I rarely have anything serious to complain about in my life, but today was a rough day.  The hearing for my cousin’s murderer was today.  Long story short, he’ll essentially walk.  To add insult to injury, I’m sick with some sort of crud I likely picked up at work, so I’m off for a couple days (thankfully I have a massive amount of sick leave accrued).  On top of it all, my bank is late depositing my check in my account.  It’s one of ‘those’ days.  Times like this it’s easy to sit around and stew in impotent rage, mope, or feel sorry for yourself.  I think I transited all those phases today.  Then I turn on the news or look online, and it’s a long slew of political posts and bathroom bill rants and generally humans being awful to each other.  It’s hard to feel positive or upbeat.  I question my faith, and feel like the whole world has gone mad around me.  So I need to fix this somehow.  I’ve decided to tell a story.  It’s a true story, and I hope in the telling it may bring someone else who’s having a bad day a smile, or some sort of kernel of hope.  I summon up this memory when I’m feeling down, and it never ceases to bring me a smile.

First, a bit of background: I live on the east coast, just a little bit inland from the Chesapeake Bay.  The bay is like a second home to me.  I’ve been speaking to the bay since I was a small child, playing in her waters, eating her bounty.  I called her Mother, and thinking back on it, after initiating into Palo, how ironic that would all come be.  My family had a wooden boat, an Owens Cabin Cruiser, and I’d spend many weekends at the marina with my father working long hours on the boat, playing along the docks, or cruising the bay.  I’d sit at the bow of the boat with my feet dangling in the porthole, because there it felt like I was a shorebird, skimming the water.  I was both flying, and at the same time one with Her. 

One day while we were out cruising the bay, we encountered an enormous ship cruising into port.  It was a merchant freighter, one of the largest of its kind.  A floating city; each one of its propellers the size of our house (a 2-story).  To this day it was the largest machine I’d ever seen up close.  I was awestruck.  My father gradually guided our craft closer, but it was a dangerous gamble, as our little toy boat could get dragged by the wake of this great leviathan.  We drew up to the port side of the ship, and looking straight up, the hull looked like an enormous wall shooting straight up into the sky.  But at the very top of this wall I could perceive dark faces and people moving about.  This ship had come from the African continent, and who knows how long it had been since the crew had seen other human faces other than their own, after being out in the open sea for so long.  For my young self, it was like seeing people from another world.  But see….that was the magic of the Chesapeake.  That was our Mother.  She was a liminal space where people from all over the world could meet.  I remember standing up on the bow of the boat and waving and waving.  To my surprise and delight, the crew looking over the side broke into smiles and waved back. 

I wonder how I must have looked to them, perhaps like some tiny monkey clinging to the front of a little toy boat.  But I wanted more.  I thrust my tiny hand in the air, making a fist at them, then pulled it down, gesturing someone pulling on a lever.  I wanted them to blow their ship’s horn.  For awhile I gestured, until one by one they left the port side of the ship, disappearing into it’s fast depths, presumably to return to their duties.  Several minutes passed.  Alright, I recall my father saying.  Show’s over.  For a ship of that size, blowing the horn on a whim was something that wasn’t done.  My heart sank, but I understood.  My dad started the engine, and made to angle the boat back out and away from the ship.

Then it happened.

The sound slammed down on us like a hammer, vibrating throughout the bay and bellowing through the air, drowning out the sound of other boat engines, the calling of the birds, our own voices.  It made a long blast and several shorter ones.  What I recall is a feeling that I can only express as utter joy and ecstasy.  I was laughing and crying at the same time, I threw my arms wide, looking like the character Jack from that “I’m king of the world!” scene from the Titanic.  And then there they were–smiling faces, laughing, dancing and jumping up and down and waving.  I waved back.  I bounced, I cried, I shouted.  And it was there, that singular moment, where people from across the world connected.  For them to break protocol in order to bring joy to a strange kid on a boat whom they’d never met and would never see again, it was at once paradoxically such a small and yet such an immense gesture. 

To this day I’ve not forgotten their kindness or their smiling faces.  But now that I’m much older I think about this and compare it to a darker time hundreds of years ago, when Africans sailed into the Chesapeake Bay not as merchants, but as chattel.  I compare that time to what happened when I was a child, and what a strange dichotomy it is.  But it’s one that gives me hope.  I think about the magic that is the Chesapeake, and I think about how strangers from another part of the world performed an act of kindness for a kid they would only ever see in passing.  I think about it over twenty years later, and I still smile.  It’s a precious memory, one of many such gems I keep tucked away in my heart.  But it’s also a learning experience.  When I find myself becoming too bitter, I summon up that memory, and I smile.

In the lap of the great Mother Chesapeake, in that moment, we traded not in goods or human bodies but in joy and smiles.  And also, maybe perhaps, hope as well.

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