Wednesday, September 10, 2014

...in the wake of

San Francisco Bay with Angel Island and Raccoon Straits in the background, 9.5.2014

"The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.
Vladimir Nabokov



We headed toward the slip last Friday with Angel Island in our wake. The wind was steady and strong, the sky blue...a day made for sailing. Bill (with a little help from the crew) tacked and jibed and let the wind carry us home through a clear channel. The wake we left was populated with good memories of friends and food and beautiful surroundings.  

A boat can't sail directly into a headwind. She moves through the water by a series of those tacks and jibes, maneuvers that position the sails, typically with the boat steered at right angles to the wind (a beam reach) or with the wind coming from behind the boat at an angle (a broad reach). As my captain pointed out, this is a paltry "reach" list but you get my drift. (Never could pass up a good pun. Or a bad one.) NOTE: When running before the wind (or downwind), the wind is coming directly from behind. This can be problematic in the event of an accidental jibe. I dislike anything with the adjective "problematic" when I am on a boat. Ergo, I have a "no downwind" clause in my crew contract.

Storms are another matter altogether. Navigating in heavy weather requires special tactics. One of the most effective is heaving-to. The boat is positioned close to the wind and the sail is trimmed to bring the boat almost to a stop.  A breaking wave is less likely to roll her over...or to break on her.

There's much more to moving the sloop through the waves but I've already told you more than I know. From these few methods, however, life parallels can be found. Remaining still in a storm is often the best choice. Running head-on results in no gains. Changing course - wisely - is a winning move. And the wakes we leave are best populated with good will and care.

Much of life is lived in the wake of...after and because of some event.  Unlike last Friday, events can roll over us with the killer tenacity of a tsunami and their leave-taking is long and painful. So have we all lived, first in the wake of 9/11, then in the wake of our responses to that day of horror. Out of the dust and blood, anger and fear rose - from the streets of New York City, from the desert sands of Afghanistan and Iraq - and birthed a monster.

Nabakov is right. 
One event does not explain the whole anymore than a group of extremists defines a culture. 
The stark images of 9/11 haunt us just as war destroys and rips the souls of people worldwide.
As Bill says, this is a time for measured response, not kneejerk reaction,
for thoughtful engagement,
for moving forward. 


We fill our sails with purpose
Find direction in the stars
Pray the dark and deep won't hurt us
And sail with open arms
Part of us would linger by the shore
For ships are safe in harbor
But that's not what ships are for.

From "Ships" by Michael Lille and Tom Kimmel

Friday, August 15, 2014

...the thing I can't abide



Great minds discuss ideas
Average minds discuss events
Little minds discuss people

Attributed to
Eleanor Roosevelt, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover,
and that ever-wise Anonymous

Overheard, a conversation between two women, their voices unmodulated. Perhaps they thought - mistakenly - that the modern light fixture overhead was some new-fangled cone of silence. Hapless dining neighbors tried not to hear as the pair picked clean the bones of their mutual object of scorn. Once the cadaver was sent to the Morgue of Dead Conversations, the next person was rolled out. This second conversation was less attacking...along the lines of "bless her heart, you know that her husband..." What ensued was a second/third/fourth-hand public discourse on a family's sorrows.

What satisfies us, temporarily but often, to discuss/diss/diminish our fellow travelers? For starters, I don't have to look too closely at my own issues if I focus on yours. Or perhaps the dishee du jour echoes some personal unhappiness...a loss, a struggle with another's problems, a broken relationship. What remains unhealed within me festers and I'm left to pick at the scabs. I've been on both sides of the conversation and hear me: well-intentioned or satisfying know-it-all words have serious repercussions for all involved. Listening to gossip but not "participating" is akin to being a little-bit pregnant. I now say, "I"m uncomfortable with this conversation since I don't know the facts." Because a better person than I told me to say this.

Whatever sins had been committed by the lunch subject, gossip was never mentioned. Practiced at their table with pleasure and skill but never once called out as a deadly scourge. Given the proximity of the nearest table, I can attest that much of the information passed back and forth at full volume fell under dubious source headings..."so and so's neighbor heard", "my cousin's yardman said", and the ever-popular "I just bet..." and "No one has to tell me. I know..." Dicing and slicing, hashing and re-hashing, they were still at it when I left.

Now gossip has gone viral. The social media is an unholy cutting board. Lies are spread. People dissected. The old-fashioned folded newspaper has unfolded into an e-format with outrageous comments by anonymous forum trolls who attract offensive followers. How vile the creature who sent Robin William's daughter Photoshopped pictures of her father supposedly lying on a morgue table with bruises on his neck.

