“Missing the Boat”
It is not so much that the boat passed
and you failed to notice it.
It is more like the boat stopping
directly outside your bedroom window,
the captain blowing the signal-horn,
the band playing a rousing march.
The boat shouted, waving bright flags,
its silver hull blinding in the sunlight.
But you had this idea you were going by train.
You kept checking the time-table,
digging for tracks.
And the boat got tired of you,
so tired it pulled up the anchor
and raised the ramp.
The boat bobbed into the distance,
shrinking like a toy—
at which point you probably realized
you had always loved the sea.
Naomi Shihab Nye is a modern American poet, born of a Palestinian father and American mother (of Northern European stock) and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Her most famous poem is “Kindness,” which I encourage you to check out, but it is longer and, frankly a little more work. I thought I’d keep it simple here. This is from her first collection, Different Ways to Pray, published in 1980 when she was 28.
This poem is simple, accessible and true, but deceptively so. On the surface, Nye takes the common metaphor, “missing the boat” at face value, but then she pushes our understanding of it. How often have we “missed the boat” with little consequence? Dozens of times. We get distracted, or ambivalent, stall out and “miss the boat.” Concert tickets, a school dance, dinner with friends. No big deal.
But what about slightly bigger stakes? A house just outside our financial comfort zone that doubled in value? A big job opportunity that would have launched our career, if only we’d been brave enough to apply for it? A semester abroad that might have cured our fear of travel and foreign places? Those boats are “missed” a bit more, because we can point to them as turning points in our lives. Like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (a classic of American high school education), those boats are harder to forget (and to forgive ourselves for).
But the boat that Nye is talking about here is something else entirely. Nye’s boat is our life, docked before us and calling us to embark. In Christian circles, this boat is your “vocation;” in Japan, your ikigai, in French, your raison d’ etre. Call it your soul’s work, your true self, your dharma. Call it what you will, but call it something and call it to you, but when it comes calling, don’t be afraid to get on board!
I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of her final lines, but also feel a twinge of sadness. We all know people (or might be people) who feel like they “missed the boat,” who go to hated jobs on a daily basis, who were blind to the fact that a boat even existed, because everything in their life conspired to keep them on the train, instead of adventuring at sea. I, for one, am encouraging the kids in my life, to look by air, land, and sea to find the means of transportation that’s going to take them where they want to go.