When the sea becomes a home for all
By Cecilia Seppia
Sometimes the sea gives you wings to fly. It may sound like a poetic oxymoron, but it is the powerful image that the Big Blue can give us when, at a single glance, it succeeds in freeing the mind from the bonds of overbuilding, from boundaries, from closures, from paralysis of body and mind… the chains so many of us experience in everyday life dissolve and drown in the blue immensity that is capable of giving new oxygen to our lungs and thoughts.
This is what the children and young people aged 5 to 18 who attend the 'Mal di Mare' residential sailing school experience every day. Founded in 1986 in Pescia Romana, in the province of Viterbo, and directed by Mauro Pandimiglio who heads a large group of instructors and seafarers, the school is now affiliated with the Italian Sailing Federation. It is also a founding member of the Centre for the Promotion of Paralympic Sport for sailing (CIP) and is co-founder of the Italian Union of Solidarity Sailing. The crews of its boats are totally inclusive: Christians, Muslims, people with disabilities, foreigners and Italian citizens take to the sea with the sole intention of overcoming challenges, diversities and barriers with the help of “Brother Sea” as St Francis would call the ocean. "The emblem and cornerstone of our school," Pandimiglio told Vatican News and L'Osservatore Romano, "is the 'relational boat', that fragile floating space where the crew confronts each other each day, learning to know each other, to support each other, to face the gust of wind or the swell. It is an object that helps young people of all ages to reach increasingly conscious levels of autonomy. Our kids eat together, live together, sleep together, and we are the only sporting reality in Italy that does this: our distinctive feature is social inclusion through the metaphor of the encounter between land and sea. It is not a school for the disabled, I wish to reiterate this, it is a school for everyone; we do not have special boats; it is not exclusively a school for seafarers but also for those who live and navigate land: the sea is just one more tool that makes the difference. However, we do have this dual aspect of teaching on the one hand, and of therapy - of care - on the other, especially for those 'fractured' souls, for those who have experienced traumatic situations, for those who would otherwise find themselves on the margins". So, the sea, but also the beach, with the boats and crews setting sail and landing, become the multimedia classroom that helps develop a strong natural cohesion in the group and nurtures in each of the youngsters the transition between knowing how to do and knowing how to be. The students, appropriately divided into age groups, also participate in music, dance and circus arts workshops on the beach. Safety, participation and learning are always underpinned by play and 'caring' for oneself and others in an inclusive and loving atmosphere. It is a 'Mediterranean' sailing school because it overrides national and religious divisions to become a place of encounter for different cultures belonging to the same sea.
Welcoming all: from Palestinian children to 'Bambin Gesu’s' little patients
"We have extended this work over the years to the whole Mediterranean area,” Pandimiglio explains, “hosting, for example, young people from Palestine, including children from Gaza, from the occupied territories, where unfortunately there is still the Intifada, with truly dramatic and emotionally compromised situations. The youngest were Catholic, the others Muslim. It was extraordinary to see how our youngsters, right from the start, rather than the differences, grasped the similarities linked to age. Within ten minutes of the introductions, they had already bonded affectively and this generated a series of positive complicities. We also had young people from Lebanon, France and Morocco and each time we witnessed small miracles of encounter. It was also very nice to work with children from the Bambino Gesù Children's Hospital. On that occasion, we had the supervision of doctors from the hospital, neurologists and psychiatrists, and we set up a project called 'The Wind Cure': the aim was, once they had finished their hospitalisation for the various illnesses from which they were suffering, to be able to devote themselves to caring for their mental health, to restore the ecology of the soul'.
Learning to care
Today, when one speaks of the sea, alongside the dreamlike vision of this immense blue expanse, one cannot help but think of the many evils that afflict it such as pollution, loss of biodiversity, erosion of the seabed, rising temperatures and all the disastrous consequences linked to them, but Pandimiglio argues, one does not become a guardian of the sea out of duty: "Certainly we educate our children to respect the sea, which is part of Creation, but we do so being careful not to create division between those who are “good and conscientious”, take care of the sea and care about it, taking action to combat pollution, and those who do not or cannot. This would be a mistake, both pedagogically but also humanely, it would create further fracture, it would be a further source of pain. So, we set a good example of how the sea should be treated, but what we try to make our children understand is that the sea is habitable. It can be home, a home with moving boundaries, where everything is constantly changing, and immersing oneself in this change, experiencing it, crossing it, brings many benefits. We make sure that children learn to take care of themselves and others, and if they understand this, they are also able to take care of the sea, to protect it, to save it from pollution for example, as the Pope asks in Laudato si'".
Recuperating relationships and connections
Pandimiglio also insists on the strength of connections, which Francis recalls several times in the encyclical, arguing that the sea is able to reactivate even those severed, interrupted links, first of all with oneself and one's own being, improving homeostasis, then with others and with Creation. "In recent years," he says, "in our school we have also had children from youth detention centres, child migrants who had lost their parents, their families, during sea crossings and who managed to reconcile with the sea to the point of being reborn in the true sense. 400 million years ago, the sea was a great placenta, and the process of embryogenesis took place constantly. Today, working with the children, we witness not only a new genesis of the person but the joy that comes from rebirth. This is truly ecology, caring for our home, becoming nature in nature: if we all trained ourselves every day to take care of Creation and of each other and of ourselves, even in small steps, with small gestures, we would see that that integral ecology of which the Pope speaks come to full fruition".
A typical day
The director of "Mal di Mare" also tells us about a typical day for the boys and girls attending the school. "Wake-up at 7.30 am, breakfast, get ready, tidy up the tents where they sleep. At 8.30 a.m. we gather and read something, a poem about the sea perhaps and a debate begins: we deal with important topics such as trust, friendship or something that happened the day before. Then we go down to the sea and the actual sailing activity begins. There is no theory: you don't study the sea, you live it! So right from the start the kids go out on their own with the assistance of the instructors, of course, who are on dinghies and help them, support them from a distance. Then, on the way back there is story time: the girls and boys talk about the events of the day and try to understand where they went wrong. But mostly, they share their experience, their courage or even their fear. At 1 pm we eat, and in the afternoon we go out to sea again, discovering that the winds, the currents, and the colour of the water have changed. And then in the evening, before dinner, we experience moments of meditation and reflection. For a whole week, the girls and boys are without their mobile phones and thus forced to immerse themselves in this reality that is made up of relationships".
When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (LS 139)
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