Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
August 2017 - Volume 17, No. 8
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Ships Passing in the Night

When my time comes - to finally let go of it all - there are certain memories I want to cherish till the end. I’ve been collecting them awhile now, perhaps as an elder pondering his own mortality. It’s a strangely pleasant task, all in all. Glad that I was here, and there, and in so many similar as well as disparate places. So much shared, and so much kept quietly hidden. Now the poet Longfellow, steps into this quiet:

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”[1]

From my island shoreline

For over two dozen years now, I’ve been privileged to spend a week (sometimes more) on a remote uninhabited island in Lake Michigan, many night hours spent peering north across the water sometimes able to see some shore lights from the Upper Peninsula. And at times in the distant shiplanes, freighters and other Great Lake ships would trudge east and west festooned with their running and navigation lights. Then slowly to disappear.

Every once in awhile, when conditions were just right, day or night, there was a layer of water just below the surface, which would transmit to my solitary shoreline the soft thunder-like steady chug-chug drone of freighter engines. And then again, silence.

Engage - Release - Move on

A couple years ago I wrote in this Newsletter series, of a “rhythm of life” I called “Engage - Release - Move on.”[2] Here is the same rhythm I wrote of there. It can take place in a brief moment, or some days, weeks, months - or be the template for one’s entire lifetime.

In the Day / In the Night

Recently somewhere I came across a different iteration “Two ships passing in the daytime.” At that moment it felt so alien from the original - empty, soulless. That’s when I began contemplating this Newsletter topic.

The daytime is the time of the thinker, the worker, the builder. The night is the deeper time of the emotions, the dreamer, the lover, the sleeper, the soul at rest, the time of deeper healing. Yes, from the shoreline vantage of my island, I can see ships in the distance in the daylight. But when I see them ‘in the night’ it’s a much different experience. In the daylight, they are on a set course, going somewhere, destination-bound. In the night, they “pass” each other. In the daylight, it’s a mental experience. In the night it’s a soul experience - witnessed by a different part of my body.

Consider this: No ‘real’ wedding is complete until the “first night.” That’s why if the bride and groom stay around too long (at the reception) the guests begin to feel uneasy. The ‘full’ wedding begins with the engagement (symbolized by a ring) - and is not compete until the wedding bed (symbolized sometimes by the ‘bloody sheet’).  Everything in-between is just filling-in the ritual pieces toward the full transformation.

In some (even modern) traditions, the day formally begins at sundown the ‘night before.’  We know Christmas Eve, New Years Eve, etc. There’s All Hallows Eve (Halloween).

When the Night comes first

I’m intrigued with the idea of the day beginning with the previous night. I like it that way. Like relationships that though they may have begun in the day, blossom in the night. To be both excited and afraid is of the night. There is the sudden proximity of joy, newness, and/or excitement - then the fear, the fear of a following “silence.”


How many times in life do we ‘steel’ ourselves against the fear of the latter? I remember such experiences well.

Now when I read Longfellow’s words, I touch that fear, and strangely trust it. “Silence” may be his final word.  But even in that silence, there can be promised so much more.

Pay attention.


[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (American poet 1807-1882).


Note: Next month, this Newsletter will be published a few days late - on or about September 5, allowing my son Michael, also my publisher, to return from Burning Man.

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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