One of the few shirts I brought with me on this trip is from my friends back home. “Love where you live,” it says, with an asterisk on the outline map of Michigan, right where my town is. It’s a good invocation, calling us to put down roots, branch out, and pay attention to the places we live, not just as places to sleep at night, but as homes to care about.
For the past three months, though, I’ve been living on the ocean, which is a bit harder to love. The land is easy, with its lovely fields that produce food, warm, dry homes for shelter, and friends for company. The ocean, however, is vast and emotionless and unwelcoming to humans, even now, despite our radar and radios and GPS. It’s hard to put down roots in salt water. The ocean has its own consolations, but they are not those of home.
So my love, my roots and branches, have become entwined with our ship, the Tres Hombres. In port, there’s a lot to focus on–exploring a new town, the ever-essential laundry and showers, beaches to sit on, and coconuts to collect, but at sea, when the sky touches the water in a perfect circle of unbroken horizon, Tres Hombres becomes both the center of my world, and my entire world.
Every line and stay, every block and pin, attains a significance it doesn’t have on land, and we all notice when the smallest thing goes wrong. We wake at night when the sails start flapping, and our dinner conversations revolve around what is making the strange clanking noise above the focsle.
I’ve learned to tell the difference between a creaky block and a clattering shackle, between the sound the main boom makes and the gaff.
These details are mundane, trivial, but to me, because I live here now, they are significant. They signal things that need fixing, or need chafing gear, or that the wind is changing. I’ve been stuck on this thought for a while, and my emails home have become shorter lately, because who of my friends or family wants to hear about how the main staysail sheet sounds exactly like a flying fish when the wind tugs it just right? It makes for a boring story, but it entertained me for an entire night watch. It’s one of those you-had-to-be-there stories, an inside joke between the crew and the ship.
I’m not even sure what the moral of this is–people far away don’t care about your problems? Maybe. Or, to put it in a more positive light–people far away have their own problems, and it’s up to you to take care of your own. Not everything is universally interesting, or relevant. Which means that it’s even more important to pay attention to your own little things–no one else, no agency or coalition or government, is going to do it for you. It is in the small details, after all, where care can be taken, and where it is needed. If we didn’t regularly replace the mousings on the shackles, the whole rigging would eventually fall down. If we didn’t take a minute to put a half-inch whipping on the end of a halyard, that rope would sooner rather than later unravel and become useless.
And to comfort myself, I remind myself that national politics is a big detail composed of many tiny ones, and while I cannot do something about everything, I can take care of the small details around me, where I live. I can notice my neighbors, take care of my soil, look at my landfill instead of ignoring it. And, in all its splendid and particular mundanity, I can love where I live.