In 1987, a friend invited me to help celebrate her 40th birthday aboard a chartered catamaran on Galveston Bay. I wasn’t a sailor, and never had boarded a sailboat, but I accepted the invitation because I loved my friend. Driving to Galveston, I never imagined I was heading toward personal transformation, the near-elimination of the words “I can’t” from my vocabulary, or a new belief that, in difficult or challenging situations, the best first question always begins, “How can I…?”
As we loosed our lines that hot August night, there was a freshening breeze, and a lapping of wavelets against the hull. As the sun touched the dusky horizon and stars emerged above the mast, I felt a sudden impulse. Walking to the stern, I asked the captain, “Do you teach people to do this?” Glancing in my direction, he mused, “No one’s ever asked”. I asked again. He gazed at the darkening shoreline a long moment before saying, “Fine. But you’re going to learn it all.”
He was true to his word. No one “learns it all”, but I learned enough to know the joy of competence, and the discipline of the sea. In bays and waterways, offshore swells and quiet anchorages, we practiced navigation, rehearsed Rules of the Road, bled fuel lines, and mended sails. I learned to single-hand; I learned to crew. Above all, I learned to love water, wind and sky in a way I never could have imagined.
The learning took time, but the most important lesson I learned immediately. On my first day aboard, Tom asked me remove the canvas cover from the mainsail furled on its boom. The boom was higher than I could reach; the sail was tightly stacked and tied. Looking at it, I spoke the first words that came to mind: “I can’t reach it.” Bent over the anchor chain, Tom never moved. When he spoke, his tone was clear: “Never again will you say, ‘I can’t’. If I tell you to do something which seems difficult or impossible, ask, ‘How can I?’ The answer may be that you ask for help, or find someone else to do it, but that’s not where you start. The only way you’ll succeed is by first asking, ‘How can I?’”
Over the months, there were difficulties to spare. Each time I hesitated, Tom would grin and say, “You know the rule.” I did, and I do. When difficulties arise, the rule says: relinquish pessimistic or petulant “I can’t” for curious and optimistic “How can I?” Then, begin again.
Over the years, that question has embedded itself so deeply into my soul it seems a birthright, true across every realm of life. No matter how painful a relationship,
no matter how fearful the unknown, no matter how difficult life’s challenges, there always is a way forward.
Today, I believe without reservation that the deep satisfaction and pure joy of discovering that way forward is grounded in the simplest of questions: “How can I…?”
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