In the past I had likened life and time, a lifespan, my journey, to a trail. Many are the poets and songsmiths that have called it The Road. The Path it’s called in real Zen (i.e. not Armchair zen). So too, a voyage on a ship, charting one’s course, to set sail, all have found their proper places in the prosaic. These things rang true to me for my first few lives.
Similes to ships seem fitting in so many ways. One is the captain of one’s own ship, and one needs to set one’s heading and plan a destination. The boat can represent a physical body or a spiritual vessel in or on which you transit cradle to grave. It can be used to illustrate tremendous responsibility, and demonstrate what it means to let it run aground or to be asleep at the wheel. It can exemplify perspective, delineating the perimeters which should never be surrendered, simultaneously reminding us that a great wide world exists just on the other side of that thin hull. A world considerably larger and more powerful than you and your little boat. One does not sail through a hurricane. One prays through the tempest, and lives or dies at the mercy of Mother Earth and the ancient oceans from which we emerged. “The sea is so large, and my boat is so small.” There are a few other useful lessons available under the boat-driving brand of philosophy, not the least of which is (depending on what kind of boat) that under some circumstances, it is difficult or impossible to run the boat alone. (And under almost all circumstances, sailing is better with a mate or two.)
Most of the boat-speak still suits my taste. Particularly the part about the sea being several million or billion or trillion times your size. A tiny iceberg sank the infamous Titanic. I mean, it was as big as the Empire State Building, but for icebergs it was a bantamweight, and if you calculated its size as a percentage of all the glacial masses on Earth it would be a hundred zeroes followed by a one.
Now here’s where my divergence lies within these philosophical premises. The ideas about being the captain and responsible for your boat and your crew and setting your course and all that. Well, the Titanic had aboard a well-trained and skilled crew, and a seasoned captain. No knock on them. It was an accident, and that’s why we have the word. But even a full and skilled crew cannot ensure protection against every threat the world might send your way. And sailing a ship on the high seas or the great lakes or the reservoir is a deliberate act within your control. You can set a course, turn the tiller, raise the sails. You can monitor the compass and the wind. There are forces like Trade Winds and ocean currents with which you must deal, but pretty much you sail across the pond, large or small.
As my philosophies aged like cheeses and fermented like wines, I began to understand that life is much more a river than a sea. (I did sneak in a couple of good similes there.) And we don’t so much pilot a powerboat on this river, but rather sort of raft down it. Personally, I prefer to think of myself as something of a Tom Sawyer, poling my way to adventure. There are, of course, responsible adult ways to ply the river in canoes and kayaks. The point is: the river is always moving.
Yes, you can argue that there are currents in the oceans, or that there are tidal rivers which flow back and forth in opposite directions following the tides. But if you go around with that kind of attitude I bet you won’t get invited to a lot of parties at my house.
My metaphoric river carries me. If I stop paddling, I keep moving. I can zig-zag across the river. I can paddle with the current and move at twice the speed of the water’s flow. I can fall asleep, or daydream, or faint or even die I suppose and that river is just going to keep on flowing isn’t it? Now you’re not ever going to get that from a path, road, trail or anything else that you are required to follow and physically pursue.
I can rest. I can heal. I can be sick for days or go on a drunken binge and that river is going to keep right on carrying me. And whether I paddle with zeal or sprawl in a stupor, I will be brought to the places where the river chooses to flow. Brought to the places the river needs to bring me. Buoyed and wrapped in her caress, the moving water will bring me to where I need to be.
Since clearing the ice pack, we’ve had fairly good sailing to the south. Inspections revealed some considerable damage caused by being iced in, but nothing that will sink us. Moored several months for repairs, the crew was eager to be underway and have benefitted greatly from the warmer air and sunshine. Still encountering a lot of fog this far north, but currents bear us for now toward more favorable climes. It is in the hearts of the crew the greatest changes have occurred. Frozen in, there was nothing to do but pass the time, and soon they fell into their own doldrums, making the motions of the living, but with the eyes of zombies. For a considerable time after we were first underway, they were compelled to keep looking back at the sheet as if it were stalking them. It was out of sight more than a full day before the light returned to their eyes and they could finally believe that one of the longest and most arduous times of our sojourn was truly over. The following day they lingered in the galley and drank too much, and sang. It is the first in many, many months that I have heard voices lifted in song, merriment and celebration. I was moved to tears to hear their joy. “What were they celebrating?”, you may ask. Life.