During the commercial fishing season, I serve as weekend crew on a 40-foot trap net boat on Lake Michigan. This line of work involves extended periods of time riding in the boat between port and where the various nets are anchored in place. It differs from the world portrayed in the popular series Deadliest Catch; it’s slower, and yet at times quite dangerous, given the Great Lakes’ sudden weather changes.
Not today: the water is glass calm as we motor along, the diesel rumbling evenly, and an occasional seagull punctuating the sky. The steel boat is designed for heavy-duty work, with an open deck for the nets to slide across, and a small pilothouse at the bow. The captain at the helm is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. He and I just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.
I love when we are out on the water, even though it involves hard work. It is peaceful, with the horizon stretching to infinity beyond the pine-and-sand islands. Inside, the pilothouse is strewn with weatherworn tools, rain gear, errant fish scales, and a single thermos filled with hot coffee.
Today the boat ride feels long, and I begin to imagine doing this routine over and over, as he does many times each week. With the intention of being genuinely helpful, I suggest to my husband that there could be a way to make better use of this commute time. The pilothouse could easily accommodate a laptop computer; he could watch stocks, do a correspondence course, or otherwise make good use of the time. His response stuns me.
“Why ruin a good boat ride?”
He went on to explain a good boat ride. He’s listening to the engine. Is it a consistent sound? Has there been a little change to that sound? Should he investigate? He’s listening to the boat move through the water. Again, has there been any change in how that sounds? He’s watching the weather and other natural indicators that he might miss if he were putting his attention into a computer or other brainy business. In addition, at least once a minute he makes sure he can see every member of the crew, to reassure himself that no one has gone overboard.
Crewmembers are usually doing the same thing, he adds gently. Watchfulness contributes to the wordless interactions and the synchronicity of all the steps involved in lifting nets to take the catch home.
I fall quiet. Of course I want him to make effective use of his time! The fact is that he always does so, only now I understand how to see it more clearly. His mindfulness is critical to the success of the catch and safety of the crew. He is not distracted by faraway people, places, or things. There is no notion of what else can I do with my commute time. Perhaps I too could take the helm, and conduct my daily business with such presence and singularity of attention.
Hearing in a Noisy World
How often do we subtly but unintentionally impose our frame of reference on those around us, including our closest loved ones? How might we stop?
One important step is to pay attention to the background noise of your office, your house, your life. Try to identify the hum that works best for you. Allowing ourselves to become aware of our own individual audio and visual baseline is a first step in preparing to honor others. It may take a dose of humility to recognize that the “hum” that works for one person feels to another like a vacuum needing to be filled.