The idea that we can stop the forward motion of our lives, pause for reflection, then turn in another — sometimes more rewarding — direction is the beguiling promise of retirement.
When Ed Merck, software entrepreneur, musician with a love of Renaissance wind instruments and chief financial officer of colleges and universities, stopped to pause, he heard two clear messages.
“I wanted to grow more inwardly spiritual and to do more blue water sailing,” says Merck.
The two seemed mutually compatible and in his comfort zone. He’d been sailing for years and was an active practitioner of yoga and meditation. At 61, he was retired, ready to seek a different path. In moments of deep calm, it became clear to Merck what his next step should be.
“I was done living out our culture’s stock formula for fulfillment,” he says. “I wanted to discover my own version of what it meant to welcome the next chapters of my life. I could hear the universe speaking to me and I could feel the exhilaration that comes from embracing the implicit danger of the unknown.”
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If this sounds like a dream vacation, it was in some ways. But it was also a vacation Merck wasn’t coming home from — literally, because his house was gone, and figuratively, because his journey changed him in ways he didn’t foresee.
Merck’s new book, Sailing the Mystery, sincerely and unflinchingly recounts how dramatically his decision to set sail affected him.
The Need for Change
Before choosing to pursue a life on water, Merck was married, had a son in high school and, at 53, had moved from his job as college and university CFO to pursue a career as co-developer and owner of strategic and financial planning software that's used in higher education today.
He balanced his demanding work with music (a joy he shared with his son) and sailing.
Merck had always been a “left brain, right brain,” kind of guy. Practical, yet creative. The oldest of four sons, he grew up in a working-class Long Island family, an “average kid engaged in typical activities.” He played any kind of ball sport, joined and earned badges in the Boy Scouts and excelled in music.
“Spending long hours in the practice room was not just about developing proficiency," he recalls. "More importantly, within those four walls, I was able to nurture the spaciousness that time alone in solitude could provide.”
His music led him to college and then to a master's degree in music at Wesleyan. He wanted to play, not teach, which was rare for academic musicians at this time. That meant he needed to figure out how to make a stable income.
So he switched gears and earned a MBA at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which led to his university CFO positions and eventually to the software company. He led a fast-paced life, traveling from college to university, meeting with presidents and boards, all of whom listened to what he had to say and then implemented that vision for the future.
Then, change came — in spades. Merck decided to sell his business, his marriage unraveled and his son went off to college.
“I was caught off-guard,” he says. “I knew I had to re-tool, to engage in life in a different way.”
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Enter Kairos, which is Greek for "opportune moment" and also the name of Merck’s boat. He commited to leaving a life invested in the future and chose instead to live in the moment. To relinquish one life and embrace another.
It is the letting go that informs the heart of Sailing The Mystery.
“Being out in the open ocean 24 hours a day, with no distractions, and with the future reduced to something largely irrelevant challenged me to my very core,” he says.
Of course, there were distractions, since a boat requires constant monitoring. Merck hired an experienced sailor, “Captain Brett,” to guide him through this first phase, with his son Evan, 20, as crew.
“Evan was right at the break point between being a boy and becoming a man,” Merck says. At a time when many father and son relationships change, as children naturally pull away from their parents to form their own identities, Evan and Ed found a different iteration for this process.
In the confines of Kairos, they sometimes had no choice but to confront difficult questions, like “Who is the captain and who is the mate?” says Merck. “And even sometimes, who is the father and who is the son?”
Consider this story: Merck and his crew of two were in a storm 100 miles offshore. They were each taking six-hour shifts, sleeping inbetween watches in the two berths below. The weather had shifted for the worse. Merck was in the galley, worrying about the storm, when Evan came over to his father and put his arms around him. “Now, Dad,” Evan said. “We’ve looked at all the options. Finish your dinner, and go to bed, and I’ll wake you up for your next shift.”
For Merck, this was a moment when the roles shifted. He went off to sleep, letting go of his fear of the storm. In the morning they sailed into a calm, blue horizon.
Then came Samantha.
In the years since his divorce, Merck had decided to reenter the “shark-filled singles pool,” often engaging in the intricate dance of online dating, which seemed to offer a promise of romance that rarely came true. Merck describes his track record of that time as “ a string of volcanic explosions.”
In Florida, he connected online with Samantha, whose upbeat, intriguing messages encouraged him as he made his first foray from Fort Lauderdale to Martha’s Vineyard. He was hooked by her voice from the moment he talked to he, but “putting down the phone, I could smell the possibility of danger,” he writes.
Samantha joined him for a few heady days when he was moored on Martha’s Vineyard and then reconnected again on his voyage south. He embraced her love of nature and her feisty spirit. But though they connected physically, their conversations did not push into meaningful territory.
Merck realized it was loneliness that had driven him to Samantha. They couldn't agree on small things, let alone create a larger picture together. He often felt defensive, and she was frustrated. Only after the relationship ended did Merck realize he had to befriend loneliness before he could make a true connection with someone else.
“Somehow I knew that making it to the other side of the transition would require a fuller reconciliation of my longing for connection and a more comfortable fit with being alone,” he says.
Not everyone has the resources to buy a boat and sail from the sunny waters of Florida to Martha’s Vineyard and back again, several times. “I was lucky to have the financial resources to do that,” says Merck. “But one way or another, I would have found a way to jump into the abyss. If it wasn’t sailing, it would have been hiking the Appalachian Trail or living in a tent in the woods for a year.”
Merck firmly believes that while sailing is an essential part of his life, it is also a metaphor for change.“The journey towards wholeness is really an inside job,” he says.
Today, he lives on Martha’s Vineyard. When he’s not sailing, he writes, makes music, teaches yoga and meditation and offers classes on Conscious Aging.
His advice to those who want to sell everything and do something different? “Stop thinking about it and start doing it,” he says. “Life is all about engaging risk.”
Cecily Patterson is a freelancer based in Portland who has written for Forbes, Art & Antiques, American Express, Spaces, 3M.com and other sites.