Stuart and Shirley visit the Mediterranean Sea

We’ve just returned. In so many ways I am home again. Back from Brooklyn, back from the world’s best job of being a Granny Nanny, back from living out of suitcases for three weeks and a studio apartment for ten months before that. Back from writing ten chapters of memoir on a dining room table. Back to my own desk and, after moving in and taking a few more trips, writing memoir fulltime. Back to the mountains of the Shenandoah Valley. Home.


Today I want to focus on being back from a voyage (May 29-June 16, 2012) on the wine-dark sea otherwise known as the Mediterranean. This sea was a place of high drama for classic writers Homer and the Apostle Luke, who described the four journeys of the Apostle Paul in the biblical book of Acts.

I traveled with thirteen other people and a staff of four on a Turkish gulet, the beautiful vessel named Karina that for seven days and seven nights met all our needs for beauty, rest, nourishment, conversation, and delight.

The trip was an Epicurean feast. Not Dionysian, but pleasurable, delightful to each sense, and balanced, just the way Epicurus would want it.

It was also Athenian and Sophian, full of knowledge, strategy, and wisdom. Billed as a learning adventure, the trip was led by seminary professor Linford Stutzman and his first-mate and co-captain, Janet.

Janet and Linford together at the wheel of the ship as they are in life

Linford wrote a book about learning experientially on the subject of Paul’s ancient journeys while on sabbatical from Eastern Mennonite University in 2003. His book, Sailing Acts, was published by Good Books in 2006. It describes his and Janet’s navigational, strategic, cultural and spiritual adventures for a period of fifteen months.

It’s a memoir. I told Linford that and he looked surprised. I guess seminary professors aren’t given sabbaticals to write memoirs. But the book has many of the characteristics of many of the do-something-unusual-for-a-year books such as Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and IndonesiaThe Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, and many books with the word “project” in them—  The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun — being perhaps the most famous.

This book could have been called The Sailboat Project because it begins with what is actually the fantasy of many people: learning to sail, living on the water, traveling, combining strenuous activity with leisure living in ports, coves, and harbors. When we were anchored in a cove on the Karina, I saw one small sailing yacht with a big sign in the front: My Dream.

The book also could be called The Paul Project. It begins with an explanation of inspiration, the moment when the idea for the sabbatical that would change his life formed instantaneously in Linford’s mind. He had read Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses and Hal Roth’s We Followed Odysseus. Why not combine these ideas? Instead of following Odysseus, Linford and Janet would find a fixer-upper boat, follow the biblical narrative from Acts-Revelations (the point at which the biblical stories leave the land and become sea stories). They would sail in the summer and fall and winter in Israel, returning to the Mediterranean the next summer. Then they would sell their boat at the end of the sabbatical. 

SailingActs, the boat for which the book is named, still provides a summer home to Linford and Janet, when they are not conducting tours on larger boats.

the Bible and the map

They would study the various voyages of Paul and try to locate every port, city, and harbor mentioned there. On our trip, almost ten years later, Linford’s well-worn Bible was opened every day, pages circling the spine. He would show the connections between the text and the context on land and sea, his face lighting up when he could “prove” that people mentioned in the Bible were also mentioned in inscriptions in ancient ruins. But what he really wanted, both as writer and as tour guide, was to create the conditions in which readers and pilgrims re-discover on their own the transformational power of Paul’s journeys.

Both Linford and Janet are natural optimists, open to all kinds of people and all kinds of religion and no religion, and yet passionately committed to their faith. They both love to laugh, and many of their stories revolve around their own mistakes, so easy to make when you are learning new skills and navigating new cultures. Here’s Linford explaining how he ran out of gas on a rented motorcycle:

Having never rented a vehicle with an empty gas tank in my life, I’d been struck by a dumb, temporary dyslexia and realized I’d been reading the gauge backwards, the E as an F, all the while marveling at the excellent gas mileage we were getting. I even noted at one point with genuine gratitude that the gas tank was actually getting fuller as we drove along.

Leave it to a missionary/biblical scholar to think he is enjoying a miracle of self-replenishing fuel instead of getting taken by a rental agency’s cost-saving strategy.

