This week I did something I’ve wanted to do all my life: take sailing lessons. I signed up at the local harbor for “Beginning Sailing 101.” It’s a three-day class and I’ve completed two days so far. My exam is next week.
The course includes learning nautical terms – some of which are familiar, some not. I soon noticed how much sailing jargon is part of our everyday language.
At one point the instructor was presenting ways to know if you are moving in the water if you seem to be standing still. “You look at the boat’s wake,” he said. “If there are bubbles and ripples behind the boat, it means you are moving.”
I looked over the stern (the back end!) of the boat for the wake. Sure enough, there were the bubbles and ripples. I started thinking about the term “wake.”
The first thing that came to mind was the Irish tradition of gathering after someone has died to remember and honor them. We often associate that experience with heavy drinking of certain distilled liquids. But it was not immediately clear why we would use the word “wake” for such an event.
Then it came to me — the person has left a “wake” in our lives – an influence or impact – and we instinctively want to gather to reflect on what that means.
As I pondered this further, it occurred to me that the wake behind a moving boat may seem to dissipate as the boat continues sailing. But it has made a real impact on the ocean itself, even if it seems small compared to the vastness of the sea. I began thinking about people whose “currents” of influence are still swirling in our lives.
My father came to mind. He died almost ten years ago, but every day some word or phrase of his comes to mind. Most of them are not appropriate to publish in a dignified space such as this, but others can be shared. For example, he employed a general handyman named Orville. Orville could often find solutions to practical problems when the proper part was not available. My dad delighted in his innovative ability, and, when faced with a puzzling problem, he’d say “Let’s see if we can ‘Put the Orville to it.’” Sometimes when I face a similar problem, I’ll think, “Maybe I can ‘Put the Orville to it’,” and it always makes me smile. But it’s more than just remembering the phrase – something about it causes me to reexperience a tangible sense of my dad’s spirit. It’s one of the ripples of his wake.
If I hear a jazz artist singing Gershwin’s “Summertime,” I’m taken back to times as a child when my mother would be singing it to herself at the piano as I was walked through the living room. She’s been gone 29 years, but when I hear “Summertime,” it’s different from a pleasant memory – it’s a moment when I feel she’s present again; it’s part of her “wake.”
It can also be true with organizations.
A few years ago, I was greeting a new neighbor. She asked where I’d worked. I mentioned Hospice of Santa Barbara. Her eyes widened. “You worked there? Your counselors saved my life after my husband died suddenly. I wouldn’t be standing here today without them.” What she expressed was not a simple fact – it was bringing to the surface a healing experience that was very much alive in her.
Last fall I went to Los Angeles for one of the first post-COVID concerts. An older woman sat next to me, and we began to talk. She told me she was from West Los Angeles. I told her I was from Santa Barbara. “What did you do there?” she asked. “I was Director at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center.” She almost came up out of her seat. “That’s one of the most important places in my life!” she said. “My 12-step group went there every year, and we loved it. It’s an amazing place.” I could see La Casa’s impact on her had not dissipated but was buoying her spirit even as we spoke.
These moments aren’t just the retrieval of weightless, neutral thoughts from our past. They are times when we are truly feeling them again in body and soul. Just as a boat’s wake continues to be present in the ocean long after it is visible, these are strong, visceral experiences that continue to eddy and swirl within us, rising into our awareness in unexpected moments.
Are there times when such memories come to mind for you, drawing with them your body and soul as if you are still in their “wake?”
Finally, I thought about how all of us are “sailing” through our life every day and – know it or not – leaving a “wake” in the lives of those around us. What kind of wake is it? Are we paying attention to the currents we are setting in motion with our words and actions? Are we navigating skillfully so that those currents will benefit others, strangers in addition to loved ones?
Shipmates, I’ll confess reflecting on the word “wake” caused me to lose track of what the instructor was saying – good thing I wasn’t at the “helm.” But I’m grateful to be out on the sea, and to cherish all the people whose wakes are still with me.