Came the loud, static blare of loudspeakers over the still anchorage.
“Ilaha illa allah…”
Disgruntled at the interruption of my much needed sleep, I rose from my bunk and ascended the companionway to see, still in his black watch coat despite the fast-rising heat, Saturnius McWhirr already on deck. His stark, grim profile seemed transfigured by the dawn light with an aura of rapturous praise. I had always thought he was of the Zoroastrian persuasion.
Not wanting to disturb his meditations, I returned below and put on a pot of joseph.
After a harrowing passage through
the Sunda Strait, we’d anchored in the Sunda Kelapa harbour the night before, under the tall spires of north Jakarta. I’d had a fitful sleep, and the portentous imagery of my dreams had been confounded by a blasted, bleeping racket that still echoed over the calm anchorage. Turns out we’d brought up just off the Ancol Theme Park.
McWhirr came below. I handed him a cup and asked:
“Captain, why have we sailed into this steaming latitude?”
For indeed, it was cruel muggy and a pall of charcoal gray hung over the city.
McWhirr lit his pipe and said:
“I was but a green swab surfing the long fetch of the seven cyber-seas when I first heard of the East Indies. That was a simpler time, when a single multinational corporation called the IndiaRubber.com ruled the whole archipelago. Now it’s dog eat dog, with upstart pirates challenging the Dutch spice monopoly and their quasi-governmental powers.
“But take care son,” he said darkly, “one word from the Dutch, colonial CEO and we could be standing before a firing squad before you can say: Garcia Lorca.”
I’ve been going over my morning pages from 2012. The morning pages were introduced by Julie Cameron in The Artist’s Way. Basically, you write 3 pages first thing every morning whether you feel like it or not and, after a period of time, read and annotate them with an eye toward finding inspired or meaningful passages. My own pages can be, by turns, inspiring, embarrassing or downright boring with my ponderous, self-centered trip.
I see I had been reading–in 2012–Joseph Conrad’s enigmatic meditation on identity and the shifting vicissitudes of fate: The Secret Sharer. This story tells of the narrator’s first command, and a pivotal event that marked his passage from dissolute wastrel to respectable sea captain. He had hidden a stowaway–his mirror image, a troublesome aspect of his impulsive youth–which he must leave ashore in order to “get on” with the responsibilities his new station demands. In the magnificent climax, the captain risks his career by sailing close to a Java cape to jettison his double. His ship is nearly “caught in stays” and wrecked beneath the sheer headland that looms over his limp head-sails “like the dark gates of Erebus.” As a final gesture of compassion, the captain gives his hat to protect his “other self” from the fierce, tropic sun. It is this hat–lost during the fugitive’s swim to shore–that provides the only visible waypoint on the dark sea; by it he accomplishes the delicate maneuver of bringing his vessel’s bow across the flukey breezes and pointed toward the the safety of deep water.
The captain’s twin is “now gone from the ship, to be hidden forever from all friendly faces, to be a fugitive and vagabond on the earth.”
The morning pages are like the Secret Sharer’s hat. They provide a clear–albeit shifting–waypoint whereby we can weather hazardous shoals and see the secret workings that shape our lives into a meaningful pattern. In these page’s sleepy scrawl we see our life’s dominant theme, descry our personal myth, and have the opportunity to show compassion for the errant soul who blathers on and on about the cruel hand of fate.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).