I sat on the end of the pier on the top edge of the United States with my legs dangling above the calm waters as gulls dived and fed in the Great Lake Ontario. No wind, the lake like glass, a faint haze from the smoke of the western fires, and Canada the next landfall north about sixty miles.
Of all my travels only three times have I stood near one of the Great Five. Erie, at a friends’ wedding in Angola, New York, Michigan, at a reading in Chicago, and now, here, staring out at just before seven am as the sun rises and I instinctively look out for dolphin or pelicans, conditioned by life on the bay and the ocean. It takes me several walks to the water to remember I’m likely not to see any in a lake.
Such vastness! It seems “lake” can’t possibly be the right word; even Great Lake seems insufficient, though it does sum it up. “Is that a lake?” “No, no. It’s a Great Lake.” Yes.
I’ve stared across valleys in my life, distant mountain ranges from the Rockies to the Pyrenees, and their majesty has a humbling effect. But they still seem attainable; I can merely, as John Muir suggested, throw a loaf of bread in a backpack, hop the fence and head out. But the inconceivable crossing of such waters suggests limitations. Even crossing it by boat can be conceived as an act of madness when the weather shifts and the waves become mountains in their own right. Such waters have taken down vessels. Think Edmund Fitzgerald on Great Lake Superior (the double modifier here is nice—“great” and “superior” for extra measure).
There’s something about staring out across the reach and knowing we can only dream about the crossing.
And I have dreamed about it. From the Great South Bay to the Atlantic, I’ve dreamed of hearing the rigging against the mast, even longed for the boredom of the doldrums, leaning against the cabin, reading a book, waiting for a breeze. I like the juxtaposition of aloneness and vastness.
But this isn’t about water or sailing or the call of some distant reach.
I met a man who is a certified genius in electronics. I won’t here detail some of his accomplishments in the sports-technology world because I couldn’t even begin to comprehend them at the time, but it is downright astonishing. He has a significant track record, nearly one hundred people working for him, and is speaking in savant fashion about a subject matter which for me is an entirely different language, a completely different alphabet.
But I did recognize and was swept up by one element of this nice man that I’ve only experienced a few select times in my life: Passion.
I do not mean a love of his work or an obsessive dedication to his ideas, though those exist. I mean a complete absorption of his life, of what he is doing with his life, of how he has completely discovered his purpose for existence and is fulfilling that purpose. It was as close to witnessing some form of nirvana, albeit with something I didn’t understand and have no use for. The thing is, that passion clearly spilled over into his love of life itself. He is an inspiration to be around, to listen to.
He leaves. I sleep. I get up and walk to the end of the pier out back and dangle my legs above Lake Ontario, kicking my feet toward Canada and watch the sun join me; gulls dive, and the water is still, like glass, like a mirror.
Where’s your passion, Bob? I wonder, not in some inferior way or even a self-doubting way. Just in a sweeping wide-open perspective of the surface of my life kind of way. What part of my life moves me to such energy and dedication that I’m all in, body, heart, soul?
Family, of course, when time stands still and there is no need to remember or plan, but simply to be absorbed in the presence of love, and laughter, and being together while we can still be together, passion coming from knowing it won’t last. For me, nature, where something similar happens, and I know I’m where I am most comfortable. But even in those circumstances, that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean the engulfing awareness, the absolute presence of mind to know, to instinctively understand “yes, this is why I’m here, for this.”
Well, like I said, I’ve only experienced it a few times, even among most people I know who love what they do for a living and dedicate themselves to their craft. It is one of the elements we discuss in my Giants of the Arts course. It takes a slew of ingredients to reach such a level of awareness, let alone recognition, to be in the ranks of such greatness for whatever the genre. Talent, luck, internal motivation, timing, knowledge of the form, experience, sometimes money, sometimes connections, and on and on, and most often if you take one or two of the ingredients out, “greatness” becomes “good enough.” But one indisputable element which cannot be compromised is passion. Absolute passion. Van Gogh passion. Hemingway passion. This man I met is an artist. He works in technology instead of oils or octaves or words, but a true artist, nonetheless.
When I was young my father gave me a book about Robin Lee Graham, who at sixteen years old sailed around the world alone for five years. His passion extended beyond his knowledge of and dedication to the art of sailing; it bled into life itself, the way he talked to people, about people, his efforts to be immersed in the cultures he met along the way, the love of his life he also met along the way—in all things his passion extended, and I wonder if it wasn’t sailing that he was passionate about, but life, and sailing was simply the effect of his passion, the outlet, like must of Bach’s works, or sports technology for this gentleman. I’m confident if he knew vacuum cleaners instead of sports technology, he’d have explained the capabilities of that to us with equal enthusiasm.
I knew someone like that once when I was young and it rubbed off on me for a while, but eventually it ebbed; and when that happens it is easy to wonder if one gets caught up in someone else’s passion and that’s all, or if that energy pulls out of you something dormant, waiting for the spring of an idea, a direction, a material manifestation of such love and drive.
I can’t articulate my need at the end of the pier to be out on one of the sailboats, headed toward Ontario, or the Keys, or even the Chesapeake. It’s the same way I feel at airports looking for my gate, or in some foreign city where I am absolutely present, no thoughts of before or next, but present. I wonder, then, if my passion is to remain in the moment, to be present, without stress or anxiety, without regret or anticipation, but now. Like talking to a friend for hours about life; like listening to the excitement in your children’s voices when they talk about their lives.
Like the calm waters of a Great Lake on a warm morning.
Like a carpet of stars across the northern sky.
Or the sound of water lapping at the sand. As it always has. As it always will.