Navigating Locks on the River of Life

stellaIf you have read much of Shestories, you know that my father bought a 24-foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser around the time I was born, in 1954. He named her Stella Maris, Latin for Star of the Sea. For five years he cruised the Stella up and down the Hudson, my favorite outing being on a Sunday afternoon up to Tarrytown on the New York side for a hamburger and then back to Alpine on the Jersey side of the Hudson, where Dad kept the boat. But the summer I was five he decided to spend his vacation cruising on Lake Champlain which falls between upstate New York and Vermont. This involved going north on the Hudson till we reached the Lake Champlain Canal which had a series of locks for the Stella to go through.

I recall reaching the end of the Lake Champlain canal at Whitehall, a small town in upstate New York. The canal went right through the town, or so it seemed from the boat. However, it was not just one lock, but three consecutive locks at Whitehall. When the lowering was completed in the first lock, and you were surrounded by grime and the mud walls, the doors opened for my father to pull the boat forward into the nextlock, where we were lowered again. Mud and grime again, the doors open again, and the Stella moved into the third lock. Down again, grime and mud all round us.

But then the doors opened, and once we exited that last lock, we were on Lake Champlain. Almost like childbirth, the locks are immediately forgotten for the joy of being on Lake Champlain. I was only five years old for the first of many times that I made this trip with my father. Dad must have put my older brother at the helm for a spell because he came back to stand at the stern of the boat, where I was sitting on the stern bench. He had the eternal cigar in his mouth, and his hands on his hips as he gazed at the water churning in the wake of the Stella’s engine.

He stood there for a while, and then he said to me:

Just look at that beautiful clean water.

I knew my father loved the Hudson River. I did too. I remember at the time wondering if his love of this beautiful clean water was a betrayal of the Hudson. But I have come to realize it was not. The Hudson was the grind of life, the work we all must do, while Champlain was where we could go to get away from it all for the summer. I am 65 now, but I still feel this innate call to go somewhere else to get away from it all come mid-June.

I have been thinking about the locks at Whitehall after reading Inner Compass by Margaret Silf. The author uses the image of a lock to represent a dark, hard time in life, while the water that will raise or lower us being our Creator, who will eventually make a way for us to continue on our journey in the canal. This image speaks to me, for all the time I spent in locks on the Champlain Canal, and knowing that sometimes life puts you through not just one lock, but three consecutive ones, where I feel to be now.

Silf goes on to explain that the locks in life make no sense if you are not aware of the canal, if you are not aware that you are on a journey, not aware that there is beautiful, clear water waiting for you beyond that last set of doors. And then I know I can say to my father, who passed when I was 21 but with whom I have many chats, Hey, Dad, look at this beautiful clean water.

Inner Compass An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality by Margaret Silf Loyola Press, Chicago

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