Words hurt. And wounded people wound. Even when I know the speaker is a damaged soul, the ripple effect of the gossip - the pleasure others take in listening, passing it forward and preaching - impacts me. Or my family. The choices are to participate or ignore. The first is just plain wrong and the second is hard. Forgiveness for all involved takes time but if I don't, the result is more pain. Your opinion of me is none of my business. You're entitled to your feelings. I'm not responsible for any one else, thank heavens. I have enough trouble with my own character defects. Here's my litmus test. When I feel compelled to go out of my way to convince others, I ask myself "Why?" If, when I'm confronted repeatedly, I ask "Why would hearing this give me pleasure?"

Is the impact of gossip worth a few minutes of malicious pleasure? Do I pass on an earlier layer of loose talk in order to justify my dislike of another person or ignore my deficits and chance that my source is as wrong as my own oh-so-good but, in fact, spiteful intentions? What am I trying to fix...and what might I ultimately destroy? Whatever personal experience exists, none among us can know the full story of another's life or the depth of someone's pain or fears. A careless chatfest is the first cousin of character assassination and lying. Oh, what a tangled web...

If I can't communicate honestly and civilly with others, if I don't demand media standards and dedicated moderators, if I seek out the lowest-common-denominator sources because they tell me what I want to hear, I'm part of the problem.

...from a United Methodist minister:
If every detail of every life were known, we could hate no one. 

Perhaps. 
But some of the hateful words I see and hear daily make this a challenge as never before.
I do know who said this...a good beginning and solid advice.

Clean around your own doorstep.
Granny and Mother


Leave the world a little better.




Sunday, July 20, 2014

...from the outside in


Mendocino coast, photograph, Celeste Bracewell, 2014


I am drawn to water’s edge. From an old journal, words that have appeared here before:
My childhood was spent in a hot humid landscape of gentle, rolling hills bordered by pine woodlands. Flat beaches of white sand, the marshes of Glynn, and ancient oaks with moss-draped branches that brushed the ground of the tranquil Georgia coast quietly seduced. But the raw, rugged beauty of distant seaside cliffs called to a young girl, a desire that hinted inexplicably of homecoming.


My first experience with such a coast was during a business trip to San Francisco in 1992...a drive into the Marin headlands over the Golden Gate. That foray would be repeated each time I returned to the city, to sit with a book - largely ignored - and banana nut bread from Sears Fine Dining to tide me over while I watched the tides below.




Then came Ireland. I became hopelessly addicted. One drive was too many and six months’ worth not enough. I lived in Kinsale near the harbor. From Cobh south to Glandore and beyond, around the Dingle peninsula, up to the cliffs of Moher, the edges called. 



Last Thursday we drove to the Mendocino coast again, turned north and traveled beside the cliffs for a while before turning inland onto the headlands. The rolling fields of sea oats are sparsely populated by a few farms and inns, coastal cypress, and clumps of redwoods. 



We arrived at the bed and breakfast exhausted. Two hours until dinner so we retired to the chairs on our small porch, to a welcome silence. Beyond the field, the marine layer bled into the sea with only a trickle of sunlight to define the distant gentle waves. After a while, I dressed for dinner. As we walked to the car, Bill commented, “You love the peacefulness of this place.” 



This peace, however, was tinged with deja vu. I’d had such moments before. Another entry in the above-mentioned journal records Madeleine L’Engles’ words which echoed my experiences: “We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn in a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.” 

The edges call, will always call...wild or peaceful, gentle or rugged. But the headlands hint of homecoming. Why? The old barns that lean against the wind remind me of delapidated south Georgia farm buildings of my youth. As do the dirt roads and sagging wood fences. A sentimental link, yes, but incomplete.

As we drove, I answered Bill’s remark. “It’s the vastness of the place. The silence.” The next morning, I woke early and watched as first light met fog.  Shapes emerged...the strand of great cypress, the water tower over the cottage and the redwoods just beyond, a clump of flowers in the center yard. Then movement as a deer emerged from the mist. 



While we ate breakfast, the fog lightened and began to recede. And as it did, an answer surfaced, the missing element. Light. Like my grandparents’ farm, the headlands are marked by the absence of artificial light. In those vast rolling fields, six hundred yards from the shore, I watched as the natural order cycled. Watched as light gave shape, colored and re-colored the landscape, traced the waves, marked the ragged edge where erosion and creation merge, then withdrew in the night fog to return again at dawn...when, each morning, the universe, with the joy of a small child, exults in “Do it again!"

I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.
Annie Dillard



Ah, Ms. Dillard, I can explain little of life and less of the universe. 
But this I know: in such light, in deep silence, my spirit listens best. 
Sometimes a hat helps.