Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Stream of Consciousness

In a shoreside job that is not always intellectually stimulating but often quite mundane, I frequently find myself being led by the uncontrollable force of memory to the sea.  While performing my appointed tasks largely on autopilot, thoughts of ships and voyages and ports and crewmen crowd upon my mind.  They come and go in a steady stream.  Some enter, pause only briefly, and then leave as quickly as they came.  Others linger longer and allow me some time to focus on them.  Still others remain for hours and induce me to take notes and look something up after I get home.  And a few special thoughts compel me to write about them.

Like a character in a Modernist novel, I do my work amid “the flow of thoughts of the waking mind”[1] with its “impressions, emotions, [and] reminiscences, often without logical sequence.”[2]  Thus I may start the day recalling a transpacific voyage aboard the Comet, then consider the calculations for the local hour angle of Aries, next remember taking evening stars aboard the Rigel in mid Atlantic, and finally recall the stability formulas for determining a ship’s center of buoyancy and metacentric height.  By then, it’s time for lunch.  I resume my seafaring stream of consciousness in the afternoon.  Often I think of people—crewmen full of tall tales because they’ve gone everywhere and done everything, and docksiders full of even taller tales because they’ve gone nowhere and done nothing.  And frequently, as interruptions from the job at hand arise, my mind flits idly from one thing to another “without logical sequence.”  Hence my meditations on the sight reduction tables may be cut short and replaced by recollections of my first transit of the Panama Canal aboard the Mercury.

Then, at the end of the workday, I return to the present, go home, and tend to the family.  It’s a good life.

For all these hours of idle reminiscing, though, there are greater hours of philosophical contemplation on what I think of as the mysticism of the sea.  The cargo ships that carried me across the oceans were, of course, man-made objects built for strictly utilitarian purposes.  There was really nothing spiritual or mystical about them, no matter how remarkable they may have been as works of engineering and technology.

The sea, however, is an element of Creation. As such, it abounds in spiritual and mystical qualities.  I think of this often.  In my mind’s eye I gaze upon the surface of the sea and then look upward to the dome of the sky.  I recall many dark starlit nights, and some nights with a full moon faintly illuminating the gray horizon.  I remember many sunrises and sunsets, some with extraordinarily colored cloud banks hovering in the distance.  I consider the action of the wind upon the water, and note the undulations of the waves and swells across the surface.  I feel these elements of Nature, too, as the ship rides through the water and as the wind blows through my hair.  The wildlife of the sea participate as well.  Dolphins frolic in the bow wave.  Flying fish dart from wave crest to wave crest.  Seagulls perch in the rigging,  The sciences of oceanography, meteorology, astronomy, and biology surround the ship and its crew, and their natural beauties bear witness to the genius of a Creator-God.

I contemplate this magnificence of Nature in Augustinian metaphysical terms.  On the great seas of this Earth, “the fields and spacious palaces of my memory,”[3] I am able to “see the invisible things of God,”[4] and begin “ascending by steps to him who made me.”[5]   Going to sea is thus a mystical experience, an opportunity to commune with the Deity through the medium of his Creation in its most pristine and unspoiled state.  The seemingly aimless and random musings of my idle mind on the sea—“without logical sequence”—also lead me to the Divine.  The mystique of the sea, then, like the constancy of the North Star, unfailingly provides the direction to the Summit of all human aspiration.

While my seafaring youth is now long past, my memory preserves it and reminds me of my great good fortune in having gone to sea all those years ago.  The experience of traveling by sea to distant countries and continents, to go where and how the typical tourist does not, to experience peoples, cultures, and languages vastly different from my own, and most significantly of all, to actually live on the sea and commune with it and practically be a part of it for extended periods, is to be educated and edified in the most sublime way possible.  It is an ineffable experience.  Fellow merchant seamen would naturally understand, but to the layman it remains incomprehensibly and immutably foreign.

The sea gives so much more to us than we can ever give back to it.  In considering the sea, there is much to think about but comparatively little to say.  Most often, it seems appropriate to simply maintain a reverent silence and let the sea speak to us.

[1] Margaret Drabble, ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, fifth edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 944.
[2] Ibid.
[3] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, tr. Msgr. John K. Ryan, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960, p. 236 (X:viii:xii).
[4] Op. cit., p. 235 (X:vi:x).
[5] Op. cit., p. 236 (X:viii:xii).