On a Sling and a Prayer

This week Santa Maria made her way from slip to cradle, via a magical flight expedited by a crane. For long-time readers of stillvoicing, this has been described in earlier posts. In fact, I have likely written about it many years, as I do again this year! In part, this is because the sight of a boat floating through the air is quite unlike anything.

Since our marina is a not-for-profit club, members assist on lift-out day. This year I was part of the compound sling crew, a first for me. I have now cycled through all of the volunteer positions on the dock. This crew receives the boats and assists them as they land in the cradle, a metal structure holding the boat upright. Fittingly, my shift began with the arrival of Santa Maria. It was nice to see her settled for a long winter’s nap.

Owners of boats are asked to tie four lead lines to their boat, two at stern and two at bow, about 15 – 20 feet in length. As boats soars from lake to compound, these lead lines stream from the boat like strings from a balloon. My job was to grab one of the lead lines, along with three other sailors-come- dockhands. We would pull a boat this way and that as the crane operator and his helper communicated by radio. Often we would need to spin the boat 180 degrees to get stern straight and bow in place. I have to say that it is an incredible experience to grab a lead line and move a boat thousands of pounds, suspended in the air. It is as easy as a pushing a partly full wheelbarrow, even though I know that this boat would pulverize me were it to fall from its slings.

Once the boat is nearly in place, the cradle was fine-tuned left and right, back and forth. After the keel touches the base of the cradle, the cradle pads are raised to an inch from the hull of the boat. Then the crane operator lets the boat come down with all of its weight and the boat meets the four or more pads. One of us would then jump on the boat to release one side of each sling so it could come out from under the boat. Another would guide the slings as the operator raised them up to the sky to make their way over to the next boat.

A couple of time I remember staring at these slings slipping away into the cerulean sky speckled with spectacular clouds, and my breath simply left me. It was so beautiful, utterly transfixing.

Yesterday we returned to the boat to wrestle the motor off the stern of the boat. This was more of a Sisyphean effort. The gentle tugging at the lines of an airship on their way to their cradles on Wednesday seemed so far removed from Saturday’s cradling a motor close to my core as I pried it from its summer station and eased it into the wheelbarrow for its journey to my house, its winter home.

I am struck by how different these two labours were, and yet they were both labour – both blessing me with the gift of living into my body and being reminded that movement, and sweat, and satisfaction, and even momentary frustrations are gifts of the Spirit that sustains both the strenuous grunt and the bewildered gasp.

Some Straight Talk on Circles

Yesterday we stepped down the mast on Santa Maria, a sure sign that summer has passed on. The days shorten. The temperature drops. The grass grows more lethargic.

I am sad not to sail, but I have to admit that I really do love the turning of the year. I have never lived in a clime close to the equator, but I would miss the cycle of spring, summer, autumn, and winter – although I suppose they have their own cycles of the year with wet and dry season. This turning of the seasons suits me, but I am also mindful that time doesn’t only turn in circles but that it moves forward too.

Scholars sometimes mark the modern era as one with a linear view of time. The study of history in the early modern period, in particular, was one in which timelines sketched the progress of humankind. At an existential level, some might map this view on their own life journey, wherein accumulating wisdom, money, achieving goals, et cetera are viewed to be the point of life. Of course, we no longer read the march of history so optimistically, and we might now too wonder at an existential level whether the accrual of funds in our pension plans is all there is to life. Even the most jaded post-modern thinker might ponder whether there was something lost in the shift from a pre-modern worldview emphasizing a circular notion of time to a modern linear one. What might we learn from a return to the circle?

Many Indigenous voices speak to the power of the circle – concretely as a way to organize a conversation or pattern a gathering and metaphorically as a way to understand the universe. The circle speaks to equality, balance, and harmony, among other things. In the church, too, we map out the times of our worship in a circular pattern moving from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Pentecost to Advent again. We sing “Jesus Christ is risen today!” every year. Our church year is cyclical because our year is cyclical. Nature is cyclical. And yet the circle is not all there is. I appreciate that I can move from cradle to grave in a way wherein my life can have a meaningful end in both senses of the word: in completion and purpose. Both make their way in my day to day life.

