The case of the missing Maglite

The author in “hunkered-down” mode, reading 1/2 hour of every two. Photo courtesy Dave Roper

The Buddhist desire is to empty oneself in order to be filled. In this time of “social distancing” we certainly have an opportunity to slow time’s winged chariot, to empty ourselves of all the chatter and clatter of everyday life, to fill up the spaces often so wanting. Today, a mid-day Monday, I took a walk in the cemetery by my house, figuring it would be a good place to “empty myself” and to avoid humans. I wasn’t quite alone, though; I watched a dad getting ready to teach his little girl to ride her bike, carefully adjusting her helmet and gingerly lifting her bike from the bed of his pickup. He wasn’t at work that Monday. Or any other day now. And maybe that was a good thing, because there they were, alone together, with plenty of time. All the externals in the dad’s life were put on hold.

I think of one of my periods of being on hold and in extended solitude and how it went for me during a three-day storm, hunkered down in a remote bay in Maine during near constant northeast wind and rain. I knew from my reading about solo sailors that what I needed to do was ritualize all the small daily things, make them important somehow. So I set schedules for every little thing: I scheduled the winding of the ship’s clock and checked/noted its time every three hours against that of my phone; I scheduled the time to don foul weather gear and emerge on deck to check the anchor every two hours; I scheduled the time I would listen to the weather every hour; I scheduled reading for one-half hour every two hours (this was carefully spliced between anchor and weather checking). Still, by the end of the first day and night, I began to sense the degeneration of my mental health. Yet I knew this experience of mine was a joke compared to that of a man named Alvah Simon, who was trapped alone on his 36-foot steel boat high above the Arctic Circle, frozen in ice 100 miles from the nearest settlement, with the long polar night stretching into darkness for months to come. Confined by shrieking blizzards and stalking polar bears, Simon withstood months of crushing loneliness, sudden blindness, and private demons. Trapped in a boat buried beneath the drifting snow and slowly being dragged down farther into the ice, he struggled with this and the perpetual darkness toward a spiritual awakening and an understanding of the forces that conspired to bring him there. He emerged five months later a transformed man. One of the ways he survived was to create rituals.

So, would Dave’s rituals be enough? Would Dave emerge sane?

It was close. Day three was Dave’s version of “The Shining.” Here’s what happened:

On that third day, figuring the storm would break up the following morning and I might finally depart, I began my routine engine check. I folded down the cabin table (which I rarely use while alone, preferring to eat on deck or at the nav station) from its hinged spot on the bulkhead, thereby using the table to hold various engine-checking stuff. Then I took the only flashlight that still worked (a small Maglite) from its spot in the chart table desk, opened the engine hatch under the companionway steps, and began my engine check. When finished, I closed the engine hatch, put away my tools, folded up the table, and moved to my next scheduled event. Later, and after dark, when I proceeded to go on deck for my anchor check, I went to grab the flashlight from its usual spot in the chart table drawer. Not there. Not anywhere. I tore the boat apart, abandoning my other scheduled rituals. Still, not a big deal, right? Wrong. Finding the flashlight became EVERYTHING to me. You’d think I’d lost my wife’s wedding ring. This obsession was now THE ritual. The flashlight HAD to be in the cabin; I had never left the cabin. I couldn’t stop looking. And when I wasn’t looking, I was thinking about where I could be looking. The lost flashlight had eclipsed all my other rituals along with everything else in my mind (which I seemed to be losing as well). I feared I was turning into the marine version of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.”

I looked again the next (third) morning. The weather finally cleared that afternoon, so I began my sail home, rarely paying attention to my navigation or sail trim, as I was mostly still obsessing over the lost Maglite.

Fast-forward a week. Back in Marblehead, with my wife and another couple aboard for lunch, we anchored off an island in Salem Sound. The weather had grown cold. “Let’s eat below,” my wife suggested, lowering the cabin table for the first time in a week. I was slicing a baguette in the galley. “Hey, Dave,” she said. “Don’t you want to store this little light of yours in the drawer rather than here?” she asked.

I held up the knife, and looked at her, wide-eyed.

“God, what’s with that face? You look like that crazy guy from “The Shining,” she said. There was a tinge of fear in her voice as I came forward, still holding the knife, to grab the flashlight and put it away where it belonged.

Of course, she may indeed have been at risk as I came closer, breaking the six-foot rule, as these were the days before “social distancing.”

Look for David Roper’s forthcoming book, “Beyond Mermaids . . . Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends.” It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-times bestseller available on amazon.com.

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