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Elan Vitae


  • Shena


Looking North on Seneca Lake by Ian Lausell

I turned the key. Nothing. No spark. No sound. No response.

Again. Nothing.

Yet again. Nothing.

My mind flashed forward through a series of more (and less) complicated possibilities: A bad battery connection? A loose wire? Something complicated and costly and beyond my realm of troubleshooting and repair?

At the beginning of the season (and the end of a long, cold winter) on a vessel that is just a few years younger than I am, this is not completely unexpected. But the other engine had just started right up. It was purring along, water gurgling out the exhaust just as it should be. While they are not connected, it feels like there is something in the karma between the two engines. If one starts, it only makes sense that the other one should start, too.

Suddenly, like shuffling a deck of cards into a cascading rainbow then bending it back in toward itself, retreating like a wave from the shore, my mind flashed back through the process. In my mind’s eye, I revisited the steps. Turn the key. But before that, move the throttles up and back to put some gas in the line. Done. None of that had made a difference.

As if I was watching the scene in slow motion, my eyes moved to the left of the helm. Of course! The gears have to be perfectly in neutral for the engine to start. Were it not for the adhesive tags in a decades-old font reading “FORWARD” and “REVERSE” on the white fiberglass at the top and the bottom, their most vital function would not be obvious. Neutral is not even labeled. One has to just know. Neutral has to be felt. With both engines off, I slid the gears forward, then in reverse, then to the middle, feeling for the invisible neutral.

Then I turned the key.


Instant reaction. Immediate energy. Response. Sparks. The engine had started.

One simple, slight adjustment where it needed to happen and everything changed. The problem was not only solved, it was now nonexistent. With one turn of the key, both 1978 351 Windsor engines now roared, lake water cycling in from the canal and out through the exhaust, cooling the engines and making the boat, still moored to the dock in the slip, sway back and forth with the immense energy running through them, the ropes tied to the cleats keeping me in place.

This is my home-away-from home, my vacation house on the water, my lakefront property minus the property taxes. My space to come back to neutral, to step away from my to-do’s, should-do’s, have-been-meaning-to-do’s. There is something incredibly calming about not only being on the water, but about having limited distractions, limited things calling for my attention, reminding me I should have attended to them days, weeks, months, or years ago.

While it is built to move, designed to move, meant to move, just being one the water and floating in the slip has its merits, too. When the engines are still, quiet, cold, it is in neutral. I step on board into that zone of neutrality, floating, where I can just be, and allow my thoughts, my mind, my senses, to gently drift in the direction of the breeze, or the current, or both, or neither.

Until the engine did not start that day (and I had later identified the problem), I had not thought about it that way. Ironically, initiating movement is all about finding neutral, the neutral that can’t be seen, but has to be felt.

Our lives can be like this. We try. We hope. We envision. Our minds flip through all of the reasons why this or that is not working the way we want it to, the way we expect it to. We then scroll back through the steps and stages of how we got to this place. Suddenly we realize all we need to do is to stop trying so hard, to stop trying to move in one direction or another, to stop letting our minds whisk us away in a twirl of unnecessary distraction or worry.

Where else can we drift, float, sway without concern for straying too far from our place of origin? When we find neutral, when we simply allow ourselves to be, to sit with ourselves, when we allow ourselves to be present and we feel it, not forcing it or over-analyzing it, rushing it or hurrying things along, things can begin to work, and even to roar. The spark ignites. Problems begin to resolve. Only then do we have the ability to untie the knots and let go of the ropes, if we so choose, to move from where we had been moored, slowly nudging the throttles in the direction we want to go, while minding and respecting the current and the wind, those ever-present forces beyond our control, those forces that command our respect.

Neutral is not nothing. Nothing is not neutral. We cannot be too far forward or too far in reverse to engage that spark. Maybe neutral is just being present.

What is it that calls us to revisit the process? To step back and recenter ourselves? Whatever that energy is, I’ve learned not to look for it, but to feel for it. May I continue to allow it to guide me into neutral, so I can truly be at home.

Photo credit: Ian Lausell

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