I’m just back from a 2-week holiday in Northern California where I lived for almost a decade. It’s my go-to place of refuge, especially in the summer when Lake County and the Lost Coast are Water Baby Heaven. My friend and I squeezed in an overnight on the coast where we stayed in a water tower that is purportedly the highest point in Fort Bragg. Maybe that is a bragging right in a town of two-story buildings. On our last day we headed to Noyo Harbor in search of lunch. Life sometimes gives you more pleasure than you bargained for. When we met Dusty Dillon at World’s End Rowing Club and Whatever Works Marine Service, this was such a time.
On the outside of his boat gallery, his word art proclaimed his credo: Experience is knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone.
He strolled by as I pondered this slogan. “The shop’s open now if you want to come in.” Inside were beautiful boats–traditional small crafts–made of far-flung woods with artisans and craftsmen from Europe and the United States.
“These are gorgeous, but of course you know that.”
“When the Norwegians get involved, it gets crazy.”
When a friend entered the shop, we got more of the story. In his family it was said that his grandfather escaped from Norway by stealing a boat and sailed to America. The grandson’s aim was to sail this beautiful boat back to Norway as a kind of restitution mission mixed with adventure.
“That’s the concept. My son won’t have anything to do with it. He says those waters get rough beyond belief.”
“Well, I was thinking just today that if we die doing something we love and believe in, perhaps that’s one of the best ways to go.”
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled slightly, not buying it. Death is death after all his shoulders seem to say. But, I’m a Romantic and like the idea of being the hero in your story and going out–in memoir-speak–at the highpoint in the narrative arc. That’s the concept.
My friend and I nosed around the shop sniffing up the good smells of the wood and marveling over everything. Dusty is into everything. For Earth Day he set up an event to work with at-risk kids from Shelter Cove Middle School to build a kit boat The Week-ender Skiff. Naturally, in the process of building the boats, they are building themselves.
“Before they can do anything with their lives they must believe in their own worth.”
That’s how you build a life. As we talked about learning from direct experience, I realized that his slogan was very much the slogan of my family and of my work in participatory adult education.
Experience is knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone.
Of course Experience is only the best teacher if one knows how to learn from it. When something gnarly happens to me, my father says with a lop-sided grin: “Part of your education.” Turn that experience into knowledge and practical wisdom, and then you have something no one can ever take away from you–because it’s in you. You earned it.
There’s an escalating self-investment in this slogan that’s very telling:
Observed. We are seeing it from the outside, and not engaged in it–while still carefully paying attention.
Encountered. We’re now part of it, but we are passing through.
Undergone. This is where the depth comes from that can make us into a big person if we let it. “Undergone.” We have gone under. While it’s more fun swimming near the surface of deep waters, it is in the diving under these big waves that we both save our lives and find them. Everyone deserves to know the truth about their lives, but not everyone finds out what that truth is.
My father’s highest praise is to say that someone is a Big Man. By that he means a man of character who knows what to do and does it with grace, competence, and heart. Dusty Dillon is such a Big Man. Not just his girth, mind you. But in how he gives himself to the experiences that he observes, encounters, and undergoes. We were just passing through–an encounter, a moment of connection and a conversation to remember. He gave himself to it fully.
His friend returned to the shop with another boat buff. I felt it was time to head out to free Dusty up for the business at hand. But no. “Wait here.” he told them, “I need to show these folks my workshop.”
A workshop! Oh, Girl! I grew up around these, and still find them places of practical magic. When he slid open the door, the perfume of wood greeted us in a cavern filled with boats that would do any sculptor proud. “Oh, it smells so good,” I said.
Dusty immediately picked up a scrap of local nutmeg and sanded a side to bring out the aroma. A gift to remember a gift. As I type this at my father’s in Illinois, the board rests on my bedside table emanating its fragrance. Like Mark Twain and Edith Wharton and others gone before me I’ve found a writing haven in bed. This encounter now lives inside me, and I feel I’ll continue to gain from it as I continue to absorb it.
Dusty went back into his boat gallery. Our stomachs were growling, but I needed a little more time to take in the slogan. As I stood there, notepad in hand, Dusty ducked out the front door for a second, smiled, and gave me a little tip of an imaginary hat. I smiled and tipped my imaginary hat right back.
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