Encounter With Dolphins

First, consider the day. A delightful day, just one of many  working alongside the crew of a small cruise ship traveling for 8 weeks along the Belize Barrier Reef. The customers were attracted to this cruise for its access to remote keys (islands) with their shallow bays and clear waters, often teeming with colorful tropical fish. Our 200 ft long, flat-bottomed ship dropped anchor this balmy day on a stretch of sandy bottom which the captain knew to be well clear of the fragile coral. The distance from the anchorage to the beach where the snorkelers would enter the water was just over a mile, so  passengers would be shuttled to the beach and back in 26 ft launches with seat capacity of two dozen each. The boats ran the 10-minute trips every hour until noon when everyone returned to the ship for lunch. 

My job as a registered kayak guide that winter was usually to accompany passengers on kayak trips when the ship was in port, but on these popular snorkeling days the captain asked me to provide what I called lifeguard duty for the participants. I was asked to keep my kayak off shore and visible to the swimmers as a platform in case they needed assistance getting back to shore, adjustments to their equipment, a brief rest or ‘encouragement’ to not stray too far from the group. Lifeguarding those groups of snorkelers was one of my favorite assignments. It was less stressful than long kayak trips with their ever-customized destinations, complicated logistics and many safety considerations. An added feature of snorkel trips was they involved constant social interaction with happy people who were often experiencing the most fun they had had in a long time. 

The routine for snorkeling days like this one included keeping me on the water until the last person was safely ashore. When all were all seated in the returning shuttle, I would paddle back to the ship alone. The motor launch was faster, so paddling alone I would quickly fall behind by a few hundred yards. 

The whole lifeguarding experience always left me feeling satisfied. Returning to the ship, tired, I would reflect on my contribution to the customers’ experience which was usually meaningful to them. I would also feel grateful for having a job that connected with my love for outdoor exercise, the sun, the ocean. All this basking in the warm climate when the winter days at home could be under two feet of snow and below zero was the kind of activity that had me thinking, almost out loud, Thank you God, for this moment; there is no place I would rather be right now. It was an appreciated sense of wholeness, and quite significant this day as the prelude to the arrival of the dolphins.

The anchored ship’s PA system could be heard over water for miles, and as it announced the return of the launch I could hear, not only the activity of the group being recovered on board, but also, surprisingly, my name!  The captain was using the outside PA system to alert passengers to look out to view a pod of dolphins. “They are visible off the port side, just to the right of where you see the lifeguard kayak,” he explained. I had not noticed the loping group of dolphins following my kayak. The seas were a bit churned up in the wind, and the 2 to 3 ft waves tended to limit my view to either side. But when I heard the captain’s announcement I turned in time to see a large Atlantic dolphin, neatly framed in the wave beside me, moving parallel to my kayak, in the same direction, and at an impressive speed. I looked behind me as best I could, to see two, then three large dolphins leave the water in tandem, like links on a chain, curving perfectly back into the waves beside me one after the other with almost no splash. I loved it; I hoped they would return, come close again, greet me, the slow swimming, strange looking 18 ft long, orange creature visiting from thousands of miles to the north. 

The entertainment was over. Dolphins have places to go and food to chase and apparently can’t detain themselves long to look at slowpokes like me. Except one, that is. I think it was the first one, the big one that had originally shot past me like a torpedo just under the top edge of the wave. I like to think he or she came back to acknowledge the spiritual connection; to bow, to tip the hat so to speak, in recognition of respect – for life, for creation, for such vivacious moments however temporary. 

It was a feeling. What I’m trying to communicate next has no words that fit well, but attempting to share let me say this: the large mammals can swim much better than we humans. They navigate better, they can tolerate immense pressures, they understand a remarkable language of tones we intelligent humans can’t decipher, and… they seem to live more peacefully in community, enjoying each other and who they were created to be. I surmised all that from one moment of eye contact lasting a fraction of a second. He or she was about my size, came back alone alongside my kayak, perhaps to measure my paddling speed, then turned 180’ and made a last run from behind, jumping completely out of the water right beside me. I am sure the hefty animal’s head turned slightly to present a clear eye, looking right at my eyes. In an flash – again, not with words, but with knowledge, with spontaneous heart knowledge – I felt myself communicate, “Hello Friend… Thank You!! Thank you for coming by . . .  I know without doubt we are kindred spirits. I’m so impressed with you; I’m humbled by your beauty, your athleticism. I love you, Friend.” Then, “Good bye.” The total experience lasted about 15 seconds.

When my attention returned to the task at hand, I noticed I was 90’ off course and down wind from the ship. I turned the kayak, reluctantly really, toward the ship’s stern where the deck hands would assist me back aboard, and the galley crew would provide another delicious meal among so many well tanned friends chatting about exciting colors of the fish they had been identifying and photographing all morning. Then they would ask me, “Did you see the dolphins from your kayak?”

“Yes,” I would reply; “It felt as if they knew me.” 

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Acting is not Action

When you have lost your way, when things don’t make sense, when whatever you try to do seems to lead around in endless circles, stop. No, I can’t stop! you say, I must keep trying – I’ll fall too far behind!

Stop anyway. Save some energy for silence and allow your brain to rest. The universe, 13 billion years in the making thus far is still unfolding, so you can spend a few minutes to regroup.

Intersection of two roads? Stop. Better yet, Stop, Look and Listen!

