The Perfect Storm
God sent a letter and used half the Mediterranean as stationery.
"So what about Albert Schweitzer?! Is he going to go to hell, too?!"
I never really knew much about Albert Schweitzer, except that he was a good guy, a doctor who went to Africa and won the Nobel Peace Prize in the '50s. But I did know that if I brought his name up now, the guy in Harvard Square talking to me and friend Howie was toast.
The tall man with the thin tie and upbeat Southern accent looked a little deflated. In my gut I felt sorry because he looked a little hurt, too. He wanted to reach out to me, and I was having fun with him.
"Yes," the man said, " Albert Schweitzer is going to hell for not believing in the Lord."
"Well that's unacceptable," I replied. He seemed to expect that answer, having I would imagine a lot of conversations with the same flow.
The rest of freshman year didn't do much more for my beliefs. I was summed up as a nice kid on the rowing team who knows a lot of physics and gave up Catholicism for Lent. Even after I quoted Trotsky and Kant, my mother wasn't very happy about the last bit -- leaving Catholicism. She's still a little bent out of shape about it now. She expected me to follow my own path, perhaps even imagined I would become a Republican. But converting to Judaism and becoming an Orthodox rabbi!? Well, that was not what she had in mind.
She expected me to follow my own path, perhaps even imagined I would become a Republican.
Soon after that I started putting my own religion together. It wasn't that I wanted to get listed as a new prophet; it was more to find a respite from classes at Harvard. The cathedral in Cambridge was great because the boys' choir of Boston studied there. On Sunday mornings it was beautiful to hear the voices. Sometimes as it snowed I'd sit there and wish I could go sing with them. I sang when I was younger, before becoming an altar boy. I couldn't sing now, though; I had given up a belief in God. It wouldn't be right to get up there and sing if I didn't believe the words. The whole organized religion thing did not make sense to me. So as with many of my peers, I put together a patchwork of religious icons and experiences.
After my cathedral phase, I moved on to Tai Chi. Master Quong taught a class where I learned how to grasp the pheasant’s tail. I got into foreign movies and saw a lot of Hong Kong cinema.
I was drawn toward activism. I took Robert Cole’s' class, The Literature of Social Reflection. Flannery O'Conner, William Carlos Williams, James Agee, stories about Gandhi. This class convinced me not to go to Wall Street.
Indiana Jones influenced that decision, too. Retro clothes, leather satchels, c'mon! -- a white horse, going on a quest without killing people, and the cool whip in an Arabian bazaar! I checked to see if Harvard offered a class in whips. (I'm not joking; you can ask Howie.) In the end, the closest thing offered was knife throwing. Did Emile Zola throw knives? I didn’t think so. That's when I started to think maybe I would try and change the world.
During summer vacations I learned how to build boats on Martha's Vineyard. My parents had cottages there. During the years when "Jaws" was filmed, the huge mechanical shark was stored on the dock down the street. And guess who rented our guesthouse one summer? Steven Spielberg no less.
I met a guy there, a designer who built ocean racing wooden trimarans. He needed someone to help build these boats made almost entirely out of wood. He hired me on a trial to learn the skill. French people would show up at his workshop and show him pictures of spaceship-like crafts flying through the water. These were his own designs. Cool! After four years working for him, I began to know what I was doing.
MEETING MY WHITE HORSE
It was that summer that I first saw Rogue Wave.
She lay nearly 60 feet along the water line, and perhaps six feet above it tops, making her look like out of Star Wars. With her three pearl white parallel hulls she had a 25-foot beam. Did someone say strong presence? Think Concorde's cousin who went to sea and did very well, thank you. Rising from her main deck shot a mast shaped like an airplane wing, giving her 140 square feet of windage before she unfurled her canvas. For all her power, this was a swan in flight. Taking her out of dockage, and then bringing her around for a beam reach, she bucked and jerked forward until you had to hold on she accelerated so fast. She could do 30 knots on a good clean sea, and do it with nothing but the wind. I was in love, and I had found my white horse.
She bucked and jerked forward until you had to hold on she accelerated so fast.
All that summer we sailed her around Vineyard Sound. I gave her epoxy and red cedar, and she gave me a sparkle in the eye I still see in the mirror today.
So when a wealthy British-type guy came to buy her, my heart raced when he mentioned he would need to take delivery in Dubai, The Emirates. Holy! He asked if my boss knew anyone who could sail her over to Europe, through the Med (Ulysses, wine-colored seas -- I'm there!), down the Red Sea (as in Moses!), into the Gulf of Sudan, and then through the Straits of Hormuz (excuse me, Iran-Iraq War), and then home inside the Arabian Peninsula.
I was thrilled at the opportunity.
I raised my hand.
CONFLICT RESOLUTION IN NORTHERN IRELAND
As it turned out, I didn't get the chance to take her across the Atlantic. Something even better came along.
My sister Catherine had a friend who had done a paper on a non-violent movement in Northern Ireland that had raised quite a stir, and looked like it might make a dent in The Troubles (as the sectarian violence there was called). What if I went over and checked it out? I figured if I wanted to change the world, I had to see what worked and what didn't. I could meet up with the rest of Rogue's crew in Spain, and then take her on to Dubai. We would get to the Mideast in June, leaving extra time to go to Nicaragua for research before school started again in the fall. It sounded like a plan.
Once the kids returned to their environments, the animosity and ignorance came right back.
So after three years in Cambridge, I took the year off and flew to Belfast. I got involved with groups who did conflict resolution projects. One in particular brought Catholic and Protestant children from the city out into the countryside together to farm and do sports. It didn't seem to work so well. Once the kids returned to their environments, the animosity and ignorance came right back.
