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.     

Sinking Words

Words fall flat like stones

Across the water.

A few skips, then sink

Into the silence.

*

It should be a good thing,

Words gaining depth

Of meaning beyond

The undertow.

*

At rest in the sand

Like oysters,

Words absorb, quell,

Gather the quiet.

*

All souls like a sea,

Hold thoughts

Below the surface,

Words settle in.

On Birth. The Concept of Conception and so on. Thoughts.

In ’61, my studio apartment, called the womb, got a bit tight through no fault of my own. The force of nature pushed me out through the tunnel of love. I choked on air for a moment or two, and cried. “Here I am, now what?” The sounds of a beating heart, fluids coursing around, and a muffled voice from without was snatched away.

Her words were instantly glued to my being along with dark chocolate eyes gazing at me, the center of the universe…for a time. Such a helpless little human, but she was right there when needed. Mom. Separation anxiety lulled with lullabies. Cries displaced by coos of attachment over time. 

Honestly, I remember zero about how it all came down. I had no control over which sperm out of gazillions would hit the surface of the egg first. Choice? I definitely had none. The mess and pseudo violence of birth my Mom and I endured, well, it happened, by design. Call it destiny. Label it mystery or miracle, or both. Admit it, we all try to comprehend the science fiction feel of human inception, and come up wanting.

I wept when my children were born. All four times I wept with them, and my Barbara who bore them. It’s such a humbling and holy experience. Ask any parent. You’re most likely remembering those miracle-mystery moments right now.

Thus far intelligent design is inferred. I tried to leave God in the background. It ain’t easy when fiddling around with grandiose concepts like these. Being human was and is never our own idea, let alone conceiving another human. In view of my religious beliefs, I can’t leave all this up to chance. I’d rather take a chance on faith, than have faith in chance. Pascal’s Wager and all that.

Pascal’s wager is an argument in philosophy presented by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, theologian, mathematician and physicist, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). It posits that humans bet with their lives that God either exists or does not. Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God.” Wikipedia   

Anyhow, I’ll try to keep this tight rather than to obtusely pontificate toward ubiquity. Wait. What?

I like babies. Apparently God does too. The rescue of us came through Immaculate Conception, and a baby designed and destined to bring tidings of comfort and joy. I won’t mention the mind blowing idea of it all. All this to say that every birth quiets me down, down to take pause and become humble and grateful.

Hindsight

We’re about to look over our shoulders and attempt to frame a year which seemed like a decade. The overabundance of information has dulled its own edges. We’re left scratching our heads wondering where the truth lies. Truth lies. Hmmm.

            I really want to write with the goal of resolution. You know, tie up 2020 with a nice bow and archive it in the attic. When we hit a deer, square on, in the early hours of this disheveled year, I should have known… I shy away from giving credit to omens or karma, but we all here revert sometimes to how our year began with a synchronicity of headlights, eyes, and a doe flying over our car like a reindeer.

            A yearly update used to roll off my fingers. Well, almost yearly anyway. One thing I’ve come to grips with is the consistency of my inconsistence. This year, being one in millions, and millions, and millions, I think I’ll try to hit some bullet points–if there are any bullets left, that is.

            I don’t need to write about masks, except to say when I find them in parking lots or by the side of the road, we’ve all been wearing them out (I mean that in the broadest sense imaginable.). Social distance? May I say, we’re still going the distance? Throw in politics, protests, lockdowns, economic duress, violence, and the static electricity of media, and voila! A goulash full of goo.

            Stop! Geez Jer, you’re always holding a half empty glass of prune juice. I’m actually considering a prune juice regimen. Do they make prude juice too? Wait. What?

            Anyhow, we’ve attempted to put the fun back in our dysfunction around here, with much success. I began with laughing at myself, which is where all humor is better off birthed. Bent souls all are we with creased personalities, depending on which fold comes into view, we see to it forgiveness or gratitude is applied.  

Our family is like a stew, thick and rich with history. When everyone brings it home for the holidays, it’s like adding water. A broth gives the dysfunction freedom to float around in the soup of us. We had such a wonderful Christmas knowing this is our family, birthed, adopted, and simmered together to warm us all. What a God given grace and mercy.

            As we headed toward winter, hospice showed up. 2020 was finding it hard to breathe, think, and hang on. Let’s say there is no fun in funeral. One friend’s grandmother quietly passed away. Then my sister Ellen lost her fight with dementia. Then another friend lost his son through brain cancer.