Have you not had those clarifying experiences where you struggle unsuccessfully with a problem late into the night until you finally give up, go to bed, “sleep on it” and surprisingly wake up, either in the middle of the night or the next morning, with the obvious answer right in the forefront of your mind? Once the new perspective is clear, you wonder how anyone could miss a solution so obvious. We all know that sequence. Most times there is no need to wait for sleep since an appropriate solution hopefully will arrive from just taking a few deep breaths, or from walking away for a few minutes.

There is a Chinese proverb that claims,

“Tension is who you think you need to be. Relaxation is who you are.”

There’s probably some truth in a saying like that just as there’s some truth behind the theory that our real person is not the mask/ego persona we humans project to others (and sadly, many times to ourselves.) Psychologists tell us we present these masks to compensate for perceived characteristics in ourselves which we wish were different. Apparently the school kid who is always bragging and showing off may actually be indicating a low self esteem. College professors and scientists sometimes feel as if they need to posture their appearance as haughty and aloof, perhaps with a pipe and tobacco, adding a tweed jacket to complete the image. Years ago, a preacher would almost always be dressed a suit and tie when delivering a Sunday sermon, but today a trendy young male preacher will be dressed in jeans, or anything but a suit and tie.

These images, often intentional, send messages to the local audience. They can become habit, persisting subconsciously if not present subconsciously right from the start. The point here is there seems to be evidence of a kind of hierarchy within the human person where the will, a higher level of the person, can decide which persona will be presented to the public. Likewise a person can act the part, for example pretending to be happy when sad, or vice versa. The will, much like a stage director, decides which character is center stage. But over time the acting persona itself can become so prevalent that the will is no longer needed to call upon the actor. The character simply takes center stage due to a process which has become predictable and comfortable to some if not all the people involved.

We need not be qualified experts to become aware of such entities. Knowing they exist is enough to motivate us to re-take charge of our own faculties. The masks we wear have been learned. We probably like them, but every so often they snarl our ability to function, as the authorized person within demands the center stage. Hopefully we recognize those confusing and frustrating times as opportunities to lead us to an action, such as taking a walk to quiet the mind or, symbolically, vacating the whole stage for regrouping later.

In humans, the real person within has the right to ask all the acting characters to take a break while we treat ourselves to a deep breath, a walk alone among the flowers, acquire some time to sleep on it. It is in these times of rest that the enormously powerful and complex human mind can stop itself from acting, calculating and ever-planning what’s next, in order to give itself a chance to breathe, to just be. From this fresh start the original structure of internal authority is reset allowing the quality of behavior to improve.

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Mind to Heart to Mind


Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God
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                                                                                                                                   Martin Luther

  1. Abraham, the patriarchal figure of ancient times, was not Jewish. He was Chaldean. Jesus was a Jewish teacher and Rabbi, but it was years after his death before his followers were first called Christians. Martin Luther, a devout 16th Century Roman Catholic monk, became the seminal figure of the 17th Century Protestant Reformation.  John Wesley, though a founder of the Methodist movement, was actually an Anglican (Episcopal) priest. The mission of these men and others was not to create new religious denominations; they were reforming the doctrines of their already existing life-long religion. In the early 16th Century Martin Luther translated the Holy Bible from St. Jerome’s 4th Century Latin Vulgate into a vernacular German language which was more readable for the public. The first complete Bible translation into English was the Coverdale Bible published in Belgium in 1537, exactly 100 years before the  Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts was built. Currently a museum, the oldest wood frame house in the US still standing, The Fairbanks House, was built by Jonathan Fairbanks as his farm house located a few miles from Boston. Open to the public, you can visit this historic treasure today.

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It is no exaggeration to predict large amounts of conflict will result for one who takes a position on the topic of Bible translation accuracy. There is so much controversy over translation authenticity, the best course of action is to study the subject yourself, then follow your own heart. In any serious topic, the subject of Bible translation included, the word heart gets my attention. The writers of religious texts curiously use that word heart in many different ways. Translators see it in one language, then struggle to discern the authors’ intent as they choose the word to use in the second language.

For example, quoting Abraham in the King James Version  (KJV) of Genesis (verse 17:17) he is said to have…     “laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old?’” 

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New International Version (NIV) both have that same verse as, “…laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?’”

More comparisons from the King James (left) to the      NIV or NRSV (right) follow:

 Ge v 20:5      integrity of the heart                      =>                  clear conscience   

 Ex v 35:35  filled with wisdom of heart           =>                filled them with skill

 Pr  v 8:5      be ye of an understanding heart =>               acquire intelligence

 Pr  v 14:30  a sound heart is the life                   =>                a heart at peace gives life

 Pr  v 14:30  a sound heart is the life                    =>               tranquil mind gives life

 Ec v 1:17      gave my heart to know wisdom    => 

.                                                         applied myself to the understanding  of wisdom

 Ec v 1:17     gave my heart to know wisdom     =>

.                                                                                    applied my mind to know wisdom

 Ec v  8:16 applied my heart to know wisdom  =>

.                                                                                            applied my mind to know wisdom

Are the words  myself,  heart  and  mind  synonyms? The words are different. From the examples above, “integrity of the heart” in one version is translated “clear conscience” in another; “wisdom of heart” is translated “skill.”  Does wisdom of the heart mean the same as skill to you? Sure, one can see the contextual connection, but a reader might also perceive the authors’ intentions quite differently based upon the translator’s choices. The meaning often does depend on context, and on the perception and life experience of both the translator and the reader. How did someone who “gave my heart to know wisdom” actually do that? “Did they “apply their mind…” in some reasonable way?  Probably so, but two people who are attempting to document firm dogmatic rules from a verse that varies from translation to translation could write those rules such that they could be read and understood (or misunderstood) quite differently. The best advice? Be aware of the way words can work; it is a concept worth thinking about before committing strong opinions.

