I began working on a supply boat out of Vancouver that made weekly trips northwards, churning into the inlets notched into the Rocky Mountain foothills to bring groceries and dry goods to logging camps and other small communities.
I still feel the thrill of clinging to the gunnel as the bow of our 60-foot boat plunged down the face of 20-foot waves—which abruptly hit us the moment we sailed into the open Pacific from behind the lee of Vancouver Island. And I can still feel the deep, mysterious silence that settled over me as I sat by myself in the wheelhouse late at night, empowered by the captain’s trust that I, a complete landlubber, could keep our boat sailing down the middle of the channel through hours of darkness.
As the boat chugged steadily along through the night, all I could see outside the windows of the wheelhouse was a motionless bowl of mountains, like a giant cup set upon the earth holding the water and our boat, and open to the starry heavens.
It was a space without contour or dimension, for it was impossible, even in full moonlight, to see any indication of where the channel was headed. I felt suspended in a time without past or future or direction toward either. Surrounded by a space as unblemished as the inside of an egg, with the boat engine vibrating underfoot as if fueled by the gathering life of a still unhatched bird, time felt like a window through which I could peer out into a realm in which beginnings and endings played no role.
It occurs to me now that we live in a society in which great imbalances exist and are increasing. It is as if we, too, are sitting in the wheelhouse of a boat on a moonlit night as it proceeds along a channel that is flowing into an unknown future, but yet we scarcely ever look out the window, or walk out on deck where a canopy of stars is watching over us. We scarcely ever pause to rejoice in the sound of waves lapping against the hull, let alone open ourselves to feeling the great vastness in which our lives are unfolding, the miraculous openness of time and space, in which anything remains possible and everything has been given to us as a gift.
When I was alone in the wheelhouse, perhaps the only crew member still wide awake as the supply boat made its way, at 12 knots per hour, into those salt water inlets with their dangerous shoals, I had no choice but to rely on technology. Without the radar dish orbiting on the wheelhouse roof, drawing and redrawing the surrounding shorelines on a green radar screen mounted beside the wheel, thereby revealing the near and far edges of the channel ahead, I would have had no idea which way to steer the boat. And without the depth finder, I would have run the boat aground. That may be a pretty accurate metaphor for the predicament in which our entire modern society now finds itself. Whether we like it or not, we are sailing down dangerous channels, the edges and dimensions of which we cannot make out by simply glancing out the windows, and we are passing over submerged rocks and shoals that are hidden from view beneath the surface features of the world in which we live. But we are still free to look around us and allow the greater harmony of a greater reality to speak to us and for us. We have to use technology to help us steer, but as we look around, we can learn about who is doing the looking. We can ask ourselves “What are our origins? What is the legacy we have inherited by being born a human being on this particular planet to a particular family? If we don’t honor our own capacity to care, to be moved, to understand and to reach out, then we will be forever lost—in the vastness of a world that is constantly trying to remind us who we really are.