I don’t have a nautical nerve in me, so what gives me the right to write about boat schtuff? I watched a movie! In the film, Hide Away, this city dude with an unknown trauma takes a sabbatical and buys a sailboat in northern Michigan. The boat is in disrepair. For an hour and a half (movie time) he fixes up the trashed innards, and sands the deck (by hand), and stains it. But the main fix to make the jalopy seaworthy is repairing the bilge pump and getting the motor running.
A decade ago, maybe two, I wrote a poem for a friend about sailing. I looked up terms, boat parts and such. I checked phrases that I had heard, like hoisting the jib or battening down the hatches. You know, clichés tossed around by novices. Then I glued them together in rhyming fashion and put the poem out to sea. I gotta find where that poem sailed off to.
Anyway, on to ballasts and bilge. If I had never heard the words before I’d equate ballast with boisterous laughing and bilge with chewing tobacco spew.
Ballast is a weight or counter-weight to maintain balance, or a way of lightening a load. Ever see a movie where the crew of a boat would start throwing stuff overboard (ballast) during a storm? They’d toss more than their cookies to keep the craft floating on top of the crests rather than plunging through them. Each time a wave sprayed over the bow, more water found its way to the bilge.
The bilge is basically where the two sides of the boat meet at its bottom spine. Some of the water which splashes on deck will meander to the bilge; gravity, doing its thing. The pump, an underwater, self-contained motor, serves to keep the bilge from filling. You know, water is supposed to be outside of the vessel, or blub, blub, blub to the bottom.
The movie Hide Away, is not for those looking for action on the high seas. It’s no Jack Sparrow flick. The camera doesn’t shake and blip from one frame to another. In fact, Josh Lucas’s piercing blue eyes are often up close, as if he is staring right through you. Put another way, his eyes become the portals that allow the viewer into the squall of his soul. As movies do, foreshadowing comes in fits and starts as he remembers the trauma that landed him in an isolated harbor.
Ballast can be added or subtracted, like in a submarine to regulate depth. Sometimes it is used to right a ship by moving weight from one side to the other. The other day I asked my wife what has helped her the most in personal growth, adding or subtracting? What I meant was loading ballast or tossing ballast. She didn’t hesitate…subtraction.
It makes sense. We downsized considerably on our last move, which took me the better part of a year to empty two storage units of excess. I won’t mention the example of weight gain and loss…taboo.
But let’s talk metaphorical or metaphysical ballasts. Six decades of living can add baggage that is often ignored or schlepped on our backs without a wink. We get used to how we carry ourselves and shout “forward, ho!” Ideas like regret, grief, and loss pile up if we haven’t shown them their due respect. These weights pull on us when life’s swells and troughs rock our worlds.
A wave of betrayal slams us. A valley of injustice gives us this sinking feeling. Sometimes, the everyday washboard waves of bad self-talk. “You’re always…You never…”
We can’t go it alone. The sooner we realize the need for others, the better.
“But humans are the reason my suitcase is so full; that bulging ballast,” I’d tell myself. “I had to sit my fat arse… Ahem, I really had to work to get it zipped up.”
Listen, I’m a human too. I’m part of the problem. If you want a good dose of this, try marriage or parenting. But the ballasts of human interaction go both ways. Put another way…
“Humans; can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”
There’s a fine line between codependence and interdependence. We pile it on each other, and as we mature, God willing, we help each other lighten loads. It takes work to get to the point of saying, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” and extending forgiveness ourselves.
Grace and mercy are needed. Lord knows.
This is where the bilge pump comes in. Down in the bowels of the boat a little motor is displacing unwanted water, unnoticed, until it malfunctions or can’t keep up with the volume. Sometimes, I think our rescue is in the dark, stowed away places of our soul. Parker Palmer alluded to this by the title of one of his books A Hidden Wholeness.
Our inner life is the key, in the holds of our souls when the high seas slosh us around. Pay a bit more attention the next time a wave crashes over the bow of your boat. Death, injury, loss of job, illness, and etcetera, slam into us and if our inner selves don’t know how to displace trauma rising in our depths, we begin to sink. Displace trauma? What I mean is the ability to sort through it and know what to toss; own personal responsibility, and let go of unnecessary weights.
Let me be clear. I’m not a counselor or expert, I’m simply processing. So, I might be foundering in my own thoughts, but, hey, I’m trying to hoist the jib and batten down some hatches.
