"The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate" Wildness in the Global City: Lake Michigan Pilgrimage

"The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate" Wildness in the Global City: Lake Michigan Pilgrimage
The city and the "sea".

That little man I saw the other evening at the Lake Michigan lakefront? He reminded me of the guy in one of my favorite children’s books about a pirate and the lure of the sea.

This guy scuttled across Lakeshore Drive, heavy briefcase in his hand, leaning into his direction – speeding along – his black trench coat flapping behind him. He hurried quickly to a certain point at the lake’s edge and stopped. He set down his briefcase; stood up straight and took out his phone. He raised it in front if his face and turned north. It seemed he was making pictures. Quickly. Urgently. He pivoted southwards, then stopped; turned quickly back to the north and repeated the gesture.

I walked past him and he glanced at me with that look that people use, “Please don’t talk to me. I wish I had time to be friendly.” So I moved on. I stopped at my own point a little north of his and gazed out. But I was curious about what he was up to.

He took a few more pictures then abruptly put away the phone, picked up his briefcase, spun on his heel and scurried back from whence he had come, flapping coattails and all.

The book he reminded me of is one of my favorites of all time. “The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate”, By Margaret Mahy.

We know from Captain Phillips that pirates are nothing to be romanticized nor taken lightly. But this book does both. And I love it for it.

In the story there’s a man, and his mother is big and colorful. She has a pipe in her mouth and a parrot on her shoulder. She wears red and white stripes and leggings, and her hair is wild around her head. Her son is an accountant or something and he’s brown and thin and small, and his face is in a sad small frown. He works in a mono-chromatic, dirty-looking urban center. (“A great city far, far from the seashore.”) Possibly a global city, even.

One day his mother says to him, “son it’s time to go to the sea”. He protests but ultimately claims his vacation time and takes his mother on a journey. They don’t quite know how to get there and they have certain plot points requiring them to pause and recommit to their purpose. Along the way the mother gets happier and the little man loses his composure. His shoes fall off and his clothes get in tatters and his hair becomes a mess.

Then, you turn the page and all at once, in a two-page spread, they are standing at the edge of wildness. The blue ocean spreads before them. The mother is thrilled and does a dance, and the little barefoot man with his brown, freed-up suit joins in.

I want that to happen to the man in the black flapping trench coat who doesn’t have enough time to stop and breathe and take it all in. I want that to happen to me.

You get the sense in this book that the man has endured his pirate mother and her freedom and boundless energy all his life. He’s made the best of it and he’s tried to be responsible. He thinks that’s what’s best. But as mothers usually do, his mother knows truly what is best, and she takes him on this journey. She gets him there to the ocean so that he can stand and breathe the salt air and feel the breeze on his skin and know what it is to be free.

Somehow I think that this is what every mother aspires to give to their sons. This gift – to know how to find what you need.

The better – for life.

“And if you want any more moral to the story than this, you must go to the sea and find it.”

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This wonderful book has been made into a play and will be performed this summer in Mahy’s native New Zealand. Check here for tickets.

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