Death is not proud, and this year, humility was summoned time and again. Our faith was needed, and the Object of it was found faithful. God holds our grief and questions. Tensions get our attention if we make space to ponder and pray over them. I’ll have to admit making space isn’t always my first choice. Who wants to feel pain and loss? Yet, whatcha gonna do, stuff or ignore it through a plethora of escape modules? Yeah, sometimes.

Then there’s the two of us. Barbara and me, navigating this year closer than ever. We always discuss about being on the same page and what that looks like. We admit our differences–more as time passes. Barbara, boots on the ground, verbal processor, queen of diplomacy, and observer of the wide array of the world’s offerings. Me? Well, I continue to internally ponder, ten feet off the ground, and twenty paces away. My non-verbal processor looks for ways to button up thoughts, and find that the button fell off in the wash. Kinda like 2020.

I gotta say though, we are more we than we ever were. (Can I buy a vowel?)  I’m super thankful for all the grace God has dumped on us. Mercy too. Oh, how we need both! Our goal is to finish well, and grow until our time is up. I love her deeply.

A few more words to wrap up, button up, and then buckle up, because you never know when a deer might make a run for it.

Can I say it now?

“Hindsight is 2020.”

Cliché perfecto.

Listen, as we drive further into 2021, if we make space for it, our rearview mirror will eventually frame the most poignant events.

I pray the good, the true, and the beautiful will manifest in all our lives. I hope the two greatest commandments will be housed in our hearts this year… Love God, and love our neighbor.

Happy New Year!

My verse of the year: “Come unto me…” Jesus  Matthew 11:28

Green, Grass, Outdoor, Nature, Trees

Jesus Wept

This was the writing prompt I found:

In order to grow, I feel I need to…

            Cry.

            That’s all. Simple. I’d John 11:35 it. Jesus didn’t cry though. He wept according to some versions of biblical text. One short sentence. Two words. Jesus wept. Period. Full stop.

In order to grow, I feel I need to…

            Weep.  

            Weeping seems like more of a holistic release. A slow burn. Letting the tears fall where they may. Instead of blood-letting—tear letting, as it were. Slit those ducts open and let it rip.

            Fill in the blank: _______ wept.

            I used to cry quite a bit, back in the day, before pain, hurt, and loss weren’t thrown into an everlasting pyre and minimized as “life is difficult”– nothing to feel here. What the… How in the world?

“Have a heart,” they say.

“Do I have a heart?” I ask.

My as-sigh-nment this week from my counselor is to sit with the pain. What pain? Which pain? I’ve been to pain and back many times. Haven’t you?

Wait.

Sit.

Jerry, sling your memories over your shoulder as best you know how. Gather up your humanity and come down to the river. Be brave and vulnerable. I’ll help you unpack it. You know how people say “I laughed until I cried.” It works both ways, you know. You’ve said over the years “tears lubricate the soul”. You’ve stopped taking your own medicine. Your heart is broken, but not broken open. I Am a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. I’ll sit with you by the river as long as it takes. I want to replace the stony parts of your heart and give you a heart of flesh. Do you want a heart like that?  

  

“He leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.” Psalm 23

  

Going and Coming

Never-never mind

the wherewithal.

The acuity wanes,

searching soul-level

perceptions.

Blank stares burning

focal points down.

Unfinished sentences

atrophy further

into the silence.

Their memories left

for us to curate.

We place warm dignity

over the frontal lobes.

Our prayers shape

around a long farewell.

We know them,

and they knew us.

Let us come as close

as we can.

For Ellen, Nathanial, and Oma and all who love them.

“God, my shepherd!

I don’t need a thing.

You have bedded me down in lush meadows,

you find me quiet pools to drink from.

True to your word,

you let me catch my breath

and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through

Death Valley,

I’m not afraid

when you walk at my side

Your trusty shepherd’s crook

makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner

right in front of my enemies.

You revive my drooping head;

Your beauty and love chase after me

every day of my life.

I’m back home in the house of God

for the rest of my life.”

Psalm 23 The Message

The Hippie of the Long Gray Hair

On my way into the store for dog food and sour cream I stopped and took in the last call of the sun. You know, when the magnifying glass of the horizon burnishes the great circle before it drops below the surface. A man was trying to capture the image with his phone a few spaces over. Futile. I thought of Elton John.

“Don’t let the sun go down on me.”

Isn’t it funny how the greatest metaphors are so easily dismissed, or just missed? Lately, when the sun is a bit weary and heads under the covers, I think of my sister Ellen (The oldest hippie I know.). She sundowns every evening. Jack, her husband, texts me updates a few times a day. More like downdates after supper. Sundowning is a term attached to people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Sundowning turns my sister from forgetful half sentences (Of which no two fragmental sentences cohere.) to an obstinate curmudgeon. Curmudgeoness?