The word  heart  is often used to represent many different concepts. To name a few: wisdom, compassion, intuition, creativity, conscience, motive, emotion, instinct, integrity, intelligence, memory, knowledge, mind and soul, etc. There are almost one thousand appearances of the word heart in the Bible, most of which were represented ‘as is’ by English translators, but many of which were not. Those differences reflect the complexity of the translators’ responsibility to represent what they believe the author’s intention was in one language, and what it means to them in the other.

The common ground for these seemingly diverse meanings of the single word heart seems to be a consistent reference to a type of unique core source of wisdom found in the human person.

The Core

During a visit to central India in 2017, I met or observed countless people. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how respectfully they treated each other. Although the roads were noisy and crowded with vehicles, camels, oxen, sheep and school children in uniform, everyone I observed was polite and patient with everyone else. It was the same story on the sidewalks and in the shops. I have been in crowded cities in Haiti, the Philippines and Europe. I’ve lived in Boston and New York City – need I say more? The Indian culture, ethos and moods were noticeably different. Yes, as an elderly foreigner with white hair and fair skin it was be hard to be unnoticed, but I had many opportunities to observe local people from a distance. Despite the age group or economic level, they demonstrated obvious mutual respect as they interacted with each other. I wondered what gave their society such pleasing and public maturity. Was the fact that the vast majority of people there were Hindu a factor?

Christian, Hindu, Buddhist

Raimon Panikkar was a holy man of our time who, as his name reveals, was born to a Spanish mother and Indian father. It’s not surprising to learn that Raimon has a heart for understanding the Christian and Hindu theological philosophies of each of his parents. Growing up north of Barcelona, he then earned a doctorate in chemistry, studied at seminary, became a Jesuit priest and after a trip to India at age 35 is reported to have said, “I left as a Christian, discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist, without ever having ceased being a Christian.”  A statement like that from any serious person gets my attention. I became further attracted to his work by the title of one of his books, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, written way back in the ’1960’s.

Jesus is the most impressive human being I have studied. I would have loved being with him during those few years of his earthly ministry because I have come to believe he would have been not only an astounding mentor and first-hand source of wisdom, but also a most enjoyable and genuine friend. He was more than just a religious teacher; he understood people. Writers from that era lacked adequate vocabulary to describe his deep understanding of human psychology, and Jesus himself used parable stories to communicate new, yet universal concepts to those historic, dogmatic minds. Folks seem to forget that Christ is not his last name. Jesus’ grasp of the cosmic, universal and eternal Christ became his earthly life and our model for living beyond selfish fear, greed or cunning manipulation as well. His example was to demonstrate a life of connecting unselfishly and genuinely to others, and for living to the fullest. The “Unknown Christ” of Dr. Panikkar’s book represents the heart level transformation of human consciousness available to all people, irrespective of and often unrelated to religious backgrounds.

 The ancient word for heart is cor from which we get our word, core. An ocean of wisdom is available to humans, to be found more at the level of heart than mind. I think that’s what the phrase “made in the image of God” refers to. We have access to a deeper mind by quieting the conscious mind once in a while with meditation breaks. Meditation does not refer to some kind of extra-intense prayer effort; it doesn’t imply effort at all. Nor does meditation necessarily refer to any Eastern religious practice. Meditation trains the busy mind to relax its constant train of thoughts for a few minutes several times each day, which eventually opens the path to deeper wisdom. The cumulative effect of a daily meditation practice makes that access easier over time, the way repeated exercise eases the lifting tasks of our physical muscles. There, in the heart, lies the wellspring of creativity, compassion, patience, justice. Once we have access to this universal wisdom, we experience these and other original heart concepts such as forgiveness, overt generosity, and freedom from resentments, righteous anger, etc., etc., Though seeming illogical due to cultural habit, these renewed heart characteristics are nonetheless beneficial to finding the more abundant life. We learn from wisdom to make wise decisions.

As Blaise Pascal said,  The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.   

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Heart to Mind

While walking through the Museum of Science in Boston a few years back, my young children and I came across a small sign located out of the way, off to one side. It was dimly lit but its font was surprisingly easy to read. It displayed this admonition:

    “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.     Proverbs 4:23

It was a short sentence and in an obscure location for sure. But it struck me with its simple significance. Above all else ? … everything?  the highest priority. . .  guard, from root word meaning, to ward  wellspring, an original and bountiful source or, according to Merriam Webster, “a source of continual supply.” Yes. Guard the heart; ward off dangers, keep it unencumbered, allow it to offer its connection to things that bring fuller life. I liked that modest sign and its proverb and have thought about in many circumstances over the years. There have been times when ‘abundance of life’ seemed elusive, causing me to wonder, “…is that wellspring real? Is it still open and flowing?”

