Plot for a Lifetime

Judith Yarrow

May 27, 2022


I’ve reached a time in my life, late-70s, when I look at events that happened to me — what I did or didn’t do — and wonder was I the hero or the sidekick or just a part of the crowd? Some days I think I’ve been living in a Tolstoyan drama, other days in a Shakespearean comedy.

Recently, my sister sent me a photo she found while cleaning out a box of stuff. The date on the back of the photo says 1970. I'm standing on a slip wharf in Miami Marina with my six-year-old son, Ciam. It was probably in August, which was when we were there waiting out the hurricane season before heading for the Bahamas, at the beginning of a seven-month trip, before the relationships soured, and the money ran out. I see that even a photo, with its impression of factuality, is at the mercy of my storytelling mind.

At the edge of the photo is a slice of our sailboat, Teal, just her aft starboard side with its yawl mast, rigging, a bumper, and a bit of the cockpit: dark blue hull and light blue deck. I'm wearing a skimpy little bikini, leaning casually on a piling. Ciam has an odd squinty grin on his little round face. He wears a pair of green and white striped shorts, and his hair is bleached almost white. I'm smiling broadly; I look happy.

That trip was almost fifty years ago, and I’ve told its story many times to family and friends and even strangers at parties. The focus of the story changes depending on whether I’m trying to explain my past, entertain or shock my listener, or justify my decisions.

I can talk about the time we spent on the boat as a trip to hell via paradise or as a comedy of errors. My mind puts a spin on it, over and above the spin memory or, more pertinently, remembering gives it. What happened is forever at the mercy of my need for a plot, a sense of meaning, perhaps even purpose, but at least a personal point to it all.

A photo is like a dream masquerading in the tangible world as a solid fact. No matter the nature of Ciam’s smile, the space between us, the ineffable odor of salt water and creosote... See, already I've added odor to it, which no photo can catch. I’m compelled to make a story out of the stream of events during that sailing trip through the Bahamas, turn it into something other than daily swimming after fish for dinner, riding out storms on the lee side of islands, and squabbles among the three adults on board the far-too-small sailboat.

My memories of the trip slip away into memories of my stories about the trip. And as with that trip, so the mélange of days that have bought me here to the age of 79, still inventing storylines, looking for a theme to this journey I call my life — depending on the day and the audience — soap opera, tragicomedy, or cautionary tale.

Judith Yarrow writes science fiction and poetry in Seattle, Washington. She has had short stories and poetry published in various places, including Edge, Cicada, Backbone, Plants and Poetry, and Aji. Her poems were included in the Washington State Poet Laureate’s 2014 and 2017 collections.