The book Sailing Acts contains fifteen chapters. The writing shows a story teller in command of his tools — suspense, dramatic pauses, curious slants on events, and satisfying endings. It has enough adventure and realistic description to satisfy readers of mysteries and thrillers and enough mechanical challenges to excite Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers. I read the book on the beautiful lounges on the deck of the Karina, a perfect, safe place. Except for one rocky morning, the weather was perfect and the sea clear and enchanting.

The Turks do cushions, couches, rugs, and sails so well! Cozy and exotic all at once.

Yet I concluded that I could never follow in Linford or Janet’s path as a sailor. Sailing requires such hard work! I think you need to fall in love with water in your youth. I never had that opportunity. And if you don’t have Linford’s ingenuity and knowledge, sailing would take a small fortune. Hence the jokes about sail boats, defined as “a hole in the water, lined with fiberglass, into which you pour your money” (101).

It took a week on a sailing vessel to teach me how different land-based cultures are from sea-based ones. I developed great appreciation for the ways sailing is the same risky, slow, and sometime idyllic venture that it was in biblical times. Compared to the ways in which farming has changed, seafaring seems static. We have less control over the sea than over the land. Not surprisingly, monotheism developed as a desert religion where conditions, though harsh, were more stable. Because of the seeming perfidy of nature, sea peoples created multiple gods to explain the fickle universe.

Every good memoir and every good journey is an inward voyage as well as an outward one. Some of the insights Linford gained from his Sailing Acts journey were these:

  • Paul was an excellent student of culture. He did not do what so many preachers after him have done. He did not harangue against the sins of those he wanted to convert. Instead, he searched for ways to connect with the people and their needs. As just one example: he saw an idol to an “unknown god” in the polytheistic paganism around him and pounced on the opportunity to explain his monotheistic God and his son Jesus.
  • He saw that the resurrection story filled a gap in polytheism, which still cowered at death. Every sailor faces the possibility of death every day. Paul offered hope beyond the grave, resulting in one of his most eloquent exclamations, “Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:55). By making life a competition with death, Paul was speaking a language the competition-loving Greeks understood. By offering a faith that transformed the greatest defeat (death) into a victory that not even Nike, goddess of victory, could claim, Paul gained followers.
  • Paul was an urbanite who traveled to the most sophisticated cities in the world (all sea ports except for Jerusalem) and also spoke to the leading citizens and intellectuals of his time. His Acts 17 Mars Hill speech at the areopagus in front of the Acropolis in Athens caused quite a stir. And every time he spoke, people marveled and pondered, were angry or converted. He could hold his own with the best thinkers, judges, leaders, of his time.
  • Paul is today honored in Greece, one of the most Christian (Greek Orthodox) countries in the world. There are festivals, icons, churches, that commemorate his memory. In Turkey, a country that is 99 percent Muslim today but where Paul also traveled and spoke in the first century, the average citizen has never heard of him. Linford Stutzman observes: “In spite of history, ruins, research, monuments, and museums, it takes a living community with an emotional attachment to their heroes to preserve their memory.”
  • There are many examples of actual experiences that come alive in their settings. The description of shipwreck, for example, in Acts has been called the most accurate in all the literature of the ancient world. And the danger was, and is, ever present. In many places, the Mediterranean’s bottom is covered with wreckage.
  • The famous passage about love, I Corinthians 13, makes so much more sense when you envision Paul standing in the agora or the synagogue in Corinth. And when you know that the citizens of this great ancient city worshiped Aphrodite, goddess of love, as well as Apollo and Dionysus. Paul builds on the love of love, but expands it and describes a more eternal, lasting kind of love than the eros that often led to envy and unseemly behavior. Having re-memorized this passage a year ago, I was able to recite it for my fellow travelers in front of the mountain where a temple to Aphrodite stood.

After reciting I Corinthians 13 in Corinth.

