The Surface of Mortality

Shallop Sheets Plymouth Bay

Looking out across an unfrozen yet still icy-cold salt pond, a boat goes by, reminding me of times on the water in winter. Winter sailing makes one thing supremely clear. Every time we leave dry land there is a realization that this reflective, undulating surface not only buoys us up. It is how and why we are there. It’s also another kind of boundary. Unlike a warm summer’s day, or on land, where the fact of our mortality, the thinness of what maintains us on this side of that barrier, is so easy to forget. Here it is ever-present, in the back of our minds, in the chill rising from its surface. This realization is hard to forget. If we fall in. We are dead.

It’s counter intuitive so many of us seek recreation and dearly-won pleasure in a place, and in a way, that holds us to an intimate contact with the surface of our mortality. I’m not sure how it helps, but many, if not all our recreations do this, in some way. Put us at risk. Or, at least provide a contemplation of our mortal state. This holds as well for sitting on a couch reading or watching media – sitting kills! As it is true of mountain climbing or doing Jager-shots in Vegas….

I find myself often returning to the primacy of boat as a vessel of transformation. In a recent conversation Christian Ford and I agreed that every contact we have with boat is telling. In every possible relation to boat we are drawn to some form of connection with the interrelatedness of all aspects of what it means to be alive, how we might navigate the seas of life with nothing more than our inadequate perceptions and our propensity for illusions. Contact with boats; building them, sailing them, seeing them, even just thinking about them, discussing what they mean to us; all these we find compelling. They call us to acknowledge what we do not know. They go on to give us a dynamic relationship between our perceptions and what-is. It reminds me of the submariner’s creed.

Say not, “This is the Truth!” but “So it seems to me to be as I now see the things I think I see.”

So few things put us into this relationship with the world. Doing so in a way that is so clear, so enjoyable. Yet holding out some potential that our forays may overwhelm us, kill us, sink us outright.

We seek recreation, to be created anew, in situations that bring us into connection with the fonts of our joy. Removing us from the flurry of contingency of what we must do. A sense that what we are doing here matters.

It is paradoxical. While engaged in so-called necessary work we are so often alienated form any sense that what we are doing means anything. That it matters. The confusion resulting from an accumulation of conditioning that has brought us on this day to feel we have to spend our time in this particular way, say filling out TPI Reports. We can feel trapped in a muddle of incoherence. Our engagement with boat, even the most preliminary musings in that direction, have an immediate effect on us. We are buoyed by the prospect. Without having to analyze it, we are aware that here we are alive. Here we confront life with meaning.

Boats carry meaning. Just as they carry us. Meaning is transfixed within boat. Just as it is – if we could recognize it – in life itself.

As challenging as it is to work on boats. It is nigh impossible to just jump out of the day-to-day without any transition and work on our lives directly. Not only would this be exceedingly difficult. It holds an expectation that we should be able to “jump out of our skin at will.” Life, and its meaning, only exist within the forms we inhabit. Transitions from being locked into the forms demanded by our conditioning, forms whose hold on us extend back beyond our first memories and which are embedded in all the institutions and structures of our lives, would be impossible without some thread to follow, to lead us to some other way of being.

We cannot learn to build boats by simply reading about it. We cannot build a boat by simply following instructions. A Boat – a real boat, and yes there is a difference! – is the culmination of the attention and care brought to its formation. Building a boat is a practice. An interrogation of reality. In a plan we are confronted with the equivalent of a score. A recording of a series of intentions and suggestions onto paper. To this, we bring a gathering together of materials and the strength of our bodies and the sharpness of our tools. We also bring a growing realization that to fulfill the promise in its design we need to coordinate all these elements. Harnessing all our past experiences; of other boats, of tools, materials, and also of any situation in which what could be is not strictly trapped within the mechanical replication of some formulaic recipe. – Hint, this is a sign of the difference between a real boat and a simulation….

This amounts to a confrontation with the unknown.

We face a transparent, translucent, reflecting, and undulating surface – akin to that surface of mortality that is the surface of the sea itself.

We confront the surface of our not-knowing.

The building of a boat disentangles a series of interlocking and intertwined mysteries.

Around it all is the fog of perception alluded to in the submariner’s creed.

At each point, from deciding on its form, through lofting, and on to hewing the last detail of its construction; building a boat we face our only certainties:

I do not know.

I cannot be certain.

Whatever accuracy I may achieve is hard-won.

Easily lost in the slightest lapse in attention.

Facing these constraints squarely, with sincerity. Acting as if our life mattered, as well as being at stake with the result. We fare involved in the creation of a wonder!

The boat sings back at us. In each day’s labors this song resides. It will remain in each surviving remnant of the boat’s fabric until it has all worn away to dust. Or, there is no one left to recognize it.

Real boats have a life span. They are brought forth. They live. They return to the earth from which they came to feed new growth.

Building a boat is a tremendous responsibility. Not only in a risk-of-life-and-limb sort of way, like forging weapons or concentrating poisons. It is a sobering responsibility. It carries, or fails to carry, our sense of meaning. The possibilities of what is possible. The way a poem, a song, a sculpture, or a painting does.

I cannot think of another category of useful objects with this potential. With this scope of possibilities to meet the responsibilities we reflect onto them. Or anything else which can so buoyantly transport us across the customary divides between “useful objects” and the products of art.

Most useful things are poor at carrying meaning. Art remains in the realm of uselessness. Not a disparagement. A recognition that grappling with meaning directly would overburden utility.

Boats float across this divide with their effortless buoyancy. Just as they do, on a frigid winter’s day, carry us across the icy surface of the sea, reflecting the surface of our mortality back to us.

The boat intertwines its elements and avenues of meaning. Boats are truly vessels of transformation. Transformation is in their very natures. Helping us to see our selves. They inflect how we see our world.

This is quite a burden! It’s why we build them strong, with so much care.

Why we love them so.

Why we don’t see them as mere objects but as hybrid, living creatures.

We bear them at their launchings.

They bear us on our journeys.

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