They said ‘Everyone has to go to sea and so everyone needs a boat’.
It wasn’t always this way.
In the early days you floated free with no ideas about boats and the sea was soft whispers away. You just ‘were’ – cradled in a trust beyond words. Time was a distant rumour in your nurtured space.
But on the first day at sea-school all you could see were hundreds of shiny, dusty, strange or rickety boats . And lots of older people walking round them fussing and giggling or looking really serious and struggling to leave their little boats behind for the first time. And there you were alone in your boat floating on the edge of the group uncertain of the sea even as it smiled at you.
In the early days you spent hours watching the boats twisting and blurring in front of you while you struggled with your oars. Sometimes you just drifted with no particular direction. This wasn’t so much a rebellion as a sort of soft resentment at having to row at all. Who are you rowing for anyway? Does it matter if you get there? Who’ll know even if you do?
The other boats looked really shiny to you. You wondered how they got that way. It was a mystery to you how these other boats were able to keep going: you reasoned it must’ve been the people bringing them in every day. Or maybe the others were just more gifted, more focused. As soon as they hit the water they were away with the wind while you struggled to keep your oars together let alone move them in the same direction.
But then you started noticing that there were other boats behind you, some of them spinning around in circles, others close to sinking while others moved to the right or the left and then disappeared never to be seen again. No one spoke about them but you worried that this would happen to you. All you knew was that your boat floated alone on some drifting meandering course of its own. The more you thought about it the more you veered to the left: the more you worried what others thought the more you drifted to the right. What kept you going was the emergence of something called your will whose main job it was to keep your oars together and move on.
As the moon filled out you reflected that you did not much like your boat. You compared it to others and found it lacking. You did not care to compete as you disdained prizes you were never sure you could win. But your rebellion was based less on your own ideas and more on an uncomfortable quiet anxiety about whether you could ever belong.
Over time the sea grew around you and the horizon began to fill out with many more boats bobbing, drifting, rushing around you. Where were they going? Could you join them?
Your will tried to take charge and gradually you gained a little knowledge and started to move hesitatingly on a course you began to hope might be your own. And soon, without so much as openly acknowledging them, you rowed alongside others in a loose association based on half-smiles and habit. This vague grouping stared follow courses similar to yours. You took faith in seeing how they struggled too. Something like confidence began to edge its way into you. Soon you took enough encouragement to begin journeys of your own.
By the time sea school was over you looked down on the boat and felt a gently emerging pride in what you saw. Your boat is now ‘fit for purpose’: the unspoken goal of the school. It’s sleek and well-designed and different enough from the other boats to make it clear you’ve worked on it – but not so much that it’s showy. Showy isn’t your style. Your style is quiet elegance – that’s who you are. What’s important is where you’re going.
What you like best about the boat is what other people can’t always see and that’s the way it fits. It feels like an expression of the you you’ve arrived at alone. The boat has expressed what you needed to do and you’ve overcome your hesitation to arrive at yourself. You are by no means polished: you are perhaps the very definition of a work-in-progress and uncertain of where you belong but you know you want to get there.
And now it’s time to leave.
Your singular advantage over the others boats is that you have a destination in mind. It’s an island where you hope to be able to put down the oars and rest: a place of acceptance, belonging and calm. You have designed your own compass and faith in that compass, tied to your will, should get you there.
So now you take a deep breath, settle down and dip your oars into the water. As they make contact with the water you think you see a glint of light snake through the depths of the sea like submerged lightening and you think it’s an amusing trick of the light – and instantly forget it. You have your compass so you know what to expect and this gives you the confidence to get moving. Being ready is half the battle. What was it they said? A strong mindset is the engine that pushes you on.
As you lean forward you feel your hands on the oars. The wood feels warm and familiar but the sea is already pulling against you and you have to force yourself on. Of course it’s not an active resistance: the sea has no mind – but then again it’s not making it easy. You call on what you can rely on – your will – and put your back into it to remind yourself can do this and push on.
Slowly the boat starts to move through the waves. Very slowly at first. But you’re getting there. What flickers around the hull is your shadow matching the rhythm of your strokes. It seems to keep you company although your attention is easily distracted by black birds trying to steal the image as it sways in front of you. There is nothing else. And you keep going with will and focus combined.
You would like to be making steady progress on the course you’ve long plotted but it’s not that easy. Sometimes an unexpected swell pushes at the boat and you have to steady yourself. You thought you were adjusted to the sea but here’s the lesson – you are not. You have more to do: check the compass; move on.
There are times when you feel your mind drifting with thoughts about how long it will take you to get there. Mental calculation overwhelms you so much that the oar on the left seems to be stronger than the one on the right and you veer off so much that your boat threatens to go round in circles.
And then there are those times when you’re tired and frustrated and find yourself being emotional – floating over your memories and impressions of the people you have left behind and now the boat veers a little to the right and your journey drifts into other circles.
But what pulls you back together is your will, your focus, your clear and strong intention connected to your compass. And when the rowing is going well it fascinates you that its force can be feel autonomous – as if it were a force that steered you independent of yourself.
Of course what’s pulling you forward is your destination, your target – the island of belonging. When you get to the island you’ll finally get a chance to put down the oars you’ve been using most of your life – and be at ease. So that’s where your going – a place where you can stop ‘going’.
But meanwhile you have to keep on. The will moves you. After all no one else is going to get you there.
