Cousas do Mar (Things of the Sea)

“Clemente’s father lost one of his fishing boats,” my wife tells me over morning coffee in the kitchen.  Clemente is the novio of my niece in Spain; they are to be married next summer.  His father owns a fleet of commercial fishing boats.

“Where?” I ask.

“Off the coast of Ireland.  It went down in rough seas.”

I take a sip of coffee.  After a brief silence I say, “How many men were lost?”

“None.  Another boat was close by.  They were able to pull the men from the sea before the boat sank.”

“At least they managed to avert a secondary tragedy.”

“Yes, but—it was first boat that Clemente’s father owned.”

I recall the refrain of an old Galician sea chanty—

Da Estaca de Bares ó Cabo Ortegal
Hay unha lanchiña que vai naufragar,
Que vai naufragar, que vai naufragar,
Non chores Maruxa, son cousas do mar.

At Estaca de Bares or the Ortegal Cape
A little boat is going to sink,
Going to sink, going to sink;
Don’t cry, Maria, these are but things of the sea.

“Naufragouse o barco.”  The boat sank. I repeat the phrase using the heavy accent of gallego, the language of the northwest region of Spain.  “Naufragouse o barco.  Even the words themselves sound tragic.”

My wife pauses the coffee mug halfway to her lips.  “Yes, I was thinking the same thing the other day.  Mine are a morose people; it’s even reflected in the way we speak.  It’s probably been like that for thousands of years.”

“Maybe it’s because gallegos have historically been drawn to the sea,” I offer.

 She regards my face with knowing sea-swept eyes.

To Poets Unpublished

Cell2Soul—first the online journal, later the blog—was originally conceived by the editors in part to be a venue where struggling writers, artists and photographers could see their creative compositions appear in electronic print.  For decades, perhaps centuries, much artistic talent never saw the light of publishing day; mostly because the industry scrutinized what went into print—and was highly particular in its selections.

The advent of the World Wide Web markedly altered the publishing landscape.  Now independent authors and artists can post their creative work regularly for all to savor.

Yet what of those past creative artists who never achieved the recognition they deserved in their lifetimes?  Emily Dickinson published fewer than a dozen poems before her death; Keats succumbed to tuberculosis in his mid twenties, before he was acknowledged as a master poet.  He died expecting that his name would be writ in water, as witnessed by the self-authored epitaph on his tombstone.

Here is my humble tribute to those myriad unknown writers, poets and artists down through the decades.

To Poets Unpublished

I pour a glass to poets past
Who struggled as they wrought,
And wrestled to compose each line
From wisps of conscious thought.

Those ideas forged with wit
Or written words to woo—
Phrases by the soul-heart knit
Into the rhymed milieu.

Only such impressions last,
Only verse prevails,
Only words will fix them fast
Against what time assails.

But what of you, disbursed,
Who failed what you essayed;
Who counted out your metered verse
To lose the hand you played?

Like Housman’s athlete dying young,
You slipped betimes away
And never had the trophy won
Before that close of day.

So let us gather, poets all,
Of mortal and immortal line—
And raise this toast, each one to all—
With water writ, or wine.

2010©Brian T. Maurer

The Sensual Sea

When I was young, shortly after I turned twenty, I shipped out of Boston on a cutter bound for thirty-six days in the north Atlantic.  On the way out, we lay over for a night in St. Johns.  From the flying bridge I still recall seeing the red cliffs of Newfoundland rising suddenly out of the sea in the morning sun, still remember slipping through the tight channel into the calm water of the cozy port, still picture the quaint weathered houses packed side by side along the terraced streets above the harbor.

Later, on southern voyages, I would survey the swells of the Caribbean for giant sea turtles while flying fish darted out from the bow as it surged through the blue water.  Watching the swells rise and fall away at your feet, you understood what sailors meant when they said that the sea breathed.