     When I began the book and the voyage, I had some of the reservations many feminist Christians have about Paul. His famous injunction that women should be silent in church and the submission/headship passages I struggled with as a young adult probably kept me from seeing him as a hero. In context of the Greek culture, however, where revelry and prostitution were part of the worship experience, the exhortations for more orderly worship are more understandable.
     What was necessary in the early church, from Paul’s perspective, was liberation from libertinism and from the cultural idolatry of empire. His perspective was not necessarily anti-woman as his respectful relationships with Priscilla and Phoebe attest.
     I don’t usually read a memoir in the presence of its author. But doing so on Karina was a double pleasure. I got to ask the author how writing the book changed him.
     “Yes, ” said Linford. “I’m different now. Before I sailed with Paul on the Mediterranean, I was so serious about my work. If things weren’t going well, I tossed and turned and couldn’t let go. After trusting God for protection in this risky venture and after identifying with Paul on his, I began to relax a little, trust more, and I lost much of my fear about the outcome, not just when I am sailing but also when I am teaching in Virginia. I have been a witness to living life abundantly. Paul didn’t avoid suffering. He expected it and found the blessing in it. What freedom that is!”
     In Linford and in Janet, I have found the kind of model every memoirist aspires to. I have seen transfiguration in the human face and have heard it in the human voice.

Linford Stutzman, not a slave to culture or to fear

What is your equivalent of sailing with Paul on the Mediterranean? How have you witnessed and/or experienced transformation?





Shirley Showalter


  1. Roselle on June 18, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    What an amazing trip, Shirley! Thank you for sharing it.

    I can’t think of one transformational moment to share right now, but you got me thinking.

    Welcome home.

    • shirleyhs on June 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Thanks, Roselle. I know that great things happen when you think! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Tina Barbour on June 18, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    This sounds like a life-changing trip. Thank you for sharing it with us.It certainly will have me thinking about Paul a little differently.

    I can’t think of a transformational moment. But I would say that I am in the midst of a transformation. I don’t truly understand it yet, but I feel that I am coming into my own with my purpose in life–to write–and that I’m growing in ways that will benefit me and help me to give more to others through my writing.

    • shirleyhs on June 18, 2012 at 9:22 pm

      Tina, I’m so glad to hear you say you feel yourself to be in the midst of transformation. I hope readers here will click on your name to find your own blog, which has inspired me many times. It thrills me when you say you are finding your purpose in life, and that it is to write. Wonderful!

  3. Jerry Waxler on June 19, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Thanks for this beautiful, generous, informative post, filled with rich insights and thought provoking ideas. I have all kinds of thoughts about Paul too, and even more complex are my thoughts about the ancient world he traveled. I will put this memoir on my list, for sure. Also, thanks for pointing out to its author that he wrote a memoir. I’m just reading an immersion memoir called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin about her year exploring happiness psychology. Immersion memoirs are great sub-genre of the memoir wave, and is fraught with possibilities for all kinds of fascinating books.

    Best wishes,
    Memory Writes Network

    • shirleyhs on June 20, 2012 at 5:21 am

      Thanks, Jerry, for your kind words about this post and for sharing your seasoned perspective on the immersion memoir. Since you have interest in the ancient world, I highly recommend a gulet cruise or other well-guided tour. Absolutely fascinating and mind-expanding.

  4. Kathleen Pooler on June 19, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Shirley, What a rich and delightful journey you have had! I think you were on sabbatical and have returned with a treasure chest of memories and grist for your mill. Thank you for sharing your story and pictures-absolutely beautiful. You show how memoir writers see the world and then translate it for the rest of us! And welcome home, no matter how wonderful travel is,it’s always such a comfort to return home.

    • shirleyhs on June 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm

      Kathy, thanks for your good wishes and your empathetic response. Yes, this trip was a kind of sabbatical for us as well as a replay of Linford and Janet’s. Sometimes ransformations begin on the sea and come home to the land.

  5. Chelsea on June 19, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    Sounds like an amazing trip! Thanks for the reflections.

    • shirleyhs on June 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm

      Thank you, Chelsea! We missed you. Always good to see your comments here.

  6. Sherrey Meyer on June 19, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Thanks for sharing what sounds like an amazing journey! Appreciate your thoughts and reflections on it.

    • shirleyhs on June 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      Sherrey, I appreciate that you took time to respond and I return good wishes to you.

