June 19, 2006

Changing the Wind

Once there was a man who received a sailboat as a gift: a small sailboat with one little sail. He knew nothing about sailing, but he stepped into the boat and waited, and soon a gust of wind carried him away from the land.

The man sat back and waited for the wind to carry him further, but after a few minutes the wind changed and sent him in another direction, and then another, and then it slackened and the boat stopped. The man sat bewildered in the little boat, looking at the slack sail and wondering when another wind would come and take him in the direction he wanted to go.

At last it came to him that he had to change the direction of the wind. He stood up in the boat, wobbling from foot to foot, grabbing onto a rail, a rope, a hatch, and began thinking of ways to change the wind. “Turn to the north!” he called out, but the wind still came from the south. The man shouted his command louder, and still nothing changed.

Then he began to make up magic spells. He hurled combinations of nonsense syllables at the wind, and the wind flung his spittle back into his face. Wiping it off, he was furious that his nonsense syllables didn’t do any good. In his fury, he stomped and stumbled in the little cockpit and, as the boat turned, lurched forward clumsily, colliding with the boom. By sheer luck, the sail turned in the right direction and the boat began to glide through the light chop of the open water.

“Aha!” he grasped at once. “I shouldn’t try to change the wind, I should try to change the sail!”

Of course he still knew nothing about sailing, but from then on he began experimenting with shifting the sails this way and that. Sometimes he was able to turn the boat in the direction he wanted, but more often his efforts took him exactly the opposite way. He observed his results carefully, but by the time he noticed one effect he misremembered the previous ones, and it was so frustrating to try to recapture a successful effort that he kept making more and more mistakes.

In confusion and despair, he gave up and threw himself down into the bottom of the cockpit and sat with his arms over his head, refusing to even look at the water. But then he noticed that the boat was rocking more and more violently. Stretching his neck to look, he saw that his dear little sailboat was running toward a long, narrow reef, visible just above the water.

“I am going to crash,” he told himself, and as he watched the bow of his boat dip and rise as it closed in on the reef, he first felt alarm close to panic; but then it subsided for no other reason that it couldn’t keep itself going any longer; and as the reef grew close, larger, it seemed more beautiful, and his mouth opened in happy surprise. He didn’t mind that he was about to crash on a reef. It was quite amusing, really, and exciting. He watched himself close in on his goal; he watched the small foam break on the serrated edge of the reef; he said aloud, “This is it!” And at the last moment, without thinking, he reached out and pulled the line and the boat came about and swerved from the reef with only inches to spare.

From then on, he knew how to sail, and whatever direction the wind came from was a direction he could use.