The word heart can represent the physical muscle that pumps blood or, the “heart of hearts” that  C.S. Lewis liked to write about or, the “heart of a matter” as folks will say when identifying the root of an important issue. In each case, the word is used to depict the very core of something. (The root Latin word for heart is cor.)  The heart is the deep center, the place where the source is found. Sometimes a person will have a strong opinion about something, but then with more time and experience, and reflection on the matter, they have “a change of heart.” Life requires change in order to bring about continuous improvement year after year, but we don’t change beliefs casually. Since we tend to “see” things more clearly with experience and maturity, a change of heart now and then, guided by unhurried meditation and prayer, is a good idea. It helps insure the accuracy and authenticity of one’s core beliefs. So making careful “changes of heart” occasionally is also a process of “guarding the heart,” to help keep it free from clutter and danger.

Relaxing a busy mind for a few minutes reconnects the mind with the heart. Much like computers that require cleansing of left over data by means of a reboot or by having their disks “defragged” once in a while, the human mind deserves to be freed from the residue of vast amount of thought that lingers from so many choices, stresses, emotions and appeals over periods of time. Sitting quietly, while encouraging any thoughts that try to assert themselves to just float on by, is what I call meditation and prayer. Call it what you will, but don’t make it into a religion. Just allow that powerful, busy mind of yours to sink into a mode of natural resting, allowing your deeper heart mind to realign, re-balance, refresh. Just as we physically require rest and sleep to allow various body systems to reach homeostasis, clearing a crowded mind of recent thoughts and slowing down the rate of breathing for a few minutes two or three times a day serves to rebalance body chemistry and refresh the conscious mind. Calming the mind’s activity this way allows valuable heart characteristics such as imagination, creativity, compassion, appreciation, intuition, etc., a chance to regain their intended priority so they can emerge when needed later.

A discipline of meditation has practical benefits. Students who spend just a few minutes clearing their minds this way before an important exam have been shown to perform better. Countless health studies have demonstrated measurable and repeatable improvements from disease from epigenetic body chemistry activity that accompanies calming practices such as these. In my own struggles with gnarly career issues over the years, I often experienced much appreciated clarity of mind after pausing for a few minutes to give myself a ‘thought break’ while breathing some fresh air. This simple practice can serve us well.

Our culture has elevated the value of the mind. Despite its reputation for enormous capability, the mind also produces a lot of  ludicrous thoughts. Allowing it to rest for a few minutes has appreciable benefit with no real downside. Yes; it’s a good idea to guard the heart to permit it to contribute from its source of abundance. Check in here at hamiltonstation.org again later this month for a sequel article about the nature of the heart as seen from the perspective of religion.        

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Dying: an Important Part of Life

In the months following a metastatic cancer diagnosis, anxious thoughts interjected themselves into my mind every five minutes of the day. The reality of unwanted weakness, joint pain and insomnia from chemotherapy demanded attention. Looking back, I willingly admit: the difficulties had value. I had to grieve the loss of familiar foods, favorite clothes, an enjoyable job and some routine activities. I had to consider my immortality. But now I am glad for those inconveniences, because the whole scary process kept bringing me back to face an ego that could no longer maintain its denials and inflated status. It finally had to surrender, allowing the coexisting, more authentic, “real me” to surface and occupy the driver’s seat of my person.

Reflecting on the larger reality and question of  human existence as if being viewed from a far away galaxy and, driven by the process of accepting my mortality, philosophies that had been mysteries to me as a young adult started to gain new clarity. The old view, from an ego position, had limited my understanding to a very, very small portion of the big picture. After facing my condition it occurred to me that the Creator of the vast universe into which we humans are born had a sequence in mind that started with the creation of planets and stars. The solar system was delicately designed with earth planet having just the right conditions for human life, long before human life emerged. It would be irrational, I decided, for the Creator to provide all of that, across so many eons, to give humans a place to live for such a tiny ‘moment’ in that big project, just to have it all end when they die.

The process reminds me of the space shuttle where a sophisticated rocket is designed, constructed, tested and launched for the purpose of delivering an enormously valuable payload into orbit. It took centuries of research and experimentation to bring that first lunar rocket to a Cape Canaveral launch pad, but for what?   …just to have a short flight during which the large booster section lights up the sky for a few minutes, only to fall uselessly into the sea? No, not at all. Compared to the mission history, that booster rocket’s life is a fleeting moment, but a moment necessary to allow the payload to escape the pull of gravity. The “lifetime” of the payload gives testimony to complex, long-standing work performed prior to the flight from earth, to the flight itself during which fuel is constantly diminished from fighting gravity, and to the adventurous destination too, as it finds its intended orbit. If the payload is to arrive at the destination, it can not cling to the booster section; it must completely break away and travel in space alone to guarantee success.

It seems God has a similar design for “human life.” We humans are created from dust, then “launched” at birth into our temporary position on this planet, then occupy adult bodies for a few short decades as participating observers of His plan. We learn, often the ‘hard way’ it seems, the value of relationship, authority, quality and priorities. We comprehend Jesus’ description of rebirth, accepting his offer to transition our consciousness from ego to soul, created in His image, eventually without need for a body. 

English burial services often include the saying, derived from the Bible’s Genesis 3:19, Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I have been aware of the fact that all bodies return to dust from the time I was just a tyke, hiking with my dad who explained what would happen to a dead bird we came across. However, it did not occur to me then that all living things on this earthly life are simultaneously dying. 

