Even keel

I love the etymology of words and phrases. Yesterday, I wanted to say “on an even keel” in Spanish and struggled to explain what that meant. Two of the students are men in their twenties, and the instructor is a Puerto Rican woman in her twenties. Idioms are lost on younger people now (not all, I’m not trying to start a generation war). Many idioms endured for centuries, but the context has been lost. Not so for “on an even keel.” Boats still have keels, and sailors like them to stay even.

These days my goal is to stay on an even keel. That means different things to different people. When I was young, I didn’t know my mom’s devotion to order and structure kept our house on calm seas until I was older. All I knew was that when I left home at 17, my life was most definitely not on an even keel for a long time, both physically and mentally. It was difficult for me to figure out what I needed to have that sense of balance and stability.

College was one big choppy chaos. I moved often, had no firm schedule, and didn’t care. However, as school came to a close, I looked for a way out of that chaos, and chose marriage. I don’t know why I didn’t have the cojones to forge out on my own, but I didn’t, not back then. I think I wanted to be rescued, or share the burden, or some such nonsense. Of course, this did nothing but add more chaos. I don’t think I felt on an even keel until Katie was born. A newborn baby is hardly an even keel, but for me it was the first true source of stability in my soul.

Over the next years, I discovered how to create my own calm seas, both for Katie and myself. I learned that for me, making a home went a long way towards alleviating chaos and stress. Inside, though, I was still not on an even keel. I was constantly fiddling about in a vain attempt to make someone else happy. It wasn’t until I divorced that I realized I’d been off course for years and years and years.

Even after I got Lyme and was terribly ill, I felt more at peace than I had in the last thirty-five years. I think many times people mistake (or hope) that having things, or having a busy, scheduled life is the same as being on an even keel inside. They usually aren’t, as I suspect many people learned after this long year of COVID. Inner turmoil and unhappiness will find a way to burst forth, and if there is no deeper sense of balance and happiness, things can go south in an instant. BTW, “go south” is an interesting saying, with no clear source. Could be from Native American’s euphemism that to “go south” is to die, or from the notion that if you committed a crime in the 1800s, you could escape the consequences by “going south” and crossing the border into Mexico.

For me, Lyme gave me stability. I had no other choice, but it’s true. I had to find a balance to give myself any kind of life. A funny thing about a chronic illness: any pretense is stripped away, and if you don’t like what you see, you’ll never be on an even keel. I’ve worked extremely hard to figure out what makes me happy, what I can live with, and what I can change.

Your balance might look entirely different. I’ve known people who thrive on pressure and constant change. I’ve known people who have everything going for them and are never in balance. Being on an even keel doesn’t mean everything in your life is going well. It means you’ve gotten your boat in tiptop shape, you’ve learned how to navigate rough water, and you manage to keep your boat relatively stable, at least until you it calm waters once again.

Now that I have that straight in my mind, I can weather any storm. I can even find contentment where others would see nothing but a big old storm bearing down on them, with no chance of not capsizing.

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