The beginnings of the academic years come and go and come again, but I know that one day I will not be involved in them. The earth makes its way around the sun even while I slowly make my way back to the earth from whence I came. Santa Maria comes out of the water and goes back in to come out yet again. But I know that one day it will not be me caring for this beatific boat. For now, however, I am a part of her circle and very glad for that as we say goodbye to the 2021 sailing season and look forward to 2022.

Walk around the Docks

This last Saturday I spend my day at the marina, in the august role of “Officer of the Day.” Our boat club requires 20 hours of volunteer service each summer, and being OOD is one way to fulfill this obligation.  Basically, you serve as ambassador should any transient boaters come in to stay overnight, or if reciprocal members from other clubs come for a time.  In addition to this, you are to walk the docks, looking for hazards and such, and answer questions people might have.  In my walk-about I generally end up helping people dock their boats, or help send some out on their adventures.

In my experience there are rarely visitors, but I spend a good bit of time chatting with this person and that.  It is a nice way to get to know people a bit more.  Folk often have a skewed idea of a “Yacht Club.”  In my experience, there are very few big expensive boats, but a lot of people sporting modest, 30 year plus sailboats 25 to 30 foot in length. 

On Saturday I chatted with a couple who down-sized in retirement, buying a smaller condo and a sailboat.  The also provide foster care, and currently attend to a six year old who has had brain cancer.  When the weather is right, they bring her aboard the stern of their backed in boat in her wheelchair, where she happily greets all walking by.  Another boat hosts a young man with down’s syndrome who greets me with measured enthusiasm.  Some folk here are chatty, some are taciturn, some are anxious to help and other are heavily pre-occupied.  In a way, the marina is the world.

I think that this OOD program outperforms its purported outcomes.  It allows us to get to know one another.  This is a gift of the first order. The practice of volunteering grants us the grace of encountering others to the end that we get to know our own selves.

Oddly enough, most of us would not serve as OOD aside from our need to volunteer 20 hours at the club.  Of course, some might say that these hours are not voluntary. But you can forgo the 20 hours and pay a bit more in your membership fees.  I am always amazed at how a small incentive to do what you should do results in a exponentially larger pay-back.  This is the economy of grace, the logic of service, one of the ways in which God works wonders in the world.

The sailing season is on the brink of winding down. I have dutifully finished by volunteer hours.  One might say that there is a carrot and a stick to my experience.  But more importantly, I note that both carrot and stick disappear when my experience illumines that other people aren’t hell (as per Sartre) so much as other people are health.

Stern Words

I sit at the stern of my sailboat.
Ducks float here and there. I
speak to them, and they to me, but
in duck tongue. So, no luck there
but still the night is magical.
Masts tick-tock like metronomes,
and the lap of water
against the hull whispers “satis est…

Night lights are so soft and the
sounds are scrumptious. The
rock of the boat is hypnotic.
Here at the stern I am
speechless, and
the word heard for those
with ears to hear is:
“Listen.”

For the Weal of the World

Thursday saw Santa Maria make her way from the hard to the lovely and oh so wet Hamilton Harbour on Lake Ontario. COVID-19 complications meant that this was not a possibility last year, so it was especially sweet to see her land in the water.

For those who are not familiar with sailing in my part of the world, sailboats have to come out of the water because the lakes freeze, and fixed keel boats have keels thousands of pounds heavy, so a lift or a crane is used. Our marina rents a crane. It is quite the site to see things that float flying across the sky.

When she landed, I was near at hand, and jumped into the boat, started the engine as the pier crew moved my boat down the dock. Within some seconds she was ready to go, and the crew tossed the lead lines into the boat and I was off. It was a feeling… slipping across the water. Boats are mesmerizing. You cannot turn on a dime. There are no brakes. And the feeling of floating is unlike any other. Something stirred.