Yes, death as we talk about it (or perhaps don’t talk about it) is an important part of life. It is a necessary factor in the sequence that reaches far before birth, yet also far ahead, into God’s eternal kingdom, “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

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Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”     Soren Kierkegaard
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Rank and Experience

When the US Navy commissions an officer, the (usually) young man or woman instantly acquires a significant load of both privilege and responsibility. At the moment the gold stripe or bar is fastened to the uniform of the midshipman or cadet, the rank of Ensign becomes a reality. Although years of very specific and formal training will help the new officer function, there is a lot to learn before he or she becomes a proficient naval officer. The event is similar to a new born foal taking its first steps; the spindly young horse can walk, but with a lot of uncertainty for sure. With a little experience, both will demonstrate increasing confidence.

My first task upon being so commissioned was to travel to San Diego for security clearance and training, then on to Pearl Harbor, to meet the ship to which I would become intimately connected,  the USS Serrano (AGS-24).IMG_0163

She was undergoing a major overhaul when I arrived in Hawaii. The 200 ft long ship, originally designed to tow damaged battleships across the ocean, was sitting high and dry on a marine railway without power, spewing sandblasting dust and receiving modern electronic equipment with the help of dozens of shipyard workers. She had a stellar workhorse record from both WWII and the Korean War, but had languished in mothballs near San Francisco for a decade before coming back to life. Serrano had her enormous winch removed from the fantail and was converted to an oceanographic research and geodetic survey vessel. My job was to supervise the installation of new radios and encryption devices. I was immersed in the tropical heat and dusty noise for 8 hrs each day, after which my time was my own. To seek cooler sea breezes and quiet solitude, I spent many afternoons exploring the large Pearl Harbor Naval Base.

Oahu and Pearl Harbor were fascinating to me. The history from WWII had always intrigued me. As a kid, I had watched countless videos of the 1941 attack on the US fleet there on “Newsreels” in pubic movie theaters, the only source of news and documentary before television assumed that role. To walk along Ford Island after work each day and imagine the battleships arrayed there with their valiant crews fighting to save them was a process of formational inspiration. Relics from that attack were still to be  found near the rural small buildings across the harbor, a short water taxi ride from the shipyard. img_0178-1
The USS Arizona, now a sacred grave for over 1000 US Navy sailors, was still seeping a small stream of oil drops from her tanks last refilled in 1941. Standing just above the deck of this battleship, still visible where she was  sunk in shallow water, an array of emotions from anger to compassion were experienced. Hawaii had been admitted to the United States as it’s 50th state during my third year of high school. Two years later, Elvis Presley held a famous benefit concert to help fund the visitor site; coincidentally I became a US Navy Midshipman. the USS Arizona was declared a national memorial site the next year.

The afternoons hiking around Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard were humbling. The single gold bar on my collar drew salutes from sailors as we randomly passed. They were often men older than I, and more experienced. I wondered if any of them had been there in Hawaii that horrific day, 25 years earlier. I studied ships tied up at the various docks. There were both nuclear and diesel submarines visible in open dry docks. I saw Fletcher Class destroyers, supply ships and old landing craft that had seen naval warfare first hand still performing an active service of some kind. There were lesser known markers on the base, on adjoining Hickam AFB, and in the mountains, cities, beaches on all four corners of Oahu. That summer and fall showed me a new, first-hand, deep respect for the uniform I was now wearing every day. My earlier officer training and midshipman cruises had inserted me into a significant class of historical figures. Yes, I still lacked the real sea experience widely associated with naval officers across the centuries, but that season of steeping myself in the war history of Pearl Harbor made a connection. It finished my qualification process.

I was ready.  

  

The Serrano came out of dry dock in the fall of 1965. Over the next couple of months she passed her sea trials with flying colors and crossed 5000 miles to the Western Pacific. Christmas Day found her in Cam Rahn Bay, Republic of Viet Nam, working a full 18 hours collecting data and sea bottom samples. 

My beautiful picture

My beautiful picture

                                  Serrano anchored / weighed anchor 73 times that Christmas Day, a US Navy record.

Experience, by definition, comes in many forms. Standing a mid watch while underway meant the relieving officer was to come on the bridge 15 minutes before midnight to familiarize himself with the operational situation before taking charge. One routine night, in clear weather operating close to the South Vietnamese coast, I arrived on the bridge to find the officer of the deck I was  about to relieve embarrassed, rubbing his eyes and complaining about lost night vision. It turned out he had missed a voice radio request from a US Navy P2V patrol craft to identify the ship. The aircraft had a multi-million candlepower search light designed to illuminate submarines mounted on its wingtip, and its crew energized it to study what to them was an odd-looking, unidentified ship operating close-in to shore.

In an unrelated incident, it was my turn to be embarrassed when I navigated the ship alongside, and within a few feet of, a large, fast-moving car ferry on a dark Puget Sound near Seattle. The ferry had been traveling west to east, across our path as we departed the pier, steaming in a northerly direction. The radar operator designated it “skunk C” and confirmed my understanding that our ship had the right of way. Moreover, the distance between us was increasing further reducing reason for concern. As the ferry approached its destination north of Seattle, it faded from our sight, far to the right. However, right after we dismissed it as an active water contact, the ferry switched running lights and started back to the west. The reversing of the critically important running lights was  a practice I had never heard of. What had been the starboard (green) running light of this contact became the port (red) running light as the ferry captain started his westerly run back to Bremerton where it had originated. 