I’ll end with this…
Jesus slept. Not Jesus wept. Just so happens he was sleeping in a boat with his crew, the disciples, while crossing the Sea of Galilee. (Mark 4:35-41) A fierce storm came up, the story goes, and the men, many of them seasoned fisherman, started panicking. The waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water. And Jesus slept on, his head on a cushion. It took some shouting to get him up.
Can you imagine waking up from a deep sleep to yelling, waves crashing, and water pouring into the boat? I can’t. Jesus then rebuked the storm and rebuffed the disciples. To be exact, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
The disciples, stunned, said something like, “Wait. What? Who is this man? Even the wind and waves obey him.”
I know I’m pushing it to cram Jesus into a ballast and bilge metaphor. But what are meta’s for? The great Meta narrative is our inner life. Whether we attend to the secret places or not, they are the rudders of influence. In my Christian spirituality Christ becomes the accoutrements of a worthy vessel on the high seas. There are many inferences in the gospels and other biblical texts which put Jesus smack dab in the middle of things.
I dare say He is the bilge pump, pumping out regrets, losses, and a myriad of other things that find their way to the bottom of our souls. He also directs, if we ask, which ballasts need to be moved, removed, or added. He will give wisdom, discernment, and understanding if we ask.
Sometimes it’s through others. Maybe angels unaware. Often a scripture lights up and helps me change my attitude and aptitude. I don’t mean to scuttle this essay with religious haptics, no. Last time I checked our inner lives are absolutely spiritual. I find it interesting that when a ship goes down and people perish the record tells how many souls are lost. Hmmm.
C.S. Lewis said once we are not bodies that have a soul, but souls that have a body.
In the end of the movie the main character came to a resolution to carry on. He dealt with the ballasts in his life as best he could, and was able to get much of the water out of the bilge of his soul. Honestly, I was disappointed at how the movie ended. I think I literally said, “What the…” I couldn’t figure out what just happened, but I was immersed in mulling it over the next week or so and here lay my thoughts.
Big trees fell into Lake Michigan over and upon each other like pickup sticks. The beach became a trimmed path to wend down more than to lay on. What happened when I was so busy inland mowing my lawn? So much for long walks on the beach. It was more like an obstacle course, hiking around large upended stumps or limbo lumbering underneath thick trunks.
A bit overwhelmed, I found a perch part way up on a dune. The kids had invited me along to do some hammocking. Yes, that’s a thing now. Hammocking isn’t really a word yet. Auto- correct suggested ‘ham mocking.’ Next Easter I will try mocking the honey ham. Anyway, my kids dug their toes in and continued to the top, while I sat and pondered the plight of our most favored lake of the greats.
Is this simply another sign of the times? Is this…
I don’t remember the day I was born, do you? But ask any mother about the day her child was born and she will be glad to fill you in.
(Imagine a New York accent.) “Little Johnny came on a rainy Wednesday. Oh yah, he gave me the fits for eleven hours. Johnny just didn’t have a clue as to how to get outta there, so I pushed him! I’ve been pushing him ever since. But anyway, his arm was up over his noggin, the doctor said, so a puny thumb flipped out first like a hitch hika. The Doc fumbled around so only his head was crowning and all. That hurt like a bugga! The good thing was it helped me forget my husband was layin on the floor out cold. He lost it when a nurse handed him a soiled towel to throw in the linen basket. Geez…
Recently, a friend who was slogging through a deep grief, shared some sermons with me. It caught me off guard, because our conversations during walks or coffee doesn’t usually come to specific points. We usually wander around ideas of faith and philosophy with with subtle ambiguity, and a spritz of a wry humor following close behind.
The sermons were buoyed by poignancy, and filled with slicing truths. What I mean by that is the preacher didn’t play patty-cake with God, but held the tension of life close to his heart. He shared his ubiquitous tight-wire between his pain and peace, failure and flourishing, mourning and comfort. Yet those tensions didn’t excuse him or me from taking action.
They had the effect of a simmered stew of Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, with Psalms of seasoning sprinkled in.
Quite honestly, when a sermon comes to a close with pragmatic faith choices, as I believe they should, hives appear on my soul. I stubbornly scratch and scratch wishing I hadn’t heard the application points. I suppose it might be the Romans seven syndrome. The Apostle Paul’s word toss. “I do what I don’t want to do, and that which I want to do, I don’t.” Romans 7:15 The old do-do dance I know all too well. But often it is more than that, the floating around conclusions, the avoidance in the void is the road I most travel.
