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.

Who’s in a Name?

My wife and I spent the last two days working on our sailboat, the “Santa Maria.”  We didn’t choose our boat’s name but inherited it. Of course, the name is not all we inherited, and as every boat owner will tell you, buying a boat is rather like purchasing an invoice.  This was doubly the case with the sainted lady; she was in sore straits when we got her, and we have plugged away at healing her.  In order to mitigate the threat of financial insolvency, we have been doing most of the work all on our own: painting the deck and interior, making new cushions, replacing the marine plywood inside, etc.  The repairs are done in a lop-sided fashion.  I am the strong-man who does my wife’s wise bidding.  She is the mind, I am the muscles; she the master planner, I the measure once saw twice man.

 

Each year we tackle a new project.  This year we decided to paint the hull.  This hull has been painted before – not by us – in a piece meal fashion.  Many shades of white cover up bumps and so forth.  On Saturday we bought a power buffer and some cleaning material to strip away some of the crud that has accrued over the years.  I have to say, I love doing this sort of work.  It is mindless, and after a busy week at work I find myself reveling in muscular engagement, the mindless repetition, the fresh wind on the face, the to and fro conversations with my wife and passers-by.  And it always feels good to begin a project that has an identifiable beginning, middle and ending – even if it is only one step in a long journey.  This happened to me with the hull cleansing process, a necessary preparatory stage in painting it.  But sometimes even small steps in a journey are a trip of their own.

 

As I cleaned up the port side of the hull, I noted a kind of shadow emerge; something of a faint outline of a word, a call number, a what?  Slowly, I could see it was an old name.  Santa Maria has not always been named after the blessed virgin.  As I cleaned and peered, it became clear that her name was once Abishag (I had to look it up).  For those of you as poor at Bible trivia as me, Abishag was the young woman who used to keep the aged David warm when his health deteriorated (1 Kings 1:1-4).  The bible is quick to vouch for young Abishag’s good reputation.  It is reported that nothing untoward transpired between the two.

 

I like the idea that this boat has these two biblical referents.  We have always wondered a bit about whether we should keep “Santa Maria” as a name, since it wasn’t our choice.  Changing, however, isn’t as simple as getting a new stencil – dire omens attend a boat whose name has been changed apart from the proper protocol.  Moreover, choosing a name willy-nilly has not appealed to us, and so when we saw Abishag, we began to wonder whether we should return her to her more original name, which had been hiding under our very noses for a long time.  And so, my ever resourceful wife, took to the internet, where she found that Abishag is not an unknown name for boats.  She did observe, however, that the owners of Abishags tended to be Davids.  It was decided.  I don’t have a David bone in my body, and so, “Santa Maria” she shall remain.  I may, however, take to calling her Abishag when coaxing her through difficult shoals, something to remind me of her humble beginnings.  Underneath every saint is a servant girl or boy, doing the bidding of the king, and wondering what will come of that.

To and Fro

Yesterday afternoon my wife and I went out for our last sail of the year. It was a glorious day: the sun sang splendidly against a cerulean blue sky. Lake Ontario shimmered even though it was a little darker than its summer hue, portending winter’s approach. Soon it will be too cold to sail and so our sailing season winds down. While it is always a little sad to take down the mast in preparation for hauling out the boat, it seems a fitting task in October.

The winds yesterday were solidly out of the east and after bringing down the sail in order to motor to the marina, I set for south and the boat was just off perpendicular to the waves’ roll. A familiar feeling accompanied this: a strange kind of rocking in which it felt as if my body sloshed port and starboard at the same time. You don’t really get quite the same feeling under sail, yet it felt oddly familiar. Clearly I have had this feeling before while boating, yet the familiarity was not of that sort; not an “I remember this from last month” kind of familiarity. No, the familiarity was rather primordial. Not exactly an embryonic memory, yet more that than not.

It strikes me that this is really rather what life is sometimes like: a sloshing back and forth, a kind of moving in two directions at once. Pulled by this, pushed by that and sometimes that duality is calming and comforting – as it was for me yesterday – but sometimes it leaves me a little at loss; “at sea” as it were, and uncertain what to do, where to be, how to act because being pushed this way and that simultaneously is more than I can handle.

Strange this: sometimes a rocking motion is comforting and at other times it is uncomfortable or perhaps uncanny; a kind of eerie experience of my being tossed about in the world. Often it is marked by a loss of control that rattles my sense of well being. Yet, oddly enough, at other times being out of control gives me a paradoxical taste of freedom: since I am not ultimately in control I feel free to do what seems, what feels, what presents itself as right. Why does this sloshing, this tossing to and fro sometimes set me free, and other times unnerve me?

Likely the answer to this last question is too near to me to be seen objectively. Yet I know that when I content myself in my creature-hood I oddly find myself transcending myself, and when I want to play God, I realize I am not, and am reminded that I am dust – sometimes dust in the wind – blown about by circumstances beyond my control if not my knowledge.

The very taking down of our mast in a small way replicates this: I have no choice but to say farewell to a season, yet find the come and go of each season is a genteel reminder that ebb and flow is the way of life and death, and death and life. Each comes in its turn and with the passing over of one to the other I am reminded that it is enough to be in the hand of the One who rocks the cradle, who stays the storm, who paves this and problematizes that path.

The Other the Merrier

The mast went up on our sailboat yesterday.  My wife and I went down to Hamilton Bay in the morning, did a little more work on the mast light and main sail’s halyard.  While we were working on our boat, there were sailors drifting in and out, working on their boats and sharing requisite gibes with one another.  After a quick lunch we got the mast ready for raising by the crane, where we bumped into Paul.

Paul is a bit of a character.  He is probably one of the friendliest guys I know, with a heart of gold, and some of the strangest views about pretty much everything.  We gave Paul a hand with his mast, and he returned the favour.  Rob, Calvin and Matt stopped by.  The language was colourful, as is wont to be the case when sometimes bull-headed men debate the relative merits of a rope being on this side, or that, of this or that.  I chuckle a lot at the repartee of this rag tag community.  The best line (herein edited) went something like this:  “If we could hook this crank up to your mouth we’d get this mast up a lot quicker.”   Feel free to supply the excised expletives as you see fit, should you decide to use it yourself.

The boating community is sometimes quite quirky, and really rather diverse.  Plumber and teachers, doctors and engineers, social workers and businessmen alike gather at the marina.  A common interest draws together some otherwise utterly uncommon characters.  Being together with such a disparate community is half the fun of sailing.  But it isn’t only the difference, or the otherness of one another that makes these communities work.  We gather together around something that we have in common.  Our differences don’t exactly disappear in our common interest, but they are radically re-ordered.  Community arises in a common cause.

In an interesting way, the marina works contra the current of contemporary culture.    Our computers, to advance one example, find out what we like based on sites we visit and flavour advertisements to our presumed consumer profile.  Technology profiles us for efficiency’s sake, and in so doing upends the possibilities of bumping into advertisements, or articles, or people that are unlike us or our interests.    Many forces herd us into communities of the like-minded.

We are, in my estimation, desperately in need of occasions that introduce us to people, or ideas, or worldviews that are alien to us.  Society historically made use of many institutions to draw together disparate peoples.  This still remains true to some extent, but “the times, they are a’changin,” as the bard sings.  But it is still a gift to rub elbows with people who are different, and for that reason, interesting, if not sometimes annoying.  Of course that interaction is gift times two when it involves a boat, or a book, or a whatever.  Where are some places that you meet characters who enrich your life?