Why are we here? Are we going to be OK?

September 2008

By David Roper

For the last three days and nights there’s been just two of us in here. Two boats. Two people. He’s about a hundred yards away, aboard a tired 21-foot low-end cabin sailboat. One spreader droops down forlornly like the broken wing of a bird. He sits there in the tiny cockpit, smiling at nothing in particular, hands folded behind his head, listening to the osprey chicks’ peeps from the nest in the trees of the small island near him, as the mother soars away looking for food. Mostly, he just watches life go by in this wondrous small bay.

I, too, am alone, aboard Elsa, doing about the same thing. Neither of us, I’m sure, feels the need to communicate. Last night he started playing the fiddle. Poorly. I thought it was lovely. Perhaps he did, too. For all is harmony in a place like this.

I am here awaiting new crew. I could wait forever with no anxiety or boredom. Here, as with my neighbor, I have the luxury of time to think and remember. I begin thinking about whales and their relationship to humans. When I was sailing here from Marblehead last week, a Points East reader who had read my last column on whales, sent me an email saying, “If you see a whale, David, could you ask him/her two questions: Why are we here? and Are we going to be OK?” It touched me as a wholly sincere question from this woman from Utah who said she’d never seen a whale but knew that they would have the wisdom of time on their side and might know the answer to these age old questions.

I think it deserves an answer, but, other than a few porpoises (no offense to the porpoises… I’m sure they’re wise, too), I have yet to have the requisite encounter. But I will keep looking and keep thinking while in my quiet new world.

At 6 a.m. and about 3 p.m. each day, my neighbor on the decrepit sailboat gets in his tiny dinghy with his fishing pole, pulls out the oars, and goes fishing for dinner. It seems exactly the right thing to do. I feel a twinge of embarrassment at my own life next door. I keep marinated steak tips in my larder. He fishes for his dinner. I listen to music on my CD player. He makes his on his violin. I view the weather radar for future weather and check my emails on my fancy phone. My neighbor looks at the sky for weather, and perhaps wonders or uses his imagination to speculate how people he cares about are doing and what they’re thinking.

I’m disappointed in myself that I feel oddly vulnerable that my fancy phone might die an early death and leave me with only the present. “I thought you were here to get away from all this stuff,” I say out loud.

I thought about all this until late last night. My neighbor seems so content in his world. I admire that. He doesn’t appear to be fleeing anything. Rather, just living. He seems to be right where he should be, kind of like the whale. Other than me, there’s no one to judge him here. I sense no constraints on him. No blind ambition. Only the ambition to be where he wants to be, with whatever he has, and keep on living.

I dissect his situation. I speculate on his life. What’s his job? Then I think: Why does that matter? What will you conclude and judge with that data? I try to get some perspective, but I can’t. I have only my sense of what I see from afar.

What I do see is the elemental and the simple: a man connected to his world, carrying his home under him, and his shelter above him. He’s in a free bay. He can probably anchor here forever if he wants. There’s fish aplenty beneath him, quahogs in the mud on the shores, berries of all types on the little islands, rain squalls bringing water. In short, he is surviving. His variables in this immediate life he can count on one hand.

I think back. Five days earlier I was in another harbor, moored behind a very large and expensive sailing yacht, no doubt with the latest of everything in equipment. I watched all day as the frantic and perturbed crew tried to get their generator working. Even from a hundred feet away, I could feel the tension. You’d think it was a life or death situation. The beauty and essence of their surroundings were lost to these five people, as the strangle hold from their reliance on this machinery cut off their air supply from what they were supposed to be there for: nature. (Later, they got the generator running, the resulting exhaust drifted down into Elsa’s cabin, and I had to get up in the rain and move up wind.)

Tomorrow, I’m going to sea again. I will be away from both the simple and the complex sides of humans. I will have nothing to judge except the ocean under me. My goal will be to survive and simply move from point A to point B to complete the day’s journey into the next. Kind of like the whale.

Which brings me back to that lady’s questions: Why are we here? And are we going to be OK?

I promise you this, dear writer from Utah, if I see a big humpback surface next to me, I will, with reverence, raise up my palms to the sky, and ask those two questions. Perhaps I will see the answers reflected in its huge, time-wizened eye.

David Roper keeps Elsa in Marblehead, Mass.