Finding Centre and Other Life Lessons from Boatbuilding

Day three of boatbuilding school at the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador has come to an end and we’ve learned many more skills, ideas, and vocabulary today. We’ve focused on finding centre from almost minute one of the course. While drawing the template on the boards that would form the bottom of our dory, the first thing we did was draw a centre line. When we made the frames, each was marked at the centre. Today as we moved the dory onto the rack where we would pull the rocker into the bottom, the first thing we checked was that the boat’s centre line was under the plumb bob. Finding the boat’s centre has been central to almost each task of boatbuilding. Extrapolating that out to life, finding our own centre is likely as integral and perhaps, as challenging sometimes. Our instructor, Jerome, has many ways of adjusting the boatbuilding process on the fly–making a change here, or a change over there, moving the line, taking a plane to an angle that’s not quite right.

Not too tight, not too loose. That’s what my Buddhist teacher often said about meditation practice and life. Today when I was screwing the garboard to the boat (the garboard is the first plank fastened to the side and bottom of the boat and set the lines for all remaining planks), Jerome reminded me to attach the screw, not too tight, not too loose. The miraculous space between not too tight and not too loose is both microscopic and infinite. It’s a moving target. A moment. An illumination. Enlightenment. It is also fleeting. We find it. We lose it. Our centre. Found and lost moment by moment. Lifetime by lifetime.

One of the things that the first Buddhist teachers noticed when they arrived in the West is that we tend, without training, to be very hard on ourselves. We speak to ourselves so harshly, hold ourselves to impossible standards, and fail to treat ourselves with the compassion we so readily offer others. Sometimes I find my students so afraid to try something for fear of making a mistake. I don’t they they fear what I might say, they fear what they will call themselves. One of the greatest lessons that Buddhism has taught me is self-compassion. To put down the stick. To only speak kindly to myself. I manage that most of the time but occasionally slip up and pick up the stick. Fortunately, with both practice and practices, I drop it as soon as I realize I am carrying it.

Jerome has been modelling this to us as we learn boatbuilding. He’s super patient, encourages us to try new skills even when we fear we might ruin something, reminds us that no one is to blame if something is askew and that anything in the boat can be mended, adjusted, fixed, re-cut, battoned, glued, spiled, planed, or knocked gently into place. Building a boat is about successive approximations, learning to use your eye as one basis for judgment, using templates another, and learning to use a variety of traditional and modern tools. Sounds like a fine way to move through life as well.

It’s been great sharing this week of boatbuilding with two of my dear friends. From past projects, we’ve brought a familiarity of how each other works, exists, and things we are good at in the world. Mike is awesome at scribing and understanding in 3-D. Marian brings an eye to detail and a Macgyver can-do spirit. Me-I bring the spirit of adventure and curiosity and weaving all kinds of things together. Together with Jerome and Nicholas (his summer boatbuilding apprentice), we’ve formed a wonderful and engaged boatbuilding team. We laugh. We cuss. We measure. We measure again. We cut. Sometimes badly. Sometimes right on. Today as we fastened the ribbands, Jerome and Marian held them in place, Nicholas pre-drilled, I drilled the counter-sink, and then Mike drove the screw. Like clockwork. 14 times. Boatbuilding has lots of repetition. Lots of opportunities for practice. Lots of ways to learn from one another. Lots of ways to mess up and then fix it. When I became a Buddhist, I took refuge in the Buddha, his teachings (the Dharma), and in the community of his followers called the Sangha. Learning new skills usually requires both individual practice and a community to learn in. I’m grateful for the great team I’m learning with this week.

The ribbands, the narrow band of wood at the top of the frames, allowed us to see the total shape of our dory for the first time. They will also give some strength to and help hold the frames in place while we attach the planks tomorrow that will enclose the boat. Seeing this support for the boat come into place, I was reminded of how important support is. We have our frame, our mission, our goals, and our dreams. We have our centre. But sometimes we lose it. Sometimes we need to be surrounded with love and care until we can get our planks on. Once our planks are on and our seams caulked, we can float. Hopefully. Upright. But not always. In the sea between not too tight and not too loose.

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