Most ships turn around to reverse course but not ferries. They back up. What had been the stern on Skunk Charlie going east now was the bow going west. It reversed direction without turning. Although neither the visual appearance nor the radar image of that ship changed, the interpretation of the marine rules-of-the-road certainly did. While we had enjoyed the right-of-way “privileged” position during the hour Skunk Charlie was on its eastbound leg, we became the “burdened” vessel as soon as it change running lights. Skunk Charlie instantly changed status from being burdened to being the legally privileged compared to our ship.

Drivers know how pedestrians can gain right-of-way status over approaching cars by stepping into a crosswalk. As a driver cruising safely along, you see a clear crosswalk ahead. Then suddenly a person who had been a non-yield issue while walking along on the sidewalk, suddenly turns ninety degrees, and in one motion steps off the curb, and instantly becomes the privilege user of the crosswalk on the road you both share.

Fortunately my crew and I figured out what was going on in time to turn the ship sharply to starboard just as the ferry came steaming full speed down our port side. Unfortunately, just as all the excitement came to a head, our captain (i.e., my boss) was coincidentally climbing the bridge ladder for his routine after-dinner check on “how things were going.” Halfway up the ladder the “thing” he found was an eyeball to eyeball perspective with the civilian evening commuters waving, cheering and loving their rare close-up look at a Navy ship lining the ferry rail about 30 feet away.  Needless to say it wasn’t an opportune time to explain my newly learned wisdom about how ferries swap their lights when they’re done swapping cars and people. As he energetically questioned my competence, it seemed better to just let him vent, making sure the whole crew knew how inexperienced their new deck officer was, rather than risk having him view any defensive arguments as insubordination.

There is an odd irony about the way the terms privileged and burdened are used in marine law. Experienced deck officers underway know very well when facing a collision course at sea, it is ironically privileged to be burdened and a burden to be privileged. This is because the law assigns privileged status to the ship which is rigidly required to maintain course and speed, while the vessel designated with burdened status may freely alter its course and speed as is sees fit to avoid collision. In a similar way, privileged situations in life carry responsibilities and expectations that reduce options. Yet when we are burdened, the flexibility to improve an undesirable situation carries choice options that are ours to control. So the question ponder is …   Would you prefer to be privileged?  or burdened?” 

  

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Things Are Not Always As They Appear

The perspective of time changes as one gets older. For example,  studying history in grammar school the Civil War, the American Revolution and the Roman Empire all seemed  to me to have occurred an equally enormous long time ago. Beyond that, the Biblical characters Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, King David, John the Baptist and Jesus all seemed like folks from a single story, even longer ago.

Now that I’m approaching eighty years of age I can better relate to the characters and stories of Civil War battles, since they happened in the same range of years as the experiences of my life have since my birth. My father lived to be almost ninety. Go back about ninety years before his birthday and you can be watching George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jeffferson leading a brand new nation and the Lewis & Clark expedition pushing it west. (I can now better relate to some of those Bible characters too, especially the imperfect ones, but for much different reasons! I’ll spare you the details.) 

Most elderly people will tell you (even if you don’t ask) that past events are now recalled as if they happened more recently than they actually did. Ironically, the older we get the younger things seem. My grandparents and their entire generation seemed to me to be classic “old.” They acted like old people when they were in their sixties and seventies. Quite the contrary, I still view myself and most of my peers as young. I behave differently now, and yes my joints ache a bit more, but I think about myself pretty much the same was I did when I was forty or fifty.

Often things actually are not what they appear to be and, since events and experiences seem to appear differently to different people anyway, it follows that communication about important realities in life are sure to be difficult.

There is a concept of redemptive listening which can be thought of as sacred observation. It’s a discipline where we humans choose to stay completely objective as we see or hear things going on around us. I think animals are probably better at sacred observation than we are. They just do what they were created to do, whether its a bee collecting nectar and pollen or a dog reminding us of the value of positive attitude. But with a little practice sacred observation, redemptive listening with its many benefits can be relearned and become habit. “Re”-learned because as young children we did it naturally, watching older siblings and adults, figuring out the mechanics and motives, learning how to do things ourselves. It’s natural in the very young years because young kids respect elders without question. But when exposed to wider society and its adopted values, and the concept of ego develops, we elder humans become more skeptical, less open, less candid. We gradually, unconsciously become different from the original person we were created to be, becoming more competitive, judgmental, impatient and unforgiving. 

An interesting experiment would be to have folks try sacred observation for a while to see if it improves things. Those who are willing, could train themselves to “see” people as curious tykes living inside, trapped inside, an outer shell of persona formed by the years of wounds, worries, memories and moods from both positive and negative experiences. God only knows the quantity of events that contributed to all of our forming an outer shell persona. But if we each observing others with intentional awareness of their original, supple, attractive mix of kind, careful, inquisitive, appreciative and humble attributes that reflect mutual respect, compassion and willingness to forgive, we would set the framework for redemptive listening.

