“Don’t you get bored?” a coworker on a field job asked. “Just sitting on a boat all summer?”
Clearly he had never owned or lived on a boat. There’s never nothing to do. “Just sitting” only happens at the risk of enduring substantial guilt, induced by the as-yet unaddressed items on the to do list.
Our sailboat is like a very compact house, equipped with complex electrical, plumbing, and propulsion systems. It floats in a corrosive medium (we sail the Salish Sea, which is, of course, saltwater) that is always moving, sometimes gently and sometimes not. That means there’s almost always something to fix, despite keeping up with regular maintenance. Then there’s the polishing. And decks to be swabbed. Really, that’s not merely a phrase. No, I don’t get bored.
One of the things I love about life on Kagán, is that much of the work is physical. It often has a meditative quality to it. Wax on, wax off is also not simply a phrase. A week ago, we finished varnishing the bright work (that’s nautical for wood trim). The next day, I waxed the gelcoat in the cockpit. When it rained, I reveled in seeing the droplets beading on the newly-protected teak. And as I write this, the gelcoat is gleaming in the sun. The pleasure of seeing those results is worth all the hours it took to get them. I believe if we take care of Kagán, she’ll take care of us. Keeping her beautiful is one of the ways we do that.
But it’s not all scrubbing and polishing, I’m also engaged intellectually during our summers on Kagán. I think I do more basic math here than in land-based life. I calculate tide fluctuations to determine anchor rode lengths and evaluate current directions, speeds, and timing for transiting narrow passages. There’s also the decision making involved in planning for and executing cruises of several weeks, like water use management and provisioning. And then there are the minute-to-minute judgements while under sail – what tack to take, and how to trim the sails for speed and comfort and, of course, safety.
The outcome of a job, the consequence of a choice is often immediate and tangible on Kagán – it’s a stark contrast to so much of the online and virtual work we currently do.
We’re at anchor today, and I’m “just sitting” in the cockpit at the moment. But in addition to admiring the very shiny gelcoat, I’m listening to oystercatchers chatter on the rocky shore, savoring the cool breeze as Kagán swings to it, and following the kee-kee-kee call of a bald eagle to see it swooping in for a landing on a high snag. Peaceful, happy, and offline, yes. Bored, no.
Last week, I wrote about two disciplines I practice on a regular basis, and how they’ve helped me “become what I practice.” Today, I’ll explore two more.
Although Kagán is a sailboat, the wind doesn’t always blow, nor am I expert enough to maneuver under sail in tight spaces like into and out of marinas, so the auxiliary engine (a 37-horsepower marine diesel) is essential to our cruising life. At least every 10 hours of running time, we do an engine check – checking the engine oil and coolant levels, feeling the tension on the fan belt to the alternator, and taking a good long look for drips from the myriad hoses snaking through the engine. Though it doesn’t take much time, it’s a bit of a production – moving the companionway ladder, lifting off the forward engine cover, and crouching on hands and knees with a flashlight, reading glasses, and paper towels.
When everything is working well day after day, we begin to wonder if it needs to be done so frequently. But little changes can mean a lot. As our sailing season wound down last year, we noticed some pinkish ooze on one side of the fresh water/coolant pump. We wiped it off and monitored it. On our very last morning at anchor, it was my turn to do the engine check. The pink goo on the pump seemed thicker and there were dribbles on the absorbent pad below it, but there was plenty of coolant in the reservoir. We decided we were good to go back to our home marina just a few hours away, but I made a note in Kagán’s log and called our mechanic as soon as we were snug in our slip.
Turns out the casting of the pump housing was porous, and the pump needed to be replaced. By doing our engine checks almost every day, we caught what could have been a big problem before it was a problem at all. I count that as a little discipline with a big payoff.
Releasing Attachment to Outcomes:
I was introduced to the concept of undertaking something I cared about, then releasing attachment to its outcome eight years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and began the weeks of testing to learn more about what I would be dealing with – what type of cancer, what stage, and if/where it had spread. In a case like cancer, it’s especially hard to release the desire that the outcome be favorable. But it was a worthy effort to make. Getting educated and assembling the best medical team possible was important, and so was striving to be peaceful with whatever was in store for me.
