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Trust the Wisdom of the Vessel: A Father’s Day Tribute

When we were little, my parents bought a sailboat. It was a Highlander 20. Highlander
was the style and 20 meant that it was 20 feet long. On the sail was a big red 693 along
with a step-dancing form of a Scotsman, also in red. We named our boat, the Sea Saw.
For a number of years, we would go to Sandusky Bay, Ohio to sail with our cousins. For
Mom and Dad, Uncle Bill and Aunt Betty, a calm day out on the waters with a cooler of
beer, no matter how much wind, was therapeutic. For us kids, spending hours imprisoned
in the small rectangular space of a sailboat was a form of hell. We would each get 2 cans
of soda for the day, which we usually drained in the first 40 minutes. The rest of the time,
we did not have much to occupy ourselves except for sitting up to stare at the water, laying
down in the small cubby beneath the bow to listen to a radio, or peeing in the special bucket
reserved for such needs.

The most interesting activity going on was manning the helm and the sails. My deepest wish
on the Sea Saw was to man the helm. Unexpectedly one day, Dad called to where I was laying
with my brother, sister and cousins. He invited me to come back with him to give him a hand.
I was excited and scared to death. He showed me how to pick a landmark on the shoreline to set
the course. He showed me how a length of ribbon tied to one of the halyards that held up the mast
indicated the direction of the wind into the sails. With a caring gesture I still recall, he placed
his hand over mine to guide me for a bit. Before I knew it, this was my day to man the helm.
It was July of 1972. I was 11 years old.

At first, manning was exactly what I imagined it would be. It was way more cool to control
the entire boat than it was to be a kid drinking grape Shasta. Unfortunately, as those
minutes stretched on, the Sea Saw veered away from my landmark, the old Lighthouse near
Marblehead, Ohio. I tried to compensate by pushing the rudder in the other direction.
The boat responded well and things seemed properly restored, but now, the Highlander’s
bow was crossing too far the other way. Getting more and more nervous, I corrected my
course back, but with the same results. In short order, the whole vessel was rocking.
The wind caught the main sail and as it quickly filled with air it made a loud pop that
startled everyone. My father was caught off guard and he scolded me.

— What in the hell are you doing!

Though his mind and skills were always sharp, my father was not a patient teacher.
I did my best to hold up under the heavy emotional body blow I just received and with
the voice I had left, I protested I was trying to keep the boat headed toward the
landmark, but it was not going straight. He came back again to where I was sitting at
the helm. Once again, he put his hand over mine and brought us back on course.
Then came the teaching:

— Hold steady on your course and let the boat sail itself. You don’t need to do anything.

As I manned the helm with my father, ol’ 693, once again began to veer off course. But,
slowly, the motion away from the landmark stopped and as we bobbed against the waves,
the boat headed back towards the landmark.

— Trust the boat, son, just trust the boat.

Sea Saw headed off course again to the other side of the landmark, yet, once again, came
back on course by itself. A 20 foot sailboat does not advance in a straight line. It moves
in a serpentine rhythm over the water. It’s true that with a knowing skipper at the helm,
a ship sails itself.

I remember James Hillman saying that within the etymology our word, Sophia or Wisdom,
was an image of a sage hand at the helm of a ship. The telling of that first day when
I manned the helm with Dad’s well-intentioned yet harsh teaching has ripened into a vintage
story from my life. The through-line over the years has faithfully reminded me of an inner
navigational touch toward the Light House on the far shore.

Years later, in February of 1995, my father suddenly fell ill and went into the hospital.
We didn’t know it when he went in, but he would only last 3 more days. The doctors said that
he was mentally out of it because his calcium levels were too high. When I went to see him,
he was not himself for periods of time, then he would gain some clarity. When he told me to
call his mom, I knew that more than being mentally fragmented, he was moving backwards in time.
I realized that my father was dying.

I asked him where he was. He responded incredulously that he was at the Chicago train
station and that he wanted his mom to come take him home. Entering into the story that
he was living, I picked up the phone and pretended to make the call:

— Mrs. Reynolds, yes, I’m calling to let you know that your son, Rip, is at the station
waiting for you to come get him. He’s waiting to come home.

My call had a calming effect on Dad. He lay back on his bed to rest. We were sitting quietly
that way for about 15 minutes when he sat up again and started fiddling with his top-sheet.

–Dad, what are you doing?

–I’m folding this sail.

–Can I help you with that?

He let me help him and I pretended to fold his bedsheet like it was a miniature sail.
When he felt I had the folding under control, he began fiddling with his IV tubes
and heart-monitor cords.

–Dad, what are you working on now?

–I’m securing these sheets (The word for a rope on a sailboat is a sheet)

–I’ll give you a hand, Dad.

As he did with the ‘sail’, when I began to work on the ‘sheet’, his eyes
looked around at the protective bars of the bedframe. He grabbed them, as if to inspect them.

–Everything is secure, Dad.

Secure was another term that was part of our family boat lingo. It meant that everything
and everybody were shipshape. He relaxed back again upon hearing that the ship was secure.
However, after just 3 minutes, he was back up again, folding the sails. We repeated the
pattern I described above: fold the sails, secure the sheets, secure the vessel, rest. It
went on like this for 2 hours. When he finally completed his cycles of preparing what I know
now was his sailing ship to cross over to the far shore, he rested quietly. I spoke to my mom
to comfort her to let her know that I was going home, but that I would return the next day.
We hugged and I made the drive home. Later that night, Mom called me from the hospital to let
me know that Dad had died. I got in my car and drove back. It was February 26, 1995 and I
was 33 years old. My Dad died when he was 61.

In the early years, after his passing, Dad would come to me in dreams. There were dreams
where I knew he was an expression of my psychological condition as I moved through my grief.
There were dreams where the experience was of being lucid in a pristine sense of reality.
At 11 or 12 years after his death, I was in one of those lucid dreams and Dad was there.
I knew I was sleeping in a bed somewhere else and I told him.

–I can’t believe that I am here and that somewhere else I am sleeping.

He smiled and nodded. I knew this was the last time I would see him this way.

–This is the last time I’m going to see you this way, huh?

Again, he just nodded and silently smiled. When I woke up, what I thought was going to
be an unhealable grief from losing my father had finally left me. There really comes an
end to grieving. I think there is an important moment in the healing path after a loss
where the Grace for healing arrives as a dream gift and the wound of loss becomes a source
of the peace of the Eternal. I know from experience that the love in our lives does not
go away, but it does transform into ways of expansive and increasing intimacy. I think
this is part of what is meant by Ancestor. IN this way, Father’s Day is also Ancestor’s Day.

The Wisdom of the Vessel

Son: I been, I been weepin’ for a long time
My soul cries me in dreams.
Father: My son, see the starry horizon calls
Beyond the seas…
Son: Yeh, but it’s like, I can’t quite catch my breath
Or lose the ache in my chest.
Father: My son, see the sail stretch when the wind blows
It carries the ship

Trust the wisdom of the vessel
With a fine and gentle touch
Secure the halyards and the canvas
Wing and wing we’ll plane the reach

Son: To you, man who was my father
I still miss you too much
Though I, I still see you in my dreams
I don’t forget your touch.
Father: My son, see the starry horizon calls
Beyond the seas.
Though I, I still see you,
See the life here, in you and me…

Trust the wisdom of the vessel
With a fine and gentle touch
Secure the halyards and the canvas
Wing and wing we’ll plane the reach