In the dark of the journey you fall into a deep sleep. Perhaps you were tired. It must have been the rhythm of the waves that lulled you into dreams where you seemed to vibrate, floating above the boat, dashing into a dark past and an uncertain future. You were held and released by this, torn between the rest of just being and the wanting to be other. There was no ease in this, just conflict. The promise of letting go was cancelled out by the drive to move on, to get there, to improve. You had to get over something, some force, some antagonism. But what was it? And then you were jolted awake and back to the sea and its indifferent waves. The oars were clanking at the side of the boat to remind you of what has to be done And so your will stepped in to move you on but even as you rowed on the memory of that dream swooped around you – into the play of clouds and the light in the sea. What were you fighting?
You go back to the compass. Clarity is there. The course is set.
By now you’ve become accustomed to veering left or right: it’s regrettable but there it is- you’re only human after all. Yes there are thoughts of doubt and then miscalculation and uncertainty and then a longing for someone, something and a regret at missing something or other. But you can pull yourself together: whats important is getting back on track – getting to the island.
And then, one day, well ahead of schedule – you think you see the island. Now you really put your back into it, moving forward with added pace and greater focus. But the closer you get the more the island recedes and then, quite quickly, its gone. You’ve read about these mirages and warned yourself against such deceptions but there they are. You’ve learned. You go back to your compass. You curse the fact that hope drove you on and not cold calculated thinking and then move ahead with your will.
The journey now sinks deeper into you. The motion of the oars and the waves of the sea feel like they’re working in harmony. At times it feels as if the sea is helping deliver you to the island. But as soon as you allow yourself to sink into this idea a sudden swirl sends the oars out of synch and the great force has to be mastered all over again.
You have been rowing for a long time now. You wear a veterans scars. Your will remains strong and focused but your body is beginning to weaken. Discordant notes start to threaten your rhythm and you fear chaos will throw the journey into nothingness when suddenly, quite unexpectedly, the island appears.
You have been fooled by mirages before and feel sensibly cautious – – but this time it’s real. The island has exactly the size and shape you’ve been anticipating your whole life. With steady calculated strokes you push forward until the boat brushes up against the shore of the island of belonging.
With all the presence of mind you can muster you breathe in deep and step out off the boat and onto the beach.
You are happy to have arrived here and much of you is weary but what pushes you forward is the long cherished hope that this would be the place.
But is it?
It’s just an island or..
Perhaps you’re just tired.
You force yourself up onto the cliff and look around.
It’s still just an island.
Now you see some people. You walk down to try to engage them in conversation but they seem distracted, unfocused. Lost even. And when you ask them what they’re you waiting for all they can answer is ‘we don’t know.’ And then they move on. Eventually, confused and despairing, you walk back down to the beach and sit by your boat.
What to do?
Is this the right island? You check your compass. By every calculation it is but the feeling and reward you were hoping for aren’t here. And what’s going on with these listless people? Have they been on the same journey? What did they expect? Are you the same as them?
As you sit by your boat the waves tug at it – is it pulling you back home? But where is home? Are you off course? But now the waves surge a little more and turn the boat so that it rocks a little. And you bend down to see something metallic and grey attached to the rear. You get close and what you discover is a propeller: a propeller you didn’t know was there.
On the propeller are four blades. On one is written “”I’m fat”.
But that cant be you. You might have been called ‘fat’ by your parents when you were a child but ever since then you’ve been fit and strong and in good shape. I mean – a fat man couldn’t have made this journey could he?
The second blade reads “I’m an outsider”
But is that really you? You were an outsider in the early days it’s true but since then you made some connections, some friends..
The third propeller blade reads “I’m stupid”
But that can’t be you can it? . Sea school wasn’t easy with no-one to help you with your boat but you got through it in the end….Could a stupid guy have charted this course?
And the fourth blade reads “I’m scared”
But that cant be you. Your first years were fragile and uncertain but ever since then you’ve faced every challenge that’s been put in front of you. A frightened man couldn’t have come all this way, fought so many obstacles, overcome so much….could he?
And so you sat there thinking about these lines until moonlight flickered onto your compass..
You picked it up. Slowly it dawned on you that the compass that brought you here may have taken its shape in relation to the lines on the propeller. Your forceful exertions were not the result of your will making pure calculated choices but were responses to something buried deep down you felt you must not be. You’ve rowed hard just so you could prove you weren’t these simple beliefs written on the propeller – even though time and experience buried the knowledge that they were there. And it worked: look where you are! But underneath your little boat there was always a reminder of what you were working against.
And so you lay blank under another indifferent moon but could not lie still for long because whatever you were now would not be left alone.
You look around the island for something hard and metallic to loosen the propeller. You find a rock and hack away at the propeller with all the energy you can muster. It’s not easy. You’re not even sure you have the energy to do this – you’re not even sure who’s doing the hacking – but eventually it breaks free.
You look at the words on each of the blades and feel a strange mixture of warmth, hurt and fury and then fling the propeller up into the air. The moon throws a brief light as it arcs through the night sky and then lands on the water.
Slowly it sinks down into the deep and you take a long deep breath. Perhaps your first.
For the very first time you feel utterly calm because You Are Here.
There is no island of belonging, no place to get to, no final destination. Just..here.
You Are Here.
Your journey has been every journey that ever invested all its hope in arriving. Every motion that promised the longed-for acceptance pulled you away from the fact of being here now. Perhaps someone or something else was there in the water or flashing through the sky to bring you here but even if there was that was insignificant because overwhelmingly and completely the fact is
You Are Here.
And this is funny and odd and comforting and unsettling and strange and a relief as you realise that your world is not the world but one of at least 7 and a half billion worlds all sharing the same sky.
You smile at your compass. You are no longer dependent on it.
You realise that your breathing and the tide are in correspondence.
You Are Here.
And now you understand that you could chart a course based on all parts of you. You can feel your way ahead anchored on the fact that you belong to yourself. But there’s no rush. It’s not about arriving because
You Are Here.
There is no place to go.
You are Here.