This morning just past dawn my brother-in-law Andrew, Jay, and I crept out of our house in South Freeport for an early morning sail. We brought life jackets, toast with peanut butter, a bilge pump, and a thermos of coffee. The sun was coming up over the pine trees that line Wolfe’s Neck as Andrew pulled the cord on the two-stroke outboard and we headed for the mooring, the water like glass, the air inauspiciously calm given what we proposed to do.
This was Jay’s second sail of our New England vacation, which included a week on Martha’s Vineyard with Caroline’s parents and now a week in Maine at the house where I grew up. The first sail, yesterday, hadn’t faired so well. No wind and the main wouldn’t raise. As we neared the mooring Jay declared to me and Andrew, “Sailing is hard.” I hoped he’d be singing a different tune by the time we returned to the harbor later that morning.
The sailboat is a 22-foot Cape Dory Typhoon, a legendarily sturdy boat with a full keel that, my stepfather informed us all when he bought it last year, could take you all the way to England. That guarantee doesn’t apply to the boat’s outboard, however. We started the motor, cast off from the mooring, but as soon as we were loose the motor died. We were nearly adrift as I reached over the gunwale and grabbed the mooring ball with the outgoing tide ripping us away. There was some cursing and jumping about before we managed to reattach a line, after which we deduced the problem with the motor as a closed valve on the gas can. Jay, who has a good sense for when things aren’t as they’re supposed to be, was nearly in tears amidst the commotion. Eventually we reassured him that the boat was working fine and that no one was going to crash, and we got back underway.
We motored out of quiet Freeport Harbor, through lobster pots and sleeping sailboats, with Jay at the tiller. Andrew explained to him that you push to the left to turn to the right and pull to the right to turn to the left, and he understood what we were saying even if his precision was off, so that we jerked to and fro through the channel like a sailor stumbling home from the wharf-front bars. We eased past Pound of Tea at the mouth of the harbor and emerged into the early morning splendor of Casco Bay, where we cut the engine, the world suddenly and improbably transformed into silence.
Except for the inexhaustible Jay, who wanted to know where the seals were and what the birds were eating and what the distant lobstermen were doing, and why, for the love of God, weren’t we going any faster. With the sails slack along the mast, Andrew climbed out of the beseeching cockpit and laid out on the boat’s narrow foredeck. I passed Jay up to him and then came up onto the deck myself. The sun was bright and warm against my face and I leaned back on my arms. Jay asked me why we’d moved, would our legs reach into the water, weren’t we going to crash if no one steered the boat. I told him, “shhh,” and explained that one of the best parts of sailing is not saying anything at all.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot with Jay on our New England vacation, how there are two kinds of learning: The learning you do when an adult tells you things, and the learning you do when you let go just enough to sink into a new experience.
The first time I had this thought was two Tuesdays ago, when I was reading Jay a story from Frog and Toad as we lay beside each other on the bottom bunk at the house on Martha’s Vineyard. We were reading “The Spring,” a funny story where Frog tricks Toad into thinking it’s May instead of April so that Toad will give up hibernating and get out of bed to play. It’s a story we’ve read nearly every night for the last several weeks, and as I read it to Jay that night I peppered him with questions, asking him why Toad didn’t want to get out of bed, and what kind of trick Frog was going to play, and prompting him to anticipate the end of sentences I knew he’d already memorized.
I asked Jay these questions because I wanted to push him to think harder about the book we were reading, but in the middle of the story, it occurred to me also that the cost, as it were, of asking Jay all those questions and trying deliberately to build his reading comprehension skills, is that he lost the chance to be immersed in the story, to be born away into the world of Frog and Toad, and to wake the next morning with his blood still thick with the tale he’d gone to sleep by. When I realized that, I stopped asking Jay questions about the book and just read to him.
There is a place, of course, for both deliberate instruction and experiential learning, but parenting culture today skews towards the former. It’s easier to see the value in teaching a kid to make predictions about a book than it is to quantify the benefit of giving a child the experience of falling in love with a story.
So too, this morning, as I sat beside Jay on the deck of the boat, I thought about how there were any number of lessons he might take way from our morning sail, including but not limited to the fallibility of his elders, the fickleness of the wind, the difference between the jib and the main, and the amount of time that a seal can hold its breath underwater
But maybe what I most wanted him to get out of the morning was an understanding of what it feels like to be sitting on a sailboat on a sunny August morning in Maine with his dad by his side and the glory of the Atlantic spreading out before him. I wanted Jay to know that feeling for its own sake, and for the lesson he could draw from it in time, which is that there are many ways to feel in the world, and that figuring out which ways you like best, and which experiences give rise to those feelings, is far more essential knowledge than anything I or anyone else might have told him that morning.