Ballast and Bilge

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.     

Thanks for your time and thoughts.

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