One cartoon character who simultaneously inspired and disappointed me during my youth was a corncob pipe smoking sailor by the name of Popeye. Sure, his grammar left something to be desired, but what wasn’t to like about his strength and ability to prevail against all odds, even if he was a roughhewn sort of guy. Whether overcoming his nemesis Bluto, saving his sweetheart Olive Oil, or helping the police solve a problem, his was the winning side. I had only two gripes with Popeye. The first was that he misled me about the tastiness of canned spinach. We didn’t eat it in our home, but as a young boy I pleaded with my mother to buy a can because I wanted to be strong like the Sailor Man. She indulged me. Things didn’t get off to a good start when the metal container didn’t magically pop open when I squeezed it as happened in the cartoon. It took a can opener to accomplish that task. As I forked out a first bite of the contents it tasted, well, like a pile of stale, wet grass. I never asked for another can! It was years before a dish of freshly sautéed spinach changed my opinion on the subject.
The other disappointment wasn’t Popeye’s fault really. For unknown reasons I admired the anchor tattoos on his forearms but was unable to reproduce them on my own. After all, what five-year old doesn’t need to sport their very own ink sketch? I remember my mother trying to humor me with a box of crayons on the floor at my grandmother’s house. No doubt she knew that was a futile effort but went through the motions anyway. It didn’t help that a couple of cousins had inked up with magic markers before making the trip to visit that day, leaving me the odd man out. As much as I have disliked following the crowd over the years, now that tattoos are all the rage I’m glad a replica of Popeye’s anchor wasn’t in the cards for me. I’ve seen some amazing ink art, but I’ll leave it to others to carry on the walking mural tradition.
My fascination with Popeye faded over the years, but anchors still hold an inexplicable attraction for me. It’s not that I am a boatman or have any special affinity for watercraft. Neither do I collect models or artwork featuring anchors. It is more of a symbolic, mystical, even mythical connection with the image that resonates with me. Perhaps it is because I’ve never been one who cared to be tossed about like a ship on a rough sea. That is not to say I need for waters to always be calm or the way to be tranquil. One of my favorite vacation memories is of shooting down a water slide on a cloth mat some 500 meters on a mountainside in Costa Rica. I thought I was going airborne around a couple of its curves, but enjoyed it so much I had to ride multiple times. But among my worst memories from vacation, of which there are very few frankly, are a couple where I’ve remained horizontal for short periods of time, stretched out on the bed in my cabin waiting out storms that could clear the dishes off of the dining room table. When even the crew turns green you know it is time to lie down and be still! In those kinds of situations, I appreciate a good anchor that can help calm the ship during a storm. At some point its effectiveness may be reduced, but if it still prevents being blown off course, that counts for something! Anchors grasp the terra firma at the bottom of the abyss. They help secure the vessel. The anchor holds, preventing drifting during storms and gentle currents alike.
The term “anchor” brings another image to mind as well. As I dabbled in Do-It-Yourself projects over the years, one tried and true lesson is that wall studs rarely seem to be exactly where a picture needs to be hung or a new shelf mounted. Without a wall stud, securing an item safely to the desired location is a challenge – or would be except for the availability of anchors. At least two different individuals claim to be the inventor of this handy item – one in 1911 and one in 1958. Whoever deserves credit for the invention, contractors and home decorators everywhere are grateful! Choose from wedge anchors, sleeve anchors, mollies, and more; these insert into, expand, and grasp the drywall and while securely receiving a screw or other fastener that bears the weight of the item you wish to mount there. These anchors provide stability where there is no other means of getting and maintaining a trustworthy grip. As with DIY projects, so also with life, many times when I most need a hand there seems to be nowhere to get a firm grip on things! In moments like those, it helps to know which anchors you can depend upon!
It is this idea of stabilizing and securing through uneasy times that gives anchors their appeal. It is an image that has not been lost on countless others before me. Numerous writers refer to spiritual anchors that blend the function of a securing weight with the concept of the spiritual journey. Just as a ship anchor helps keep the vessel attached to one place on the ocean floor so that it swings less, doesn’t capsize, or drift off course, similarly spiritual anchors are those things that keep us grounded, connected to what matters most, and able to cope with the challenges that life brings.
In what I playfully consider the holy trinity of tattoos because they are used to depict the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love, the anchor, along with the cross and the heart were often used by early Christians. The virtues, of course, are well known from I Corinthians 13. The anchor symbol itself seems to be rooted in Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, . . . .” In these contexts, an anchor tattoo symbolizes things like stability, strength, and determination. These qualities are easy to take for granted until we find them depleted or lacking, at which point we wonder how we ever could have failed to notice them.
In the early 1990s, singer Ray Boltz popularized a song called “The Anchor Holds” that includes these words:
The anchor holds
Though the ship is battered.
The anchor holds
Though the sails are torn.
I have fallen on my knees
As I faced the raging seas.
The anchor holds
In spite of the storm.
The song nicely blends the anchor image with life’s challenges in a way the captures the anchor’s strength alongside human weariness. Occasionally I realize the song is playing in the recesses of my mind. When that happens, I pause and take inventory to determine whether or not I’ve sailed into choppy waters. Occasionally, I’m surprised to discover my boat is rocking though I hadn’t yet become fully aware of it.
Why is the anchor on my mind these days? Very likely, sitting on the cusp of eight weeks beyond bypass surgery, at some level I’m still reflecting on the things that helped me through the process—anchors of the soul, so to speak. A sense of Divine Accompaniment ranks high among them. So does the support of my wife Judi who assisted my recovery without complaint. Who knew that a chicken pie or dish of lasagna, delivered while still warm, could be such potent reminders of the anchors that surround you? Cards and texts sent as visual reminders of prayers and support registered in a way that doesn’t happen, for me at least, when received at holidays and birthdays.
Or perhaps the anchor comes to mind as a consequence of the effects of over a year of pandemic precautions. Every day involves a check of the global and local numbers. Headlines provide daily doses of dire predictions about the future, sometimes doubting a return to normalcy will ever occur. It has been tough at times, but not all bad. Along the way altered routines have prompted the recognition of things that matter and things that don’t—even though I once thought they did. There are tangible ways in which I’d say life has improved. That is not to say I won’t celebrate if and when normalcy returns, but I will take with me a commitment to remember and depend upon some of the anchors that have enriched these past several months.
Honestly, there are areas where I’m still looking for anchors. What exactly can keep a divided nation and fractured communities from capsizing into chaos or drifting away from any of the ideals that are intended to define our life together? When the narrative intended to forge an identity for the group unravels and is seen to exclude some of us, to what do we cling as a means of staying constructively engaged in the process? Or how can religion, which has such capacity for good, also be used as the justification for such hatred and violence against others? There is important work to be done in areas like these!
Anchors not only provide security through their ability to hold firm in the storm. Merely having them on board gives some assurance that we are “sea ready” and life’s challenges can be navigated so long as we deploy them when needed. Maybe Popeye the Sailor Man was on to something with his tattooed forearms after all. With the anchors always on full display, it is much easier to remember who you are and what has kept you afloat up to this point. With that knowledge, may we sail on with confidence. Anchors aweigh!