  7. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living on June 19, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    You pin-pointed why everyone needs to travel and experience different cultures and lifestyles. I think this is what makes life so exciting. You all look relaxed and happy, although I can tell grannynanny missed her grandson.

    • shirleyhs on June 20, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      If anyone represents the joy of travel and immersion into different cultures, Sonia, it is you! I’ve been inspired by your nomad spirit and gutsy grace. And I join you in advocating travel as a means of personal growth. I love following you in your adventures also.

  8. Tom Callanan on June 21, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    You gas tank story had me laughing out loud. Reminds me of a modern day loaves and fishes. And it seems to be the story of your life. You get fuller as you get older. May this always be so.
    Thanks for brightening my day!

  9. shirleyhs on June 21, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    So good to have your comment here, Tom. As I watched the captain and the numerous other sailors in our group, I thought of you and your love of physical challenge.

    Thanks for the kind words about getting fuller as I get older. Let me return the compliment to you. Blessings on your own full life.

  10. Richard Gilbert on June 22, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    Great post, Shirley, packed with good stuff. I’d say my transformation was farming. Now it appears my memoir is going to take me about as long to get right as I farmed, so that’s the latest sea change for me.

  11. shirleyhs on June 24, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Richard, you certainly have me curious about your memoi!. I am eager to read it and know that I will love it just based on what I am learning about your writing by reading your blog. I wonder if you’ve ever been on the water for an extended period of time? This trip helped me understand the basically conservative nature of land (and farming) in a new way. With (at least) eleven generations of farmers in my geneology, I am pretty deeply rooted to land.

  12. Sara Renae on June 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    As always, I lost myself in your post, Shirley! (I particularly love the photo of the bible and the map :-).

    As for transformational moments, I think people often believe a transformational moment must be large and grand to be life-changing, but I have had many mini-transformational moments.

    One such moment was while driving my God-Mother’s father (I guess he would be my God-Grandfather) home from the family candy story. He always sat looking out his window and one day I asked him what he was looking at. He simply said, “The world is beautiful and I want to see it all before I pass”.

    This simple statement during a drive I had taken dozens of times before, set me on a journey to truly appreciate nature. Even twenty years later, I remember my God-Father for giving me his gift of wonder and attention to the beauty in the world.

    Thanks for reminding me of this wonderful moment!

  13. shirleyhs on June 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Sara Renae, I loved the story you shared. I hope that our little grandson Owen can learn to appreciate nature through our love of the scenic view here in Virginia as well as the flowers and animals and grass that he won’t have every day in his city life. What a gift your god grandfather gave you. And now you are passing it on to your son!

    I enjoyed your blog and welcome you to this one. Come back often. Sit. Write! 🙂

  14. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on July 2, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Shirley, I read your entire blog and enjoyed how it began as a trip blog and twisted and dove deeply and turned into a memoir blog. I like that I can hear your voice as I read, since I sat and listened to you speaking at the Mennonite writers’ gathering at the end of March.

    Thank you for your questions. I would like to say I am not a slave to highways and efficiency, even though I am. I think the one in the inner room (referring to your next blog), is nourished by a mantra that I sing to myself: “Brother, sister, take your time. Go slowly. Listen very carefully; simple things are holy.”

    I’m looking forward to your book.

  15. shirleyhs on July 2, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Dolores, thank you for these kind words, There is a deep tenderness in them. I wish we had connected more at the conference, but I feel your spirit even without words.

    Your mantra is wonderful. I may borrow it.

    “Simple things are holy.”

    Hope to learn to know you better. Thanks for this comment.

    • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on July 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      Maybe you’ll be in the Bay Area next year, promoting your book.

  16. shirleyhs on July 4, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Ooh, I love that idea. Wouldn’t that be great?

  17. best london hotels on August 7, 2012 at 9:29 am

    How exciting!!!!!!!!! I’m such a BIG fan of sailing trips! Oh…so VERY VERY beautiful! Thanks for sharing your experience with us!!!

  18. […] husband and I traveled to Turkey and Greece, an amazing experience for both of us which I described in a previous post. Family together in Virginia, July 15, […]

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