There’s always a siren, singing you to shipwreck. Some of us may be more susceptible than others are, but there’s always a siren. It may be with us all our lives, or it may be many years or decades before we find it or it finds us. But when it does find us, if we’re lucky we’re Odysseus tied up to the ship’s mast, hearing the song with perfect clarity, but ferried to safety by a crew whose ears have been plugged with beeswax. If we’re not at all lucky, we’re another sort of sailor stepping off the deck to drown in the sea.
Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could not physically re-enter the ocean as the seals and whales had done. But over the centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively.
“There was a man here, lashed himself to a spar as his ship went down, and for seven days and seven nights he was on the sea, and what kept him alive while others drowned was telling himself stories like a madman, so that as one ended another began. On the seventh day he had told all the stories he knew and that was when he began to tell himself as if he were a story, from the earliest beginnings to his green and deep misfortune. The story he told was of a man lost and found, not once, but many times, as he choked his way out of the waves. And the night fell, he saw the Cape Wrath light, only lit a week it was, but it was, and he knew that if he became the story of the light, he might be saved. With his last strength he began to paddle towards it, arms on either side of the spar, and in his mind the light became a shining rope, pulling him in. He took hold of it, tied it round his waist, and at that moment, the keeper saw him, and ran for the rescue boat.”
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
Kelly Ledsinger shared this poem, entitled Offshore, at our last Open Mic, The Journey. What is most striking about it for me is the honesty and extreme openness of the expression. Some poets rant and rave and amplify their emotions, while others try to forge distance between themselves and their feelings. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but Ledsinger takes another path, uniquely and refreshingly present with her emotions, full of a poetic mindfulness that allows emotion to breathe. It is a brave poet that lays the details of her life before the audience. She paves the way for empathy by sharing first.
He rises early and packs his duffle with a weeks worth of underwear and denim. He never really sleeps much before his journey. He makes a thermos of coffee for the drive to the Gulf. It will help him stay awake on those long dark stretches of Texas road
She packs him snacks for his drive, fusses and worries that he hasn’t had enough sleep. She always worries about him falling asleep behind the wheel. She can picture the officer at her door and the widow’s sob on her lips. But they have a son still in college, a mortgage and retirement to fund. So he climbs in the old beat up truck he drives. He won’t leave a nice truck sitting for the Gulf winds, the sea and the sand to corrode. No use in throwing good money after bad he says. He packs his bible, his daily devotional, a small worn copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Time magazine and a radio.
He likes to listen to NPR and classical music. He knows most of the people he works with will be listening to Fox News and country music. He knows he is different. It doesn’t matter much. He is of an age where what others think matters less. He is his own man as much as he can be without losing his job. He hates working on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. But he loves his wife of thirty-three years and their son. He is so proud of his son. He and his wife are having a rough patch right now. But they will weather it like they have everything else life has dealt them. The marriage is their lifeboat in a world of storms and they cling to it with the desperation of the drowning.
He arrives at the Heliport. Gets his duffle and secures his car. He looks around the waiting area as the other men arrive. He sees the young guy who is a vegetarian and who shares his bunk room with him. He’s alright he thinks and doesn’t mind his choice in politics or music. He wonders if the chef is going to make some of that caramelized condensed milk again. That was really good. Twelve hour plus days in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico on a rusty, corroding oil platform. Not much to think about for a week except keeping everything running, staying alive, fresh warm caramel and your wife’s voice on the phone when you call her at bedtime. They announce their helicopter is boarding he lifts his duffle, climbs up the steps of the helicopter. Finds a seat, straps himself in and says a prayer for leaving land.
Human beings have experienced separation at the mercy of the sea for millennia. Life requires that parents divide their time between making a living for their children and being present with those children, that explorers and innovators leave behind their homes and those who love them for a time in order to do what they must do. Life is a constant alternation between traveling and putting down roots. It is in planting roots and becoming separate from them that we find out who we are and what is important to us.
Offshore reminds me very much of a famous French song by Faure, called Les Berceaux, or The Cradles. You can watch a video of that song below, complete with translation. It’s amazing to think how little some things change, even as technology creates new experiences.
It is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.
Isolation heightens our self awareness. Is it what we lack or what we bring with us that frightens us most?
The route for the Sunday Times of London Golden Globe Race, 1968
Can you imagine sailing completely around the world alone without ever once putting into port? In 1968, nine men tried. That year the Sunday Times of London sponsored the first ever solo, nonstop, around the world boat race. Prizes were to be awarded to the man who came home first and to the man who made the quickest voyage. Competitors could leave whenever they were ready, but no later than October 31, 1968, a deadline imposed out of fear of storms off Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. I think most of us would balk at the idea of being holed up alone on a yacht for nine or ten months, on a route that would take us through the extremely tumultuous waters of the south seas, never stopping to stretch our legs or feast our eyes upon land. These fellows made the attempt without the aid of global positioning satellite technology, which was in its infancy, and no one at that time was sure that a boat could make the trip, let alone a human being. It was a highly dangerous pursuit, and almost half left the race before exiting the Atlantic Ocean.
Deep Water, directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell,sheds light on the horrific struggles they faced. It focuses on the tale of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor seeking to prove himself and to win prize money to help his failing business and support his wife and children. Caught between a rash agreement with his patron, a romantic portrait painted by his publicist and his own lack of preparation and fear of disgrace, he suffered a mental breakdown and was the only one of the nine to lose his life while competing in the race.
The three men who actually completed the circumnavigation of the globe had their own difficulties. One would sail on past the turn home, finding himself unwilling and unable to return to civilization, eventually ending his journey in Tahiti and becoming a vagabond of the south seas, leaving his family behind in Europe. Another sank his boat in the mid Atlantic trying to stay ahead of Crowhurst on the return trip and would be found a few years later hanging dead from a tree dressed in woman’s lingerie. Only one man completed the task by returning to England, winning both prizes. Recalling the difficulty of the south sea, which he acknowledges as “a bastard”, that man donated the money he received for the fastest voyage to the family of Donald Crowhurst. His empathy speaks to the torture he experienced in his own isolation upon the deep sea.
Deep Water is a fascinating film that explores the sea’s uncanny ability to intensify the personality and amplify and exploit weaknesses in mind and body. It’s a strong person that can look into that mirror without looking away or going mad.
The woman looks around and thinks: ‘there cannot ever have been a spring more beautiful than this. I did not know until now that clouds could be like this. I did not know that the sky is the sea and that clouds are the souls of happy ships, sunk long ago. I did not know that the wind could be tender, like hands as they caress – what did I know – until now?