“It’s how I do, Lord.”
“Really, Hmmm. Come out onto the floor. Let Me show you some different moves.”
“But God, look at me! Two left feet time and time again.”
“You do know the music is going to stop eventually, right?”
“Well, standing, back against the wall, isn’t using the music to its fullest.”
When there’s a possible “out” or a way of loosening a grip on “my baggage,” stubbornness rises up and I stiff-arm God. We get used to our carry-ons don’t we?
Back to my friend. Any other person sharing sermons with me wouldn’t have the same effect. But his current state of raw grief coaxed an expectation on my mind and heart.
He is ripped open, receive what has spoken to his wounds.
As I listened to one sermon, then another, a vulnerability rose to the surface, and like a steroid shot, began healing the hives. Honestly, I was a bit rattled. Scared of commitment. Afraid of relationship, especially with God. I know. I know. God is love. God so loved. John 3:16. But my experience has its influence on me to the contrary. I’ve pinballed my way through Christianity…hitting bumper after bumper with a reactive-attachment when it comes to God.
In one of the sermons the preacher talks about ‘getting over it.’ At first what seemed like an avoidant approach, an end-around of sorts, turned into ‘getting through it’ to ‘get over it.’ Get it all out on the table. Or—Get out on that dance floor while the music is still playing.
I guess the conclusion is I can’t dance holding the baggage or stiff arming the invitation.
My verse of this year (partial verse, I should say) is “Come unto Me.”
Did you know the first miracle of Jesus was at a wedding? Water to wine. Finer wine. I think there might have been some dancing. Isn’t it funny how the music lasts to the end? Even when the chairs and the gifts are put away there are a few hold outs on the floor begging for one more song.
There is a base camp. Tucked in the foothills. Nestled, as it were, in sight of the mountain peaks, frosted and ominous above the tree line. Cleft in view of the valleys where shadows are as much of the landscape as those protrusions which birth them. This is the base camp of the soul. A place carved out of the bustle of life with its highs and lows, the EKG existence of trying to establish a baseline.
I don’t live in the Sierra Nevada’s. I’m in Michigan. In each house we’ve lived in, I’ve staked out my claim. One time it was under the basement stairs. Another, a corner of the living room. Once I had an office—a luxury for sure. The desire was for place. A setting in which the heart was heard. My own. The department of the interior.
Reading, writing, and arrhythmia. A bible and a journal are always nearby. Sometimes I read out loud when my wandering mind is flooded with the tasks of the day. Poets, dead or alive, are given their due honor. Essayists flesh out ideas like a Rueben…little bites of thought to chew on. But when the basecamp is warm, lit just enough to see what open heart procedure is needed, that is when God attends.
I’m finding over the past few years all that is needed is a space, a place to give opportunity for the interior life to be checked and nurtured. Maybe you’ve figured this out already. In the end, the heart of the matter is the heart of the matter.
“Guard your heart, above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” Proverbs 4:23
Do a biblical search on the word heart, and you’ll see the place of prominence of which it is given. God thinks our interior is important.
Take in this little ditty I read yesterday.
“God signifies an alternative impulse – to sacrifice rather than grab, to love rather than lust, to give rather than take, to pursue truth rather than promote lies, to humble oneself rather than inflate the ego. In all creation the hand of God is seen; in every human heart, in a blade of grass as in great trees and mountains and rivers; in the first stirring of life in a foetus and in the last musings and mutterings of a tired mind.” Malcolm Muggeridge
After I read that I was reminded of a Wendell Berry poem.
Thirty More Years
When I was a young man,
grown up at last, how large
I seemed to myself! I was a tree,
tall already, and what I had not
yet reached, I would yet grow
to reach. Now, thirty more years
added on, I have reached much
I did not expect, in a direction
unexpected. I am growing downward,
smaller, one among the grasses.
Wendell Berry from Entries
These dudes knew. They had a base camp, I know it. Now, think of someone you know, famous, or in your circle of friends. You can pick out the basecamp people, can you not? There’s something. A lowness, a humility, a longer attention span maybe. All characteristics I long for.
Jesus often left the crowds for the “lonely places” yet he was never alone. The department of the interior was high on the priority list. If Jesus, why not me?