Hemingway wrote that la mar is what the Cuban pescadores call the sea when they love her.  For his old man, the sea was always feminine, even though in the Spanish language the sea is traditionally masculine, el mar.  “The old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda incorporated sensual sea imagery into many of his compositions.  Here is an excerpt from his piece Oda al Mar (Ode to the Sea):

El mar
y cuánto mar
se sale de sí mismo
a cada rato,
dice que sí, que no,
que no, que no, que no,
dice que si, en azul,
en espuma, en galope,
dice que no, que no.
No puede estarse quieto,
me llamo mar, repite
pegando en una piedra
sin lograr convencerla —

“The sea moves in and out of itself each moment, saying first yes, then no; then no, no, no; then yes, in blue, in churning foam; then no, no. The sea can’t stay still: ‘My name is Sea’ it repeats, slapping against the rocks without convincing them.”

As a young man, Melville shipped out of Nantucket on a whaler and didn’t return for three years.  His nautical experiences aboard the Acushnet formed the basis for many of the narrative scenes in Moby Dick.  Here he records an impression of the sea in a chapter entitled “The Symphony”:

It was a clear steel-blue day.  The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.

Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.

But though thus contrasting within, the contrast was only in shades and shadows without; those two seemed one; it was only the sex, as it were, that distinguished them.

Aloft, like a royal czar and kind, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom.  And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion—most seen here at the equator—denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.

For those inclined to go down to the sea in boats, masculine or feminine, there is nothing asexual about the sea.

Humane Medicine — A Grief Observed

Turning back the clock is something most of us have wished to do at one time or another. We experience the loss of a loved one, or the parent of a patient under our care takes a turn for the worse. If only we could turn back the clock, we think, everything would be just fine.

Interested readers can now access my latest Humane Medicine column, A Grief Observed, recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

“Notes from a Healer”—The Heart of the Matter

When I was a resident pursuing an elective rotation in pediatric cardiology, I met my mentor one spring afternoon at a local hospital. He escorted me down a long hallway to a bank of elevators, where we descended to the basement and traversed the tiled floor to the heavy metal door of the morgue.

My latest installment of  Notes from a HealerThe Heart of the Matter — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.

When the soul breaks

I read Joan Savitsky’s recent New York Times piece with profound empathy for the author—and for a good friend of mine, both of whom are physicians.

Dr. Savitsky narrates what it was like living through four years under the threat of an impeding law suit for purported malpractice.  A young woman under her care had succumbed to an aggressive cancer, and the family elected to sue Dr. Savitsky for “malicious, willful, wanton or reckless” conduct.  According to the wording of the complaint, she had acted “negligently, carelessly and without regard” for her patient’s health.

Reading through the piece, I readily identified Dr. Savitsky’s feelings as very similar to what my friend experienced when he found himself in a similar situation.  Legal action was brought against him by the grieving parents of a child he had cared for in the newborn period.  Despite timely diagnosis and intervention, the child succumbed to an overwhelming infection.

In both cases the litigation process dragged out over an extended period of time.  Dr. Savitsky’s was eventually dropped (the plantiffs’ attorneys felt they were unlikely to prevail); my friend’s case went to court and the jury acquitted him of any wrong doing.  From the standpoint of these physicians, although both cases had favorable outcomes, a certain damage had been done.

Dr. Savitsky divulges that she left her primary care practice after almost thirty years.  She writes: “I can’t say it was because of being sued, but I can’t say it was irrelevant either.”  After his courtroom debacle my friend retired from medical practice for nearly a year.

My friend comments that “a lawsuit is a life changing experience, perhaps similar in scope to losing a loved one.  I suppose it involves losing that part of yourself that was ‘secure.’”  In short, it breaks your soul.

While unfortunately there are those physicians who seem to care little for their patients, the majority of doctors do desire to provide those entrusted to their care with the best they can offer.  When the outcome sours, it is not only the patient or the patient’s family who suffers.  When the patient elects to sue, the physician experiences feelings of betrayal.

In the face of failure, most clinicians grieve privately in their own way.  They examine the facts of the case; they ask themselves if there were anything they could have done differently to alter the outcome.  Many times the answer is no.

The sad fact is that, when all is said and done, physicians who have been sued are changed people.  Many of them are resilient and return to medical practice—with a healthy dose of mistrust and a touch of paranoia.  Others elect to leave the profession entirely.  Those who continue to practice remain vigilant, ever mindful that at some point they can be sued again.

Broken souls take time to mend; some never heal entirely.