I didn’t grow up on the water. My mother was afraid of it, but my dad had been in the navy and while he rarely spoke of his experiences in the second world war, he sometimes talked with some enthusiasm about learning to sail as a part of their training. I suspect that some bits of my joy on the water are related to this. My paternal grandmother was from the west coast of Norway, and so it just might be that other bits of my joy come from blood. I’m not altogether sure but being on the water brings me a joy that I can’t quite describe.

I suspect most people have some place, or activity, or perhaps a time that finds them outside of themselves, drifting into the future, the past, the stories in our bones. These experiences are life giving and avoided at our peril. Alas, we too often fail to attend to these in our busyness. I truly feel that these experiences are divine gifts that feed our souls, our minds, and our bodies. Too often we imagine that only “holy” activities ground and grow our spirit. But all that is truly whole is holy, shaped by the Creator for the good of our humanity, and for the weal of the world.

Of course, these may well change and shift with time, but then again, so do we. I should note too that sailing is not the only activity that takes me to another place. Sometime art will do this, or music, or running. The Holy One has given us so many ways to stay alive. Receive these gifts for what they are: given for you.

In Her Heart

Yesterday we went down to LaSalle Bay to ready Santa Maria for the water. She has been on the hard for a long time. Our marina needed a new sea wall and construction had been slowed by Covid last summer. The long and short of it was that boats did not make it into the water. We missed being on the boat but spent some of the summer fixing this and that, including replacing a through that was leaking and a few other tasks. We both found a modicum of delight in getting down to the water even if not on it.

A similar feeling accrued yesterday. The exterior of the boat did not need a lot of work since we had cleaned and waxed it last fall. But the inside had two winters worth of spider waste and such. My dear wife worked on that while I scrubbed the outside. It was either outside with a howling wind and cold water or inside bending about corners in search of spiders and their offerings.

We also put on the outboard motor, fit on the tiller, connected the electrical etc., making sure everything was ready for launch day, May 13. It was a satisfying day of work, with a 3.5 hours passing by like the snap of fingers. When we got home, however, we received an email announcing that lift-in was delayed until the current stay at home order is lifted. I have to admit that I am not overly surprised, since the city of Burlington has not yet opened any marinas.

We don’t generally sail in May. We try to get our mast up, and sails on but the month of May really is quite cool for sailing, although some do with parkas and mitts and such. It really is surprising how cold the water is and the wind very generously shares it with you when you are out and about on a boat.

My hope is that we will be in the water by the end of May, or perhaps early June. We bought a new main sail and genoa last summer and are itching to feel how Santa Maria performs with sails that are more efficient. But wait we will and wait we must. This has been a year and more of waiting and watching. In some ways, it has been a kind of training in prayer, which doesn’t begin on the knees so much as in the eyes and ears and heart attuned to the world around us – attentive to the moment.

Santa Maria’s moment is not yet, but it will come, of that I am certain. In the meantime she will do what she does so well, wait and ponder in her heart, as will we.

No Sheets to the Wind

The university where I work decided to make this long weekend extra-long, giving us Tuesday and Friday off as well. Gwenanne also had Friday off, so we headed down to Lake Ontario to do some boat chores. Some of you know that our dear Santa Maria is on the hard this year, as are all boats in our marina due to some Covid related construction delays.

For Christmas this last year, we had decided to buy each other a new set of sail for our boat. We heard news this week that they were ready. Kevin at Bay Sails did a great job, and he was sympathetic at our plight of getting new sails without having opportunity to use them. But we remain philosophical about it. This is a summer for working on the boat.

It was really most amazing to see his workshop. The floor really was the table and here and there, there were work stations cut into the hardwood surface in which he would stand while doing industrial sewing. Hammock-like “shelves” hang from the ceiling filled with fabric, and sails were strewn everywhere. A big window to the north looked out on the bay and I felt like I was in a different world. The sails were crisp and so firm that they felt like they could stand up on their own.

