There are no icebergs in the Gulf of Thailand, but at any given moment there is, in this and many other seas, someone thinking about the Titanic—or at least about Leonardo Dicaprio.
I almost didn’t take this photograph. For most of three hours I had been lying on a bench on deck, seeking out that elusive position where a severely herniated disc wouldn’t make me wish there were icebergs in the Gulf of Thailand. On top of my physical pain, there was the psychological terror of knowing I still had 20 hours before I reached Bangkok – 20 hours of ship, bus, and train, some of that with 75 pounds of cargo hanging from my shoulders. Only the day before did I come out of a 17-hour gala of agony in which it felt like a herd of elephants had collapsed on my lower back. The possibility of returning to that state somewhere between here and Bangkok was all too real.
I was alone on this portion of deck except for two German university students on a three-week holiday to Thailand. Feeling eight times their age (and almost eight times my own) as I navigated my bad back on the bench, we didn’t engage each other that much. But when the girls turned giddy as they conspired in German to reenact the Titanic bow scene, I eased myself into an upright position and grabbed my camera. The bow was off limits to passengers—I don’t think the girls knew this—and I thought the expression on their faces would be priceless when the captain roared out the window from the bridge above us.
But the better picture, I think, is the one I’m posting here. Taken three seconds before the captain got the bridge window open to commence his roar, I love how it seems to capture the feeling of youth, freedom, and lightheartedness. It was a fleeting moment in time that will never be repeated.
By the end of the week they would be back in university, and the week after that I would be on an operating table in Bangkok. A year has passed since then, and I imagine their Thailand experience, like my pain, now feels pretty distant. As the wise narrator in Wendell Berry’s book Hannah Coulter says as she looks back on her life:
You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind.
And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.