I met with lots of Catholics and Protestants. Many took an interest in trying to bring me back into believing again. I was a lot nicer than I was with Mr. Southern Accent, but I still didn't get it. I went on different retreats, read neat intellectual Christian journals, and basically did more due diligence. But I couldn’t reconcile concept like "killing a god" and the previously unscheduled Second Coming.
My mother explained that the logic of it was that you had to suspend logic, a supra-logic which understands the limits of our logic. I reread Aquinas and St. Augustine during long hikes around Dublin, and in the end gave it a rest when I kept getting confused. It seemed like there was a lot more going on in cosmology. So I moved to that for my spiritual questing for a while.
NEARLY A HURRICANE
I met up with the boat crew in Spain, and Rogue Wave was ready to sail in early spring. Repairs had been made to her mast, and the last of the stores were aboard. The owner came to visit, took us out to dinner, gave us each gifts of books and checked on the armaments. Since Rogue Wave would be sailing in the Indian Ocean, she had to have some defense against piracy. And heading for a Muslim country with guns on board seemed like the prudent thing to do. We carried semi-automatic rifles and shotguns with hollow point shells designed to pierce a boarder's hull right below the water line.
I called my mom and she asked if I had my Irish knit sweater. (I didn't.) She told me how back in Ireland the fisherman would each have a distinct pattern of cabling and stitching on their sweaters, so when their bloated, disfigured bodies washed ashore, the families could identify them. I thanked her for the information. With that we set sail for the first leg, a 600-mile trip to Sidi Bu Said, a port just outside Tunis, Tunisia.
I never imagined that my white horse would lead me to God. But she did.
Two days out from Almeria we got caught in a brewing gale driving in from the west. With hundreds of miles of sea as pitch, 30- and 40-foot waves began to form. The barometer fell. I started throwing up. The winds grew even stronger, and I threw up some more. After 10 hours it was getting dark and I got off watch; the seas had climbed to 50 feet and the winds to 60 knots (about 70 mph). By then I had thrown up everything I had ever eaten.
Two hours later, the captain called me to come back up on watch. Being an old WW2 veteran fighter pilot, he was a real stalwart who usually woke me for watch by gently squeezing my arm while reciting Beatnik poetry. Not this time. Up on deck things had gotten a lot worse.
It was like Godzilla had become a tower of water and was looking down on us.
Coming up from below I turned first toward the bow and saw something I will never forget. A black wall of water a couple of hundred feet in front of us rose upward as far as I could see, only to be lost in the most angry black mass of clouds and rain. I couldn't tell water from wind; it was all one. It was like Godzilla had become a tower of water and was looking down on us.
The captain gave me the helm and went below to wake the other two fellows. We had taken all the sails down, but with Rogue's airplane-foil mast she was still doing 15 knots. We had no sail flying and we were going 15 knots.
Alone on deck, I tried to get my bearings. The howling scream of the wind made it so I couldn't hear my own voice even while shouting. Rogue Wave was working the storm with all her strength, twisting and shuddering. I could feel it through my feet. I burst into tears as I felt her main wood beams groaning. Poor Rogue! I knew those beams, and here they were being tormented. The beautiful lines of her hull were lost in the darkness, leaving only her sounds of torment.
Then I began to notice a rhythm. Rogue Wave rose on the front of the waves coming from behind us, and we shot upwards a nearly level keel of seven stories in under six seconds. Near the top of the wave we arched forward and began surfing downward, forward and fast, crashing into the trough. The wave would find us again and raise us up its forward side, and down once more we would surf. Sometimes the movement ended when the giant wave passed underneath us, despite our speed, leaving us to fall off its back, down again into the trough, disheveled, slightly canted, and waiting for the next temporary ride.
It was a force nine gale, a tad below a hurricane, and Rogue Wave was in a grand and powerful waltz. My terror faded as I anticipated the boat's moves. My concerns for the boat faded as well. She was enjoying this as I might a hard, hard workout.
With a full heart and the happiest of eyes, I shouted: Hey storm! We are brothers, you and I!
I looked around to each side, trying to see more, feel more. As I did, my relationship to the storm changed further still. Taking a deep breath of air, I tasted the clear, clean fresh water of the rain. It was slightly chilled! I laughed, breathed in deeper, licked the rain from my lips, and started to feel strong. As I made steerage I started hearing Schiller's poem in the choral of Beethoven's ninth. Crash! Water exploded off the bow as Rogue hurtled herself deep into the forward wave. If Rogue could waltz, then I could breathe and feel strong, too.
With a full heart and the happiest of eyes, I shouted, "Hey storm! We are brothers, you and I!"
It was at that moment that I felt my voice mouth the words, "Oh my God." In that briefest instant, at a deep, intuitive level, I was forever changed.
It took me another few moments to articulate to my intuitive perception. I realized that the storm could be by chance (through the laws of quantum mechanics), and my own evolutionary existence could be by chance. But my relationship to the storm -- one of terror, awe, admiration, sublime fear, and love -- that relationship could not be the result of any chance-driven mechanism.
There was no way two unconnected products of vastly different chaos-driven mechanisms could have such an elegant, powerful and symbiotic relationship. Rather it was an expression of God, and I was feeling the unity of existence. God had sent me a letter and had used half of the Mediterranean as stationary.
The rest of the crew came on deck, and we began deploying sea anchors. There was a fear that the whole boat would flip upside down and capsize.
I thanked God for this second communique, of irony and intimacy, because in every sense, He had just capsized my own world.
Fantastic energy and rose petal softness at the same time. God cares about me. I smiled deep in my heart, helped put out the sea anchors, and then threw up some more.
Life continues, even after epiphanies. But now, there's no turning back.