Lost at sea: What starting from scratch taught me about resilience
I don’t think I’m alone in eyeing phone calls suspiciously these days. If I’ve got a work call pencilled in or I’m awaiting a takeaway, I might be prepared for my pocket to ring. Without those caveats, a ringing phone is a curiosity. Who wouldn’t just text?
As I sat at the hairdressers two years ago taking some welcome respite from the chaos of an international house move, I didn’t expect my phone to ring. I didn’t expect the shipping company that had picked up my worldly possessions less than two weeks prior to be calling me while my container was in transit. I certainly didn’t expect that answering the call would signal the beginning of a chain of events that would change my life entirely, courtesy of a shipping disaster.
I’d been living in Dubai for seven years, working my way up the Middle East’s publishing scene to become editor of a popular women’s magazine. I’d lived an Instagram-perfect life, attending restaurant openings and glamorous galas, interviewing international celebrities and enjoying massive discounts on designer goods. My life looked, from the outside, gilded.
Behind closed doors, I had been raising a toddler with a life-threatening genetic medical condition, and the impact of his birth had gradually derailed my marriage to the degree that I felt alone and unmoored, desperate for the normality of life among family... a life with a support net.
Relocating to Scotland was a difficult decision, but once made, I applied myself to the process of transit with gusto. I was savage in my wardrobe edit, held multiple garage sales and enlisted a friend who worked as a professional organiser to help me curate the belongings that would be needed in my new life. By the time the shipping company had arrived to pack up, I’d reduced my possessions to twelve cubic metres of things I felt I couldn’t live without. My favourite fashion items made the cut, as did some of my better furniture. The things that really counted were the irreplaceable – art, photographs, my child’s first clothes and toys, my late grandparents’ wedding crystal.
Each of these items was more than just an object, I realised. They were each a physical reminder of times past, of people held dear. Vessels for emotions and memories, evocative of times and places that I wanted to cling on to. Those glasses, the last possession I had to remember the love my grandparents had for each other long before I was born. A painting of an Ethiopian tribeswoman, kept not for its negligible financial worth but as a reminder of the somewhat hairy foreign assignment where I’d taken tracking coffee beans from farm to flat white. A Moschino blazer, the first high-end item I’d bought myself having made the leap from skint jobbing journo in Edinburgh to an editor in need of an editor’s wardrobe. The gown I’d been gifted for my first press awards ceremony.
Carefully packed away into crates, and then into a shipping container and onto a huge cargo vessel bound for the UK, I waved goodbye to my boxes, prepared to meet them at the other end of my journey six weeks on. And then, ten days later, I answered the phone.
Initially, all we knew was that the ship had crashed while mooring in Karachi. In total, 21 containers had been lost overboard with a few dozen others damaged. With hundreds of containers on board, the odds were in my favour. I just had to hold tight and wait for an update.
The news took weeks to come, but eventually, myself and the five other families sharing my container discovered that we were among the unlucky ones. Our crate had been sheared in two in the impact. Things got complicated. Some goods had been lost, some had been damaged beyond repair, and some looked to have survived reasonably intact. In the chaos of the crash, it was unclear whose goods were whose – and until an investigation had been conducted, what remained would not be released.
In the weeks that followed, having arrived in Scotland with just two suitcases, I tried to take stock of what I may or may not have lost and the value involved, while simultaneously coming to terms with the reality that, while I now had family around, I was also an unemployed single mum. I learned, as so many have come to learn in recent weeks during the pandemic, that it is not the big-ticket items of our lives which really matter when the chips are down. It is the small things that give us the most inexplicable joy.
I found myself making bargains with the harbour gods of my imagination. The sea could keep my Louboutin shoes. But those crystal glasses? My son’s first illegible nursery doodles? The coral he and I had collected together on a beach in Oman on a glorious weekend break when he was two years old? The things that were of little interest to the insurance company, having no monetary value, suddenly revealed themselves to mean everything to me.
The insurance process that followed took months. When shipping internationally, most people take average-sum insurance for the cubic meterage of their shipment, based on the idea that in the highly unlikely event it is lost, it is lost in its entirety. As such, I had no itemised list of contents, and had to try to collate one retrospectively after receiving just a third of my belongings. Years later, I still find myself digging around for things, only to realise that they must have been lost at sea. Accurate itemisation was an impossible task.
Nonetheless, having done my best faced with such an unexpectedly odd situation, the insurance company was gratifyingly supportive. The underwriters took my claim at face value and, eventually, I found myself in possession of a barren house, an almost empty wardrobe and a cheque. It was time to start from scratch.
It would be easy to think that the way forward would be to simply replace what is lost. But in a new country, newly single, and contemplating the creation of a whole new normal, I found myself searching... myself. Who was I now, devoid of my things, away from the professional persona that I had created for myself in Dubai, and what did this new person need? What would bring me joy? I wasn’t shopping for objects, but for the building bricks of an entirely new life.
Today, I live in a house that’s filled with things I love. I still mourn the things I lost, but I’ve realised that the memories of people and things live on inside me – and thankfully, on my phone as well. Digital photography is something I will never again take for granted.
My son is healthy now. Our home is one which we have created for our life as it is, and as I write this, in lockdown, I wonder whether in a strangely fortuitous way, our shipping debacle has prepared me better for the strange situation we find ourselves in. None of us knows what is coming next but, having lived through a full-life reset already, I know that the world has a way of carrying on. I have learned that loss is not a finite thing. The current feeling of uncertainty may be global, but individually, there are common themes and many of them tie to the fear of loss, of losing the financial ability to continue on in the lifestyles we have built.
When you have already had to start from scratch, though, the fear of doing so again is greatly reduced, and the experience has ultimately made me braver. I have opted to become a full-time freelancer, knowing that as long as I can pay for the roof over our heads, having freedom over my time is more valuable than anything a bigger paycheque could buy me. It’s a choice I haven’t once regretted – not even now, when freelancing feels more precarious than ever. I am also willing to take more risks, less prone to overthinking everything, because I know that I can survive with very much less than I have now, even if only temporarily. Because it will always be temporary. We can build upon the foundations of what is lost. There is always a way forward.
Now, each night as I sit on a new sofa, in a new living room, a cup of tea perched on my new coffee table, I take in the huge piece of coral that sits in the middle of it: the piece that survived the shipping, the piece that made it intact. It still brings me memories of that weekend in Oman, searching for natural treasure with my son. But these days, it holds something more. A reminder that while life will change, while we will change, the things that matter will find a way to continue on with us regardless.
Jennifer Crichton is a freelance journalist, editor and broadcaster based in Scotland. She is also the founder of The Flock, a digital magazine taking a look at modern womanhood through an ethical lens. Find her on Instagram @journo_jen or on Twitter @JennJCrichton.