Bread upon the Waters

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I stood at the tiny counter of the ship’s galley, kneading flour into dough, then stepped out and scooped up a bit more water from the sparkling sea. This far out from land, we hoarded our fresh-water supply and used seawater as much as possible. The salinity was tough on the skin, but perfect for boiling pasta and potatoes and for baking bread. Back down below, I finished kneading, and tucked the bowl of dough down into the sink – to keep it from flying across the cabin while the yeast produced a rise. No one on this boat turns down fresh bread for dinner.

It’s been a few years since that sabbatical year my family and I spent at sea. My daughters are older now, getting ready to launch out on adventures of their own, and my husband and I have a few new wrinkles that didn’t come from long days in the salty air. But my thoughts return regularly to that season, which was a master class in uncertainty, vulnerability, and community.

Small-boat sailing seems to require an enormous amount of independence. We worked to become our own navigator, chef, mechanic, plumber, water purifier, meteorologist, and nurse. We carried spare parts and medical equipment, and we tucked extra food and water into every available square inch of space. We trained and cross-trained, relentlessly practicing crucial tasks, making sure anyone on board could, if the necessity arose, pilot the boat back to safety alone.

And then we went to sea, where things never go according to plan. The first day in the ocean, we came within inches of losing our mast. Our first time back in port, we had to hitch a ride to the store for provisions and gear. When our dinghy went missing on the coast of Baja, a community of strangers rallied to our support as we hammered together a new dinghy in a parking spot. A friend drove for hours to bring us a new set of oars. Generous hands stretched over our ship’s lifelines to pass us fruit and ice, sodas and shellfish. And we handed back whatever we could – spare parts for the broken-down fishing boat, homemade bread for the sailors who had no oven. We proved again and again that the idea of the “lone sailor” is a myth.

As a child, reading through the Old Testament, I was confused by these lines: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” (Ecclesiastes 11:1, English Standard Version)  I wondered why anyone would do such a thing. Wouldn’t the bread get soggy? Wouldn’t the ducks eat it up?

Now, after casting myself out to sea, I think I might have glimpsed a truth at the heart of this poem. As a child, I might have thought that independence was the solution to my vulnerability, keeping my bread all to myself, staying away from the water’s edge. But the older I become, the more the inherent vulnerability of life prompts me to be more dependent, not less. It prompts me to give and receive with increasing freedom, to lash my life more securely to yours.

We embarked upon our family adventure thinking we would chart our course alone. Instead, we found ourselves plunged into an ocean of kindness, buoyed by the intersecting currents rebounding from countless other travelers, whose streams crossed ours. The turning tide never flows just one way. Here in the marvelous kingdom of Love, we are for each other the manna in the wilderness, the daily bread cast out and returned, now risen enough to feed us all.  ~~~

Bethany Lee lives and writes in Lafayette, Oregon, drawing inspiration from her travels, her daughters, and her work as hospice harpist and accompanist. Her first book of poetry, The Breath Between, will be released by Fernwood Press in May 2019. Bethany currently attends Quaker worship as an independent member of Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.