Our long August weekend in Burlington, Vermont, already seems like months ago. But I’ve been thinking about one of our adventures, a two-hour sailboat cruise on Lake Champlain, ever since.
It was Friday afternoon, hot, humid, perfect weather to get out on the water. A family of four sat at the bow, beneath the jib, and Al and I sat aft, behind the mainsail. When I mentioned to our captain how much I love sailboats, he said, “Would you like to sail it?”
Now, it’s been about 40 years since I’ve taken sailing lessons, but I figured he would be right there, so I agreed. And that is how I found myself taking the helm, gripping the stainless steel wheel, and wondering what exactly I had gotten myself into. “Relax,” said the captain. Sure, I thought, easy for you to say, but I really don’t want to capsize our sailboat with that nice young family up front.
He told me to turn the wheel back and forth to see what happened. As I moved the rudder, the boat shifted direction slightly to left or right, with a momentary delay. It was as if wind and current had to negotiate a bit before our direction was determined. For the next twenty minutes or so, I did my best to sail us safely out of the harbor between the breakwaters and into the huge lake, focused on a cleft between two mountains on the horizon, as our captain instructed.
It was not easy. Wind and current competed constantly, and I had to make many small adjustments of the rudder to keep us on course. To me, it looked like we were zigging and zagging through the water, but the family at the bow seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the captain was not in the least concerned. Al just enjoyed being along for the ride.
When I handed back the helm, the captain attached the wheel to some cables connected to an internal computer, set the course, and the boat effectively sailed itself. But the computer constantly adjusted the wheel back and forth, just as I had, to balance out the tug of current and push of wind. So that made me feel better.
Staying on course is never a straight line.
Every moment of every day, we make choices. We’re buffeted by many options, distractions, demands on our time and attention. It’s easy to go on autopilot in our daily routines, following the familiar course of waking, grooming, meals, work, school, chores, homework, childcare, exercise perhaps, maybe pursuing a hobby or reading a book, Zooming, or just collapsing in front of the TV or computer before bedtime.
As I was sailing on Lake Champlain, gripping the helm, I could feel the tug and pull of water below and wind above. I was acutely aware of how my hands on the wheel controlled the rudder and direction of the boat, how turning it a little too far to left or right would steer us off course. I had to pay attention.
It was not relaxing. And I couldn’t maintain that level of focus for more than twenty minutes on a day when I wanted to just be on vacation. I don’t think it’s realistic for anyone to be fully alert for every waking minute—or even healthy, for that matter. Witness the burnout of our front line workers battling Covid, 24/7, throughout the pandemic, who so desperately need rest and recuperation.
But I do think there is a lot to be said for being more mindful of our actions, how small actions can add up to big ones with significant consequences, for better or worse. For me, and for Jews around the world, today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time for introspection about the year past and reflection about how to do better going forward.
It’s been a tough year, navigating through the pandemic, which seems endless. I’m setting my sights on trying to be more conscious of the pushes and pulls that can throw me off, the ways words and worries steer and jostle my actions and those whose lives I touch, and how, with a little more care, a little more attention, I can chart a better course—not only for myself, but for others, known and not yet known.
Sail on, Dear Reader, sail strong.