 

To practice this idea, charge yourself with the task of developing the skill of looking past the outer person, where subjective opinion, socially-acquired values and behaviors impact us, to see what lies behind that screen. Quietly accept the lessor known inner person as “good” irrespective of reputation or appearance. Acquiring this skill can be difficult, especially when evidence seems scarce, but easily done in the private thoughts of your head. It will help you feel better about yourself as you move away from repetitive, socially acquired judgements, some of which were acquired unintentionally and open up a less rehearsed, more genuine and objective pattern of thought.

Try it.

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Chipper. 1948 – 1961

IMG_0251 2.jpgProbably the runt in a litter of seven, Chipper was born with a deformed tail – a show (dog) stopper for the pedigree breeder. The tail defect disqualified him for sale to dog  show enthusiasts, but ironically it probably increased the quality of his life by an order of magnitude. Since breeders raise dogs for revenue, this gorgeous pup with a distinctive hump in his tail was doomed to be euthanized before my parents offered what they could afford to buy him as the family pet. (Chipper never knew his tail was labeled defective and had he known, he would not have cared.)

Puppy years for him were spent living in an old house on 14 acres of farmland with fields, streams and maple and wild cherry trees. Included was an old trellis with an ample seasonal supply of Concord grapes hanging down at his level. He would often help himself to those tasty purple bunches. He must’ve had instinctive knowledge of their natural antioxidant nutrition, but occasionally he lacked either self control or knowledge of when enough was enough. His stomach would growl after trips to the grape trellis and he certainly needed no laxative assistance.

Chipper’s adventures weren’t limited to food, since the property had a diverse rodent population: rabbits, woodchucks, muskrats, foxes. He widen their holes with his earth-moving skills, chased them into panic mode, and would lurk patiently, watching and sniffing the breeze from under a shade tree in an at-the-ready position where he could rise up and lunge into a full gallop in one impressive motion.

This gorgeous English Setter would’ve been happy to just live out his assigned decade right there where he came to know intimately each of the 14 acres, and most of the neighbors’ properties as well. (Side note: our family became unpopular with the Papoulius family up the street, because Chipper loved intimidating their sheep. To ease the tension my dad got permission to bring the adventurous pup to their property to break the habit. Using a long rope as a leash, Dad would let him pursue one of those poor helpless beasts for about 10 yards, then yell “No!” while jerking the rope backwards at its end point, causing Chipper to essentially flip over backwards. Chip was bewildered by this consequence. He felt no guilt; in his opinion sheep were too stupid to deserve such  free roaming status. He never lost interest in the chase, but did refrain when we would notice him lining up a victim and utter the sharp-toned, “No!” ) 

The New England dog’s paradise chapter ended in the fall of 1953 when my dad changed jobs causing us to relocated to Kent, Ohio, a town where dogs were required to be leashed at all times. In the big move, since we drove to Ohio without a dog on the car roof, Chipper spent a lonely few weeks in a kennel quite certain he had been abandoned. At age ten I was jealous when the dog got to make his trip on a commercial airliner, although he was certainly uncomfortable in the unheated luggage compartment. We met the flight at Cleveland’s Hopkins Field with warm expectations only to be told by the American Airlines manifest guy, “Nope; no animals on that flight. Sorry… maybe tomorrow.” My folks were perplexed, since they had received opposite information when the plane left Boston. As our family was walking out in disappointment, I let loose an unauthorized, loud chirping whistle which I knew Chipper would recognize if he were in there somewhere. The sound carried down the hollow interior of that enormous warehouse and was returned with the sound of a congenitally defective tail banging furiously on a metal dog crate. I whistled again. From his cage stuck under a distant shelf, Chip returned a burst of assertive barks, which in turn caused my dad to get assertive with the careless guy back in the freight office. Chipper’s reaction when released from his small prison cell was a sight to never forget. He wet the floor (payback for the clerk), wagged his tail so fast his rear end was swinging enough to qualify him for Dancing With the Stars and whimpered almost constantly. I still tear up when recalling that heartfelt connection scene. For weeks, that grateful canine stuck by my mother’s side every time she moved from the room they were in. 

Chipper had a heart every bit as real as our human hearts. (Years later, upon learning the definition of “unconditional love,” he came to mind.) Dogs demonstrate uncondition-al acceptance and they don’t hold grudges. They know when they’ve been mistreated, but instinctively ‘let it go’ soon after – which would be a useful characteristic for humans to embrace.    

My beautiful pictureChip lived the second half of his life back in New England where he was a loyal guardian of the teens as they built tree houses, waged snowball wars from winter forts and picked blueberries in summer to be sold to local markets. I think his sore belly bouts from the early grapevine days reduced his appetite for blueberries. He seemed to be content with kibbles and gravy, even in his last days.

My parents put him down while I was away at college. Months later I was angry that they hadn’t told me at the time. They thought it better to shield a young man adjusting to the change from high school to the more challenging college curriculum. But this dog and I had joined souls. ‘Better’ would have been being there at the time of his death.

However, as Chip taught, let it go. Forgive mistakes, relish the abundant  memories, and be thankful. I am grateful – for the high privilege of knowing, living with, and learning from this marvelous creature for more than a full decade some 60 years ago.

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The Tree Partnership of 1980

The specific idea that motivated me to commit to positioning myself in close proximity to a tree for ten minutes after sunset every day stemmed  from a season of marriage counseling and therapy, during which I learned that developing a habit of disciplined silence and solitude would benefit both my business career and my mental health.

