“To dream of that beach / For the sake of an instant in the eyes, // The absolute singular // The unearthly bonds of the singular // Which is the bright light of shipwreck”
-George Oppen, from Of Being Numerous (1968)
Now and then I get an idea or word stuck in my mind like a burr. Unlike a burr, it doesn’t bother me. Rather, the more I notice it—in reading, in conversation, on Facebook, at church—the more astonished I become.
So much of life’s beauty is in the noticing of patterns. Our ability to connect seemingly isolated things is a gratifying part of the creative process.
Shipwreck. Over the past year, I’ve come across shipwreck many times. First, my book club read Life of Pi, one of my favorite novels. The first time I read it a decade ago, the ambiguous ending devastated me—in a good way. I was hung over for days, unable to pick up another book until enough time and sleep had sobered me up.
This time, the novel’s shipwreck punched me in the gut. The recent movie adaptation made the shipwreck even more emotionally devastating than the novel’s ending, combining several major anxieties into ten stressful minutes, in short: drowning, human suffering and cruelty, animal suffering, losing one’s entire family, loneliness.
After Life of Pi we read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. It’s a remarkable book as well—nonfiction, an amazing life beautifully rendered. A large portion of the book is the account of Louis Zamperini’s survival on a raft in the Pacific Ocean. While discussing the book selection for the following month, someone suggested, “We should pick a book where the characters aren’t lost at sea.”
But it was too late for me—I was already gripped by survival at sea, the unforgiving ocean, shipwreck. I read a few more shipwreck accounts, like Matthew Shaer’s The Sinking of the Bounty and John D. Broadwater’s USS Monitor: A Historic Ship Completes Its Final Voyage, before realizing that nautical archeology wasn’t the source of my fascination. Rather, it was shipwreck as a metaphor.
This sentence from the June 2013 issue of O magazine grabbed me as if it were barbed: “I felt like a shipwreck survivor—glad to have washed up on dry land, traumatized to be starting over from scratch” (Lara Kristin Herndon, from “How to Cultivate a Happy Home”). Herndon is describing the aftermath of her divorce, and how a gift from her mother—a lemon tree—brought light back into her life. It’s a brief, lovely article that helped me understand the power of the image of shipwreck. Truly, sometimes life feels like a shipwreck.
Some writers think of life itself—being born—in terms of shipwreck:
A human baby’s like a sailor washed up on a beach
By the battering of the surf, naked, lacking the power of speech,
Possessing no means of survival, when first Nature pours
Him forth with birth-pangs from his mother’s womb upon Light’s shores.
These lines, from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, seem bleak on the surface . . . Well, I almost found a silver lining there. But not everything should end with a smile. Not everything can be wrapped up with an inspirational verse. Here’s the hard part for me: resisting the urge to offer a hopeful conclusion, tie it up with a bow.
“What do we make of this?” my favorite English teacher used to ask. The critical impulse is to make distinctions; the creative impulse is to make connections. We’re compelled to make. At the very least, to make sense of things. What do we make of the overwhelm?