11 September 2015

Editing at Sea

I came home from a year's sabbatical at Cambridge on the Queen Mary 2 -- the dream of a lifetime. I've spent a lot of time on the Maine coast. You can see ferries and cargo ships far out at sea, and I yearned to traveling on one of them, feeling the swell of waves, smelling the clean salt air, watching sun glint off water or storms whip up whitecaps.

I'd printed out my book manuscript, and my plan was to spend the voyage line-editing while watching the sea and its life slide by beyond the ship's rails. 

I was editing the chapter on Anglo-Saxon imagination and the sea, sitting in the ship's library and looking out at the fog, as repeated announcements asked a crew member to report to his supervisor in the kitchen. The ship was searched and he was determined to be missing; the captain turned the ship back. Eventually shipboard video was located that showed the crew member slipping overboard several hours before; given the water temperature, it was clear the search was for a corpse.

I joined crew members and other passengers on deck, squinting against the fog, trying to peer into the gray-blue sheet that was the water many feet below. At dusk, the captain reversed course once again, giving up the search.

The crew sails together for six months at a time, working seven days a week, 12 or 15 hours a day, then getting two months off before the next shift. They live in close quarters, share bunkrooms, get to know one another very well. They were rattled and upset. But the show -- and life aboard the Queen Mary 2 is nothing if not a show of opulence, service, entertainment, constant attention to the wants and whims of passengers -- went on.

After that, I sat in the library, concentration shot and editing abandoned, peering again into the fog, craving a sight of land, another ship, a whale (a few passengers had seen them) -- anything but the shifting liquid light that had surrounded us since we left England.

When we arrived in Halifax for a day on land, I eagerly inhaled the air and its odors: pine trees, hot sun on asphalt, decaying seaweed, truck exhaust. Coffee shops and human bodies and grassy earth. 

When we sailed into New York Harbor two days later, I awoke at 4 a.m. to take photographs of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. I suspect I was the only passenger also photographing the Port of Elizabeth and gazing with longing at the Shore Parkway, watching the late-night/early-morning traffic pulsing like the city's heartbeat.

Back on land, we went to Maine to visit family, as I've done every summer. I watched the big ferries and the cargo ships creep by on the water, barely visible far in the distance. And I was glad to be grounded.