The challenge to find a tree every day, alone, without crossing private property, was usually just one of making room in the schedule. For most days, that time was available for a discretionary ten or fifteen minutes. Occasionally, if in a meeting or traveling at that hour, I could excuse myself from the room, or pull the car over somewhere, without much inconvenience at all. I was blessed at one such event, in Detroit, MI about three months into the one-year commitment, when I left a stuffy hotel conference room to seek a small fruit tree in the courtyard. The tree had dozens of fragrant, pink blossoms that complemented a momentarily spectacular sunset so much that it was genuinely breath-taking to observe. After standing next to that little tree for 5 or 6 minutes, I returned to the meeting. Soon thereafter I was invited to offer a creative solution to a difficult problem which our group had been struggling with.  The idea that came to me was an instant consensus breakthrough. The clarity of mind from that short outdoor visit may have been the key to the effective solution.  Would that be too much to conclude? In any case, the event proved to be an incentive to continue the daily quiet times with trees.

The commitment to perform the ritual for 365 days was easy to honor as the refreshing  outdoor breaks became the highlight of each day. It’s now been close to 40 years since that one-year commitment ended, yet I still remember many of those individual trees.

One particular day I was over-committed during the time interval between sunset and dark, so I paused by a scrawny, potted ficus tree that was off to one side of a large restaurant atrium. The meeting with that poor, undernourished tree was too short, and my body longed for the expected fresh air that always accompanied these visits. There I learned that there was more to these short periods than just “tree and me.” Now I also  appreciated the roots, the aroma of the soil, the precious fresh air. When outdoors, one can feel the ground, and look up into a majestic display of branches, leaves, clouds and sky. I gained respect for even the small trees as I considered them weathering the environment and co-existing with insects, birds and animals across so much history for generations. These remarkable trees became friends.

 

After that year, I let the discipline relax, but do continue to seek the company of trees wherever they come close. Yes, folks might questions a grown man talking with trees. No one knows my mind though, as I quietly say hello.

However, the trees do know.

 

 

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Improved Perspective From Fog

The visibility when out on the ocean varies from more than 10 miles to almost zero feet depending on the moisture content and dew point of the area. Sometimes, the fog condition can be dense on the water level and clear ten feet above or, visa versa. Fog can be wispy like smoke, or dense like pea soup. It can be sunny in town but gray and damp on the shore a few hundred yards away. Fog can lift in minutes, and come back in seconds. There are fog banks that sit out at sea – you can see their walls and ceilings from 10 miles away and watch them “come in.” From an airplane, usually in the morning, fog can be seen covering rivers, lakes and ponds adjacent to land that is fog free. As the day warms, those unique patterns can be moved by a gentle breeze, sliding sideways over the land and  exposing the water bodies from which they were created.  Low-lying fog is patchy; in front of a car windshield it can kill you if you fail to slow down.

Visibility and fog are in conflict, but perspective is another thing. While piloting a ship or small boat at sea, fog conditions fullsizeoutput_162dslow you down. But oddly, things look different when surrounded by fog. In the cove near my home a straight row of wooden pilings remains from an old earthen dam. But in the fog, in calm water, a short piling appears to be further away than a tall one since their reflections skew the data. Furthermore, the detail of objects that can be seen floating on, or protruding from underneath the surface in front of the foggy whitewashed backdrop,  is enhanced significantly. These illusions can be deceiving to even an experienced sailor when using them for navigation and piloting. However, the related perspective changes something else: perception.

Perhaps it’s the absence of so much more to look at, but that colorless, enormous fog background blanks out clouds, trees, rocks, mooring buoys, islands, birds, etc. Local objects that remain close enough to be seen in the fog, get more attention. Their details stand out, and the slower pace induced by fog provides more time for observing them. Perception changes under these conditions; the mind expands its attention to perception, observing in ways that otherwise might be overlooked. In a kayak on a bright sunny day, it’s tempting  to zip through that row of pilings, forging ahead to see an eagles’ nest or come upon a deer on the opposite shore. But restricted to nothing to view but the pilings in heavy fog, I find them the focus, easy to ponder. I wonder how, since being placed there in 1906, they survived over 70,000 tides, hundreds of collisions with tons of ice, and the bored in  attachments of millions of barnacles, muscles and periwinkles.  I admire the graceful sculpture of their lines, produced by nature’s weather and erosion. They even become icons of life’s larger barriers and beauty. Some pilings are submerged now, and are visible as you pass over them. Like subconscious realities they have an eerie attraction of their own. Colonies of microscopic creatures live there, requiring just the right ratio of water and air every 6 hours or so; how do they know to come here? Installed on a north-south axis, this row provides reliable direction and guidance, most especially in the fog.

IMG_0168.jpgCould larger life follow a similar,  archetypical pattern? We prefer sunshine and predictability as we go about life, but it’s the mental funks that guide us. None of us seeks depression or anguish, but we realize that growth always comes through suffering and, grow we must. Unfortunately we need a few setbacks in life to slow us down, to rethink priorities. During those times when our efforts to be in control fail us, we can choose to view them as an opportunity to slow down, observe what would otherwise be ignored, and then actually celebrate the presence of fog.

Portable fog horn pictured above, useful for announcing the presence of a kayak to ships approaching in the fog

 

170917 _ JHD _ perspective from fog

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