to Taiwan to teach English after her kids had flown the coop). For her — and, therefore, for us — abandoning big dreams was not an option. For one, she would have felt horribly if we'd changed our plans. And for two, she was looking forward to visiting us in Mexico just as much as we were looking forward to sailing there. Vickie's cancer was a palpable reminder to live our dreams relentlessly.
You introduced us to a whole community of cruisers, particularly women. Do you still maintain contact with the women you met on your voyage? What can you tell us about these sailing women and their approach to living such a unique life? What can they tell other women who are landlubbers?
Graeme and I keep in touch with cruising friends via email, and we've rendezvoused with some of them on land and at sea as well. Some are still sailing. Most are not. That's the thing about big adventures; they don't have to last forever, and when you return to your old life it's with renewed vigor because it feels like much more of a choice.
My closest girlfriend from cruising (who doesn't even appear in the book) is the perfect example. She was a high-powered businesswoman who was on the burn-out trail. One night, while watching Dawson's Creek reruns, she saw that episode where Pace and Joey sail into the sunset. My friend thought, Hey! if they can do it, so can I. The next day she googled "sailboat crew" and signed on for a voyage across the Pacific. She ended up having a wonderful romance with the captain of the sailboat she was on. When my girlfriend returned, she easily found another job, which totally disproves the idea that stepping off the treadmill for a year or two means you won't be able to get back on. In fact, I think she'd say that sabbaticalism makes for happier, more productive people. Makes me wonder what her next adventure will be...
You have a pretty active life online as a blogger on "Happily Even After" for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (http://blog.seattlepi.com/happilyevenafter). What have you gained from writing in such an environment where feedback is often immediate and potentially strident? What have been some of its challenges and benefits?
It's no fun when people tell me how stupid and lame I am. That happens, and it stinks. Blogging is a also challenge for me because it's supposed to be quick and short and off-the-cuff. I'm slow and long-winded and perfectionistic. And so blogging is good for me. It pushes me and my writing, and it definitely helped hone my voice for this book. But my favorite thing about blogging is how an authentic conversation can develop. I have readers who leave comments that are way more articulate — sometimes even longer — than the posts they're responding to. These people have become virtual buddies, online think-mates, a web of people striving for balance and connection. I love and appreciate that.
In your role as a writer, you seem to have zeroed in on the complexities of women's lives as they strive to balance love, family, work, friends, and self. What continue to be the prevailing concerns for the women you encounter and the unique strategies they employ to stay grounded in their lives?
Now isn't this the question? I mean, who doesn't struggle with balance when we have so many important and competing priorities? And for me at least, just when I think I have a semblance of balance, life goes and changes on me.
One of my girlfriends says the real problem is that we women actually believe we can have it all — since that's what we've been told — when really we can't. So women try to be the perfect worker, wife, mother, daughter, sibling, neighbor, housekeeper, cook, hostess, friend, and lover — all while looking fabulous. In trying to do everything, and to perfection, we drive ourselves nuts and/or end up feeling like we're doing nothing well enough. Men, in contrast, (according to my friend) cherry-pick a few roles and don't throw their backs and psyches out trying to do them perfectly. I'd be curious to know what other women and men think about this theory.
As for me, being the dreamer I am, I'm loathe to admit I can't have it all. But I have come to realize that I can't have it all at the same time. So I suppose my strategy — and that of my girlfriends — is to prioritize what matters most to each of us at this stage in our lives, and then let a whole mess of stuff slide. For my part this means, among other things, that I don't shower much, that our oh-shit drawer is now an entire oh-shit room, that our neighbors wheel our recycling bins in more often than not (for which I hereby publicly thank them), and that I don't open my snail-mail or e-mail nearly as often as I should. Plus I don't cook anymore — Graeme was always better at that anyway.
What keeps the women in my life grounded? That's easy. Each other.
What advice would you offer the reader who is inspired by The Motion of the Ocean to tackle his or her own big, hairy, audacious goal?
Take good notes! And tell me about your B-HAG on my website (www.byjanna.com). If you're blogging about it, which by all means you should, leave a link so others can follow you on your journey.
What is on deck for you and your family's next big, hairy, audacious goal?
My personal B-HAG is to finish that novel I've had kicking around my brain for so long. Our family B-HAG is to go cruising again with two little girls as crew. And Graeme's and my B-HAG is to make love last. Forever.
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