When dementia began defacing Ellen’s brain at a more rapid pace earlier this year, it was time to get more help.

“Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!”

Her kids, my siblings, gave Jack some respite. Needless to say it’s a lotta work to manage a person who can no longer manage. Applause and thanks go out to all!

So, I found myself in the same living room that held my mother sitting in a lazy boy wondering who I was. It’s been almost ten years ago. The other day I stopped by to visit Ellen and sat across from her on the same couch. She says I’m still her boy. I’ll put that in my pocket!

Don’t cry Mare, this was your idea!

The crazy thing about this dementia is the teeter-totter aspect of it. Like my other sister (Mare) said it’s like Ellen doesn’t just become like a little child. In fact, as I’ve observed, a stutter step of doing life took over. Stubborn and snarky. Frustrated and fun. Up, then down. Jack texts me often…”She’s back!” As we come and go, she doesn’t know if she’s coming or going.

“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.”

Ellen, the hippie of the long gray hair. Those who love her pluck the petals of she loves me, she loves me not. Mostly, Jack wonders what petal is it today, this hour, this moment?

“Love, love me do. You know I love you.”

For now, we who know Ellen hold on to her memory for her. I’ll remember for her the time I jumped on her like a flying squirrel after a long absence. I was just a kid, but the memory is as fresh as dew. Like I said somewhere else, round and round her memory goes, but this time it spins out of control. The centrifugal force peels her fingers off the stories which once were milestones of her identity. We do what we can but still feel…

“helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m still calling her Ellen, we all are, for good reason. Her spirit, soul, and body are still spouting her humanity. It’s her mind that has wandered off because her brain keeps misfiring. C.S. Lewis once stated “We don’t have a soul. We are a soul. We happen to have a body.” I wonder if God sent most of her mind on ahead to scope out heaven and left little half thoughts with us to try to decipher. Easy there Jer.

“It’s a long and winding road to your heart.”

The other day I walked in, grabbed the reaching tool thingy, you know, the one with the trigger you pull, and on the other end it clasps things you can’t get at. Anyway, Ellen was wearing her winter hat with the ball on top. She kinda looked like a cone-head. I grabbed the ball with the tool and lifted up the hat to check under the hood as it were. She smiled. I smiled back. Such a simple thing. Showing teeth. Curling the mouth. Revealing dimples. I’m sure Jack would tell you it’s the little things that hot-wire hope in the midst of hopelessness. Small gifts.

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, life goes on, Bra.”

I don’t know what a bra has to do with it, but life is going on, even in the small significant world of Ellen and Jack and attendants. I believe a Big God sees what’s going on there. Ever present, maybe a bit more present when worship music fills their little living room. God isn’t watching from a distance.

Back to the sundown metaphor and how it reminds me of Ellen. How about this? The sun can’t set without getting up there first. Up. Down. Just like the hippie of the long gray hair. Life.

Sure,

“Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away.”

But,

“Here comes the sun, do and do do.”

This has become a song that reminds me of Jack and Ellen

Up There

Maneuvered by metaphor,

sashayed with clichés,

I looked up and it was still there,

that sun pasted between

a cobalt wall

with translucent clouds

brushing in the fore.

A golden pill hung

before I ever was

and hanging still

when my blip bleeps its last.

I relish every age spot

given by its graces,

and return its due

respect after

tender shoulders

absorb aloe vera.

A light by which

I see.

A warmth by which

I feel.

A presence by which

I love.

The Heights of Humility

Recently, I went to the mountains in Colorado. The camp was nestled at 8600ft. It took my breath away in all respects. Such grandeur. The day before I returned to Michigan, a group of us decided to go to the crosses another 1500 feet up. Three crosses mounted on a bluff of the mountain begged attention. I thought of what I might say when and if I got there. “I’m the king of the world!” De’Caprio

Well, after taking many breaks to catch my breath I reached the desired summit. My my my… How I was humbled. Words were few and I felt adequately small. This was a holy moment, and I felt a bit more whole. There is something, someone way bigger than me, and it was okay.

It was as if God was saying, “I got you. I Am mysterious and majestic, and I see you.”

This was more than a bucket list check-mark. This was transformation. Such mercy and grace. I felt much of my abandonment issues melt away.

As I looked at the three crosses I thanked God for putting skin in the game.