I was lucky. The disease was in an early stage, and the surgery and radiation treatments, though not easy to get through, left me cancer-free and able to resume a lifestyle that restored my health fully. It may seem odd, but looking at it through the prism of years, I think the experience actually enhanced my happiness as I feel deep gratitude for how well and strong I am.
The discipline of releasing attachment to outcomes is one that I continue to practice, though imperfectly. I try to do my best simply for the sake of doing my best, rather than to achieve a specific result – like completing a well-written novel, not knowing if I’ll succeed in publishing it and being diligent in maintaining Kagán’s safety and mechanical systems, despite the inevitability of breakdowns. And then there’s attending to my health, though there are no guarantees that the cancer won’t recur, and there is the guarantee that aging will take its toll – so, walking, biking, doing yoga, and those daily sit-ups and push-ups need to be about feeling good on any given day, without attachment to the days that follow.
This discipline is one I haven’t quite become. All too often I am attached to what I perceive as a good outcome. But I keep practicing.
What are the disciplines you find most challenging, and why?
One of my many teachers of writing or yoga or life, said to me, “You become what you practice.” I’ve never forgotten the phrase, and I believe it. There are several little disciplines I practice, and today I’ll talk about two of them.
Sit-ups and Push-ups:
I can’t remember when I began doing sit-ups and push-ups every day. It’s been decades. The only time I haven’t done them for any length of time was when I had surgery and radiation treatments for breast cancer eight years ago. Since radiation really saps your energy, it was months before I felt strong enough to consider starting them up again, or not. I recalled a conversation I’d had years before with a friend in her fifties, we were sharing a hotel room and she commented on my daily routine, saying she used to have a similar one, until she’d turned fifty…and then she gave it up. I also remembered thinking that I wouldn’t make the same choice. I’m okay with getting older, but I’m not so okay with getting weaker, to the extent that I have control over it. So, there I was – just turned fifty myself and a newly-minted cancer survivor – making a decision to keep or let go of a small, daily discipline that could help me maintain strength and fitness. I decided to keep it.
I don’t do a lot of them, and I don’t need to suit up to get them done, so on the days when I don’t make time to suit up and seriously sweat, I still move my body and clear my mind. The bonus is a strong core and arms ready to haul lines when I arrive on Kagán, my sailboat, each spring. This discipline provides a base of fitness for me to build on.
Yoga As Muse:
When I first wrote fiction, I had a difficult time writing technically and creatively on the same day – the rhythms of the work were so different. I needed time, lots of it, to wait for inspiration to arrive. Given that reporting on field jobs was a big part of my paying work, writing a novel was going to be really hard (and it isn’t easy, in any case), if I couldn’t create inspiration, rather than wait for it.
Then in 2007, I took the Yoga As Muse–Writing from the Center to the Page workshop with Jeffrey Davis at the UNM Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. The process Jeffrey taught, and I have practiced ever since, uses yoga to focus for writing. It goes something like this – you go to the mat and set intentions, the first intention is what you’re writing for (the big picture), and the second what you’re writing for that day. Depending on the intentions, you select a specific sequence of yoga poses to help you move toward them. That’s a rudimentary description, and if you’re interested in trying it, I highly recommend Jeffrey’s book The Journey from the Center to the Page, Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Revised and Updated), published by Monkfish in 2008. Since learning the process and incorporating it into my writing life, I can switch gears from technical prose to creative work in a matter of minutes on the mat. I’m pretty kinesthetic, and for me, this discipline helps to quiet the mental chatter that often gets in my way. Sometimes I feel ready to write after just closing my eyes and setting my intentions, which can vary from drafting a new scene, to finding my characters’ true voices in dialogue, to simply staying at my desk and writing for an hour. Other days, I need to move for several minutes to find my direction, but I can’t think of a time that Yoga As Muse hasn’t enhanced my writing sessions.
My disciplines help me be who I strive to be – in these cases, someone who can lift her own weight and a writer – indeed, I have become what I practice. Maybe the little things aren’t so little at all.
What are your disciplines, little or big?
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Geologists study the earth and the processes that shape it. Writers study the human heart and the processes that shape it. The GeologistWriter builds a bridge between the two. Come across it with me!