A landlubber by birth and emotional inclination, I had never been on the ocean, only its margins. Rowboats on a pond frighten me. The sea signifies ferocious power indifferent to human wishes. I resolved on the first day to make peace with its endless white noise and shifting spectrum, from blue-black and blue-gray to sky blue and milky green. Reading on the balcony of our cabin on deck ten, I saw a hummingbird skim the water and disappear into the next wave. We left land five hours earlier, so how was this possible? I saw a dozen of them burst like fireworks across the surface, each transparent and sleek as a knife blade. I was seeing my first flying fish.
“Their world, like mine, is the waves
The bearded rocks far under the waves, and the monsters
Our minds cannot guess at, waiting there.”
The most memorable shipboard conversation occurred at dinner on Christmas Eve. Our waiter was a young man from India. He appeared uncommonly serene, without the hideous rictus worn by much of the ship’s staff. He comes from northeastern India and his first language was Nepalese. He asked if I knew where the Buddha was born and I confidently answered India. He said no, Nepal. (The facts are disputed by scholars.) He told us several stories about the Buddha, emphasizing his serenity in a world of suffering. He is not a Buddhist, as I had assumed from his obvious reverence, but a Hindu. “I enjoy working on the ship,” he said “I meet many people.” Many of whom are loud, gluttonous and drunk, I added, internally. He plans to work for the cruise line for another four years, and then he will return to India and become a priest. He spoke without boastfulness or shyness, merely relating his plans. I have seldom met so calmly confident a human being.
“I, if anyone, could name the unnamed who swim
Mindlessly waiting in their salty gloom?
No. I fear them too much. Water changes all.”
The quoted passages are from the introduction to John Wain’s Letters to Five Artists: Poems (The Viking Press, 1970). The book was sent to me by a reader in South Carolina and was waiting for us Saturday in the stack of mail on the kitchen table.