The Work of Dreams by George Merrill


Imagination is the stage where our dreams make their appearances. Dreams rarely materialize in the way we imagine. They will take us instead to an unexpected place.

At fifteen years of age, I dreamed of sailing around the world in an eleven-foot, cat rigged sailing dinghy called a Penguin

There were two problems: one, that the dinghy was my sister’s. The other, given its size and freeboard I probably wouldn’t have made it across Raritan Bay. I’d worry about that later.

First I’d need to strike a deal with my sister to get use of the Penguin. I didn’t tell her about my plan. By agreeing to paint and caulk the Penguin every spring I was promised regular access to it. Maintaining the dinghy in Bristol fashion was my ticket to high adventure.

I am a dreamer. I was a kid that could make himself believe that wearing the fireman’s hat made him a firefighter. I needed to take my dreams as far as I could without doing myself in. I had lots of room to maneuver in my imagination. In reality, I practiced sailing the dinghy after school. I’d sail solo (there was hardly room for two, anyway) from Great Kills Harbor up along the south shore of Staten Island to South Beach (not far where the Verrazano Bridge is today) and then back. I had no auxiliary power. Still on every trip I made it home under sail ghosting along on light southerlies. The winds favored me. Auspicious, I thought.

On those brief excursions late in the day, I’d watch merchant ships making their way through the Narrows to and from New York Harbor. With some mental slight of hand, I could make the Brooklyn Shoreline and the shore of Sheepshead Bay disappear. I imagined myself hunkered down, the tiller in hand, alone in my little craft far out at sea, passing big merchant ships. I repeat, imagination knows no boundaries.

Reading Joshua Slocum’s epic solo circumnavigation of the globe on his sailboat, Spray, inspired me. His story haunted my imagination, and in particular one sketch in the book. It depicted Slocum lying in the bunk of his cabin, an oil lamp over his head. He was reading. The Spray could be rigged to sail straight courses for great distances without being managed from the helm. Slocum, then, could rest below deck. I saw a scene of tranquility – like someone sitting and reading before a blazing hearth during a blizzard. In Slocum’s case, he was crossing a wide and dangerous sea with ease and equanimity. It was the perfect image of sanctuary that, off and on, I dream of. It’s about discovering that I’m right with the world just where I am and just as it is.

For my plan to sail around the world, of course I’d have no way of knowing exactly where I was. Celestial navigation was the way. Slocum wrote about sightings he took with a sextant. He used an alarm clock as a chronometer. He could locate himself on the ocean by looking heavenward at the sun, moon, stars and planets. There’s a fundamental connection between the motion of the spheres and the paths we follow here on earth. It’s said, “Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” I would find that connection by following my dreams . . . and mastering geometry.

I signed up for a course in celestial navigation at the Hayden Planetarium. Every Wednesday evening I took the ferry to Manhattan and the subway to 96th Street. Capt. Lee was our instructor. I had no aptitude for math. I was failing most of my math courses at school. Celestial Navigation is all about mathematics. The physician Lewis Thomas once wondered whether mathematics was the language of God. If it was, I had trouble understanding it. My romantic dream gave me the courage to try learning geometry with the added perk of maybe hearing the voice of God. I had lots of incentives.

Fortunately all the computations I needed were worked out in publications like the Nautical Almanac, HO 211 and 214, so that I only needed, in a sense, to connect the dots.

The still point in my immediate universe I learned was the North Star. Everything turned around it. I actually saw the still point. During one lesson, Capt. Lee had arranged for the Planetarium to darken the dome. The projections on the dome accelerated the rotation of the stars and planets. While Polaris stood unmoved, I could witness the still point of my universe while watching breathlessly, as the rest of it hurled by above me.

Of course I never sailed around the world. I did, however, complete my navigation course and took my first sight.

With a bubble sextant I purchased at an Army-Navy surplus store, I took a noon sighting on the sun from my back yard on Staten Island and plotted the coordinates. This located me somewhere in North Jersey –forty miles from where I was – not bad for a first time. No matter. It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.

They say dreamers have their heads in the clouds. We do. We balance our heads somewhere between eternity and immortality. Our dreams rarely materialize as they are imagined. They do lead to new and unexpected realms. Later on, I discovered how dreams would guide me over the uncharted terrain of my life that, sooner or later, I’d have to navigate.

Mine was a good dream. I now understand how the vastness of the sea and the eternity of the heavens inspire adventure and grand dreams, as well as art, poetry and music. My dream impacted me in still another way: whenever preachers say, “Let us bow our heads in prayer,” I can’t. My head turns reflexively upward. I am so sure I’ll stand a better chance of seeing the still point of it all when my head is in the clouds.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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