Looking out across an unfrozen yet still icy-cold salt pond, a boat goes by. I’m reminded of times on the water in winter. Such times make it supremely clear what is always there when we leave dry land: the realization that this reflective, undulating surface we cross not only buoys us up, acts as the mode and reason for our being there, it also another kind of boundary. Unlike on a warm summer’s day, or in our times on land, where the fact of our mortality and the thinness of what maintains us on this side of that barrier is easy to forget, here it is always there, in the back of our minds, in the chill rising up from its surface. If we fall in, we are dead.
It’s counter intuitive that so many of us should seek our recreation and dearly sought pleasure in a place, and in a way, that holds us to such an intimacy with the surface of our mortality. I’m not sure how it helps, but many, if not all our forms of recreation do, in some way, put us at risk. Or, at least within contemplation of our fragile state. This holds as well for sitting on a couch reading or watching media – remember sitting kills! – as it is for mountain climbing or doing Jager-shots in Vegas.
I find myself often returning to the primacy of the boat as a vessel of transformation. In a recent conversation Christian Ford and I agreed that every contact we have with boat is telling. That 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 and 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 and discussing what they mean to us; all these contacts are compelling. They call us to acknowledge what we do not know and then to go on to act within a dynamic relationship between what we perceive and what is there. I keep coming back to 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 in a way that is so clear and at the same time so enjoyable and not without some reasonable expectation that such a confrontation with reality will not simply 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 – instead of the contingency of what we perceive as what we must do – and a sense that what we are doing matters. It is paradoxical that 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 the accumulation of conditioning that has brought us on this day to have to spend our time in this particular way – say filling out TPI Reports – traps us 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.
This is paradoxical, that something the work-a-day world insists is a silly and expensive distraction from what is “serious,” we find such a conduit and connection to our wellsprings; but so it is.
Meaning is carried by boats, just as they carry us. Meaning is transfixed within boat, just as it is – if we could see it – in life itself.
As challenging as it is to work on boats and so embody meaning into our lives, 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. Transition from being locked into the forms demanded by our conditioning, forms whose hold on us extend back beyond our first memories and which are embodied 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 do it by simply following directions. A Boat – a real boat, and yes there is a difference! – is the culmination of the attention and care brought to its formation by those involved. Building a boat is a practice, an interrogation of reality. 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 held before us in its design we need to coordinate these elements. We do so by 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. This is the surface of our not knowing.
The building of a boat is the playing-out of a series of interlocking and intertwined mysteries. Around it all is that fog of perception alluded to by the submariner’s creed. At each point, from deciding on its form, through lofting, and on to the last detail of a boat’s construction; we face these, our only certainties:
I do not know.
I cannot be certain.
Whatever accuracy I may achieve is hard-won.
It is easily lost through the smallest lapse in my attention later.
By facing these constraints honestly, with sincerity – as if our life mattered – we find a way to be involved in the creation of a wonder! The result sings back at us in each day’s labors and will reside in each surviving remnant of that boat’s fabric until they have all worn away to dust, or there are no people left to see it. – Another hint re: real boats. They have a life span. They are brought forth. They live and then 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; but it is a sobering responsibility in the way 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 objects that has the potential and the scope to meet these 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 objects are poor at carrying their meaning well. Art objects remain in the realm of “uselessness.” This is not a disparagement. It is a recognition that when grappling with meaning so directly we would be overburdened to expect to also force upon the results some expected utility.
Somehow boats float across this divide with an effortless buoyancy. Just as they do, on a frigid winter’s day, carry us across the icy surface of the sea, reflecting back on us the surface of our mortality.
These aspects of the boat are intertwined and interwoven, as are all of its elements and avenues of meaning. In this way they are truly vessels of transformation and that transformation is of our very natures, of our selves, and how we see ourselves and the world.
This is quite a burden one might think! This is why we build them strong, with so much care. This is why we love them so. Why we do not see them as mere objects but some hybrid living thing.
We bear them at their launchings and they bear us on our journeys.