After picking up the sails we went to a marine supply store to get a new thru-hull fitting for the boat. Our boat’s kitchen sink thru-hull sprang a leak last year that we fixed with McGyver finesse. But now is the time to fix it properly, and so we pulled out the old thru-hull and prepared to put in the new one, which will need a new piece of teak, sitting at home and waiting to be fitted for service. After supper at a local diner, where a pilsner and a burger were the reward for an afternoon of sweat, my wife and I returned to remove the halyard that lifts the fore-sail, this too in need of replacement. And then we headed home.

It is nice to be by the water even when we cannot be on the water. Water somehow gives me the sense of a bigger something, that I can be a part of. Karl Rahner famously compared God to a horizon, always before us and never in our grasp, but still grasping us. Big bodies of water nicely illumine the drama of a horizon, especially when the sun sets and the fact of the world’s spinning on its axis becomes dramatically apparent. I was able to see a bit of this spinning on Lake Ontario on Friday. Of course, the world is always spinning, but every now and then the light changes and we see what is right before our eyes and under our feet.

This present Corona crisis is such a revelatory moment, in a way. A variety of Covid predicaments are opening our eyes and we’re seeing whom we are for good and for ill. Our values become more starkly evident as our anger reveals our fear and as we find joy in things long forgotten but discovered again. These times tell us a bit about the state of our souls as we differently face life, pulsing through us and around us despite our waylaid plans.

The sails may be in the bags, but the wind still moves us as she will.

Saturday on the Hard

Some twelve years ago or so I took sailing lessons. My dad, who was a sailor in WWII, spoke fondly of learning how to sail in his training, and after his death I took an interest in learning how to sail. I suppose it was a way to connect with him. It grabbed me, though, and the next year we bought a sailboat.

Sailing is a delight of my summers, but this year it is not to be. The marina where we keep out boat was in need of a new break wall, keeping the marina safe from strong east winds off Lake Ontario. Because of the stay-at-home orders and the fact that our marina is in a park closed by provincial orders. Work on the break wall was halted for a time. The project has only recently been completed. By the time the docks would be put in place, and boats put in the water, we would not have much sailing time left. Consequently, Santa Maria will stay in its cradle on the Marina parking lot, on the hard, along with another 100 or so from our marina.

This has been a strange year, and because of restrictions at the marina and my teaching an intensive course using Zoom meaning a steep learning curve, we have not had much opportunity to get to the boat. We went down a couple of weeks ago to see what was up with Santa Maria. She was doing fine, but we decided we would do a few projects on her this year. Yesterday we took a trip down to the marina and spent the afternoon scrubbing the hall, the deck and the cockpit. A mulberry tree branch hangs over the boat so we spent a good bit of time scrubbing away blue bits.

After an afternoon of cleaning Gwenanne and I both felt a kind of satisfaction. It was an afternoon far removed from a typical summer Saturday, spent on the water. But there was a kind of satisfaction and delight in being by the water, and getting away for a day. In way, it sort of reminds me of visiting someone by Zoom. It’s a far shot from a face to face visit, but far better than nothing at all.

We won’t be down at the marina every weekend, but we have enough projects that need to be done to keep us busy through the summer. It will be a summer on the hard, but in the big scheme of things this is a small loss. We are in a time of doing work differently, doing worship differently, doing everything differently. Even marinas that are open (and ours in not unique in staying closed), are having a unique and different experience. In due course this will all pass, but in the meantime we take joy in different experiences, and look hopefully for another kind of summer next year.

The Flying Saint

Last Thursday was spent on the docks. The beginning of October marks the time of year when sailboats in our climes move to the “hard.” We are relatively new to our Marina, and so I had my first experience of seeing about 50 boats move from floating to flying to resting in their “cradle.” The boat club brings in a crane and all day long boats are advanced along the pier, then hugged with straps before being lifted across the sky and nestled into a metal stand designed to handle the large keel that keeps sailboats afloat and stable while the wind propels them forward.

