I don’t know much about the world, but a lot of what I know has come from messages in bottles. People launch them for all kinds of reasons, and each provides a window into another life–another world, really.
I always wanted to find a message in a bottle when I was young. This was before the Nicholas Sparks book, and before I had ever heard Sting’s song. I loved reading, and I loved writing, and man, I really wanted a penpal. I loved the ocean, too, so a message in a bottle seemed like the perfect fit.
The ocean was the most exotic place I ever visited as a kid–we didn’t go “abroad”. So when we were at the beach in Florida, that was the only time when I was literally, physically connected to the rest of the world, thanks to the ocean. Did I mention this was before the internet, too? So the idea of meeting someone from a far away country–well, it wasn’t as easy as joining a Facebook group. As I reckoned, I would either have to go to those countries (which was impossible), or, if I was very lucky, I could find a message in a bottle.
But it never happened. Year after year, my family would load up into our hi-top van and drive 12 or 15 hours from Illinois down to Florida, stopping at boiled peanut stands along the way, and set up camp in our family friends’ house near the coast. Each day we’d pack a cooler full of PBJ sandwiches and head to the beach. To this day I cannot smell sunscreen without tasting PBJ (dusted with beach sand) in my mind. It’s like a Pavlovian response. At the beach, my mom and sister did a lot of “laying out,” while my brother and dad and I went beachcombing.
We found shells, sharks teeth, sand dollars, starfish, and more. It was like treasure hunting for me and my brother. One of these days, we were sure, we’d stumble upon a half-buried treasure chest or old gold coins.
I thought about messages in bottles every time we went to the beach, but as the years slid by, I began to think it must be impossible to find a message in a bottle. Maybe no one even sent them.
Fast forward a decade or so, and, after graduating from college, I decided to celebrate by going to the Caribbean with my dad. The year before, he had found a Guinness message in a bottle, and it blew my mind. Suddenly, I realized that messages in bottles were real. All of my childhood dreams came rushing back to me. Usually, childhood dreams die at some point, and stay dead, right? Well, not mine! They came right back to life when I saw my dad’s message in a bottle. So, when I graduated a year later, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Head to the Caribbean, and do some good old-fashioned beachcombing with my dad, just like when I was young.
Well, that pretty much brings us up to the starting point for this blog. On that trip, I found my first message in a bottle, and I was flat-out hooked. Finding messages in bottles turned into something like a superpower for me. I mean, it’s not that my super power is finding messages in bottles, but rather that messages in bottles gave me a superpower–the power to open portals into the lives of strangers. Every now and then I get to step through those portals and actually make friends out of message in a bottle senders. These are people I never would have met any other way. It’s like magic!
Finding messages in bottles and meeting their senders has helped me grow in ways I never could have foreseen. It has given me a great excuse to travel, and although a teacher/writer like me can rarely afford big trips, messages in bottles have taken me all over America and Europe. I’ve learned about people and places and cultures I never would have otherwise. I have had my pre-conceived ideas challenged by real-world experience. I have wandered far-flung shores and corresponded with people who are distant both geographically and culturally, and I have learned from it all.
What I have learned is this: At some point each of us must launch. We must overpower and break through the gravity that limits us. When we do, we get distance from our origins and from our comfort zones. We get a bird’s eye view of ourselves and how our tiny lives fit into the vast cosmic tapestry of human existence. When we launch, we get perspective on ourselves and the world we live in.
For some, launching means starting a business, or climbing to the top of a company, or dedicating your life to public service, or medicine, or politics.
Messages in bottles have been my rockets, launching me into the lives of strangers around the world and teaching me that we all have more in common that we might think.
I had another dream when I was a child: I wanted to meet everyone living on earth.
I know now that I may not get to do that, but I am still going to try–one message in a bottle at a time.
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(This post is a response to the WordPress prompt: Launch)