The Doldrums

Photo of calm sea, by Steve Doig on Unsplash

Because of the earth's rotation, there are permanent east-west winds that blow around the earth. These winds carry storms and sea currents. They are commonly called trade winds. 

There is a place where the northeast and southeast winds converge. The exact location is variable depending on the season and conditions, but this most commonly occurs near the equator. This place where the winds come together is referred to by scientists as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (or ITCZ). 

For generations, sailors have called it the doldrums.

The doldrums are a place where the rough and rowdy sea gives way to dead calm. It is hot and muggy. The ITCZ has gotten warmer as the planet has gotten warmer, and at its edges the abrupt wind shear can produce or strengthen tropical storms. 

From the 16th to early 19th century - when ships relied on wind to propel them - the doldrums were particularly feared. They were the place where the winds died, and the sea calmed. Ships would find themselves stuck for days or even weeks waiting to drift back to a place where their sails would again fill with air. Same ocean, same ship. Vastly different experience.

The doldrums played a key role in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem, Coleridge tells the story of a ship forced south to Antarctica by storms, only to be led to safety by an albatross. The crew feeds the bird, but the titular mariner shoots and kills it with a crossbow. Initially, the crew is jubilant as they sail into sublime, warm waters. Their joy turns to dark anger and fear when they reach the doldrums. 

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

The Mariner is forced to wear the albatross around his neck by the thirsty crew. An encounter with Death and his companion Life-in-Death leaves the crew dead, and the Mariner forced to carry the albatross around his neck and tell his story the rest of his days.

In the Age of Sail the doldrums were no joke.

Photo of an albatross near a ship on an icy sea with an arrow flying toward it, from the British Museum

I didn't see the ocean - any ocean - until I was 16. We moved from Texas to Jacksonville, Florida the summer before my junior year in high school. I remember being overwhelmed by the size of it, filling every square inch of my vision. I remember the salty taste of the water.

And I remember the power. Being pushed under by an unexpected wave, held down against the pebbly bottom, briefly afraid that I wouldn't be strong enough to come up. I remember the sun and the sand and the tan bodies and thinking that I had moved from rural Texas to something like paradise. 

It wasn't. It was Jacksonville Beach. 

I didn't know better. To me there was freedom there, a new start. I was free of my abusive stepdad. I was in a new town in a new state. I would be starting a new school in a couple of months. I could be anything or anyone I wanted to be. 

We spent that 4th of July on the beach. We had hot dogs and beer (my mom had some... unique... ideas about minors and alcohol). We stayed all day and watched the fireworks just off the coast that night. My mom was in a great mood. We were surrounded by my uncle (who had moved with us) and new friends. I remember thinking that I wasn't sure life could ever be any better.

Photo of fireworks at night, by Jingda Chen on Unsplash

I loved that summer. I loved the freedom and the fireworks. I loved the lack of accountability, the fact that I could read as much as I wanted of what wanted to read (there was a branch of the Duval County Library less than a mile from our house, easy biking distance), and could stay up late watching TV and sleep in. It was the first summer I could remember where I didn't have to work a job, or be afraid of my stepdad, or even take care of my little brother. The time and space were mine.

The joy and space made me fall in love with summer. And for years after that, if you had asked me, I would have said that summer was my favorite season. I came alive when the temp turned 80.

I spent the first 4th of July after my deployment to Iraq on another Atlantic Ocean beach. This time, it was Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. My mom had bought a house a couple of blocks from the ocean, and we went with the kids to see Nana and celebrate the holiday. Just like in Jacksonville two decades before there was grilling and beer and sand and sun. And fireworks.

Only this time the fireworks were different.

I was standing in sand, hearing loud bang after loud bang. Smelling gunpowder. Feet in sand. There were strangers everywhere. My heart was racing. I shook with fear and anger and concern. Physically I was in South Carolina. Mentally and emotionally, I was still in Anbar province. I walked away from the beach and back to my mom’s house, where I covered my head with a pillow and sobbed.

Same coast. Vastly different experience. 

Summer had changed. It was no longer a place of freedom and refuge. It was something else to get through. A burden. One more struggle that had to be managed. The last few years, I hit the emotional doldrums every summer. There comes a time when everything just slows down. The winds seem to stop. There is no school, there are no camps, we have no rhythm to our days. We just float listlessly waiting for something to push us forward. It can last for days or even weeks. My grandmother called it “the dog days.” 

Things change over time. Nothing is ever one thing. And no single thing lasts forever. Every monument ever built crumbles. Every wall eventually falls.

Summer is not the same for me anymore. I am not the same. 

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t joy. Or freedom. It just means that they exist alongside other things too. Things that I didn’t see when I was 15 and thought the world was binary, and that things were black or white. Like the fireworks on the beach, I now see all the colors of summer. The bright ones. The muted ones.

And they are all beautiful.

Next week my family and I are heading to Carolina Beach for 10 days. It is our summer trip, and the last big thing we will all do together before school starts. Barb is taking off work. We are hopeful Alex will be able to join us for part of the trip (Matt and Willie probably won’t be). We will find joy and laughter together. We almost always do. 

Some days it will rain. It is the North Carolina coast in summer after all. There will be moments when we are tired and grumpy and trying to figure out how THAT much sand ended up in that bodily crevice. There may even be unexpected fireworks. Because nothing is ever all one thing.

I am going back to the beach without expectation. I no longer expect it to be a symbol of freedom, or an albatross around my neck calling attention to my sins. It’s just the beach. A place. And like all places there is good and there is bad. I will focus on the good and be thankful for the bad, for the bad is often our best teacher. 

I will see you back here on Monday, August 17. 

Be well all. Thank you for reading, and your continued support of Combat Snuggles. Your support and encouragement make this possible, and I am forever grateful.

Take care. Remember that the doldrums are not permanent. The breeze will blow again.

See you in a couple of weeks y’all. Keep pounding the rock.

Photo of sand and ocean waves at Carolina Beach, by Ivana Djudic on Unsplash