A friend asked me the other day if I feel a little sad on a day such as this. I do feel a little sad, knowing that another season of sailing has come and gone. Yet the day also comes with both nervousness and the relief that comes with seeing Santa Maria safely ensconced in her resting place for another winter.

All of us have these odd moments where we simultaneously experience a mix of emotions. It can make making sense of our experiences complicated. Of course, complication can be a good thing when we are looking at life a little too simplistically! It is easy, too easy to paint life in black and white, whereas our emotions remind us that the circumstances that have led to them tend to be outside of our control. Life is sometimes grey, often a kaleidoscope of colours, but rarely black and white! Emotions, then, are often complicated and uncertain. Add to that the fact that our emotions are usually shaped by memories that are molded by the singularity of our experience, and it is soon clear that we need to accept the complexity and intensity of these feelings. It is not unusual to be happy and sad over the same things; to be afraid and excited together; to feel love and repulsion at the same time. Emotions are complicated and complicating, but a gift of God all the same.

There are so many places in life where we live with these mixed emotions, and as I look back on some of the bigger ones in my life – such as major life changes etc. – I realize that this is a complexity that accompanies us to and into death, experienced paradoxically as both a poison and a balm. We hold our breath in the face of death, just as I did as I saw my boat lifted up out of the water and drifting some 40 feet above the ground across the parking lot before landing safely into the boat storage unit at which point I let my breath out again, and said a prayer of thanks.

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About Right

For those of us who live north of the Equator, in climes in which water freezes in winter months, now is the season of preparing boats on the hard. “On the hard” for those who may not know the language of sailors and such, is the antonym to “in the water.” It is, indeed, a sweet season.

Yesterday my wife and I were down doing a little work on Santa Maria. Last month I put in a new water tank since the last one was filling the bilge as fast as I could fill the tank. Water issues have shown up in other places as well, and so my wood-worker wife opted to rebuild a couple of walls that had been ruined. She works wonders, and her carpentry skills were put to task. Yesterday we put these walls in place. She also plans on varnishing the hatch boards, which we have been staining, and while she cut a temporary hatch (so we could take the regular boards home) I cleaned the hull.

I like cleaning the hull. It brings me a deep joy. When my mother (whose blessed memory I honour today!) had me clean anything as a child, I would never have described the experience with the word “joy.” But yesterday I found myself grinning as I wiped away a winter’s worth of grime. As I washed and polished, I wondered about this pleasure: why this joy? Perhaps it is because I do so much work that brings so few concrete results that I see. Perhaps it is because the action itself is a cypher signalling changes in the season. Perhaps it is because I simply enjoy being outside, or the gentle curve of the boat, or the back and forth with my wife. It is probably all of these and more. But as I worked I thought a little bit about the gift of physical labour: how it puts us in touch with our bodies, how it teaches the gift of patience and perseverance, and how it reminds us that those who preceded us knew nothing of the many luxuries we take for granted. There was no heat without wood being hewn, and no food without laboured fields and snare set trails and animal husbandry. Of course, food is still worked for but most of us are distant to the physicality of this truth.

But to return to the mystery of my smile, above all I think this task takes me back to my parents, who valued hard work and meant to teach their children that it is a gift. Of course, I do not want to sentimentalise labour – remembering that many ache from bodies broken by harsh conditions. But still, I am happy for the occasion to remember those who tried to teach me to find some pleasure in work, and so to know that sweat on the brow can be a blessing as well as a curse.

As I caressed Santa Maria with water I imagined the one, after whom the boat is named, caressing her own beloved child, and finding joy in her work. Then I thought on God too, who most certainly – from time to time – cleans this ship that we are, and so I imagined God with a gracious grin and wet hands and a deep joy, and that seems to me to be about right on Mother’s Day.