High Wind

For some reason, this morning as I began to meditate, I started to think about one of my favorite movies, High Wind in Jamaica.

This is not, I will say, a movie that I get to see very often because it does not appeal to my husband or to other people that I watch old movies with. It can be slow. Some of the themes are disturbing. And it is a little chaotic.

I realized over the weekend that I am more tolerant of chaos in movies and TV than some people are. I think because I see the chaos in life and feel compelled to do something about it, I am drawn to TV shows like Doctor Who or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency or that new flight attendant show on HBO, or my favorite movie of all times, Into the Night, where chaos increases throughout the story until mad, off the wall shit is happening, and then, somehow it all resolves, like a Connie Willis novel.

Maybe, this year, it’s a form of sympathetic magic: somehow, if the chaos in the fiction resolves itself, the chaos around us – the mad politics spurred on by politicians who seem to have lost all sense of sanity, the crazy behavior of people who don’t seem to take the pandemic seriously and put themselves and others at risk – will resolve itself, too.

High Wind in Jamaica starts with a missionary family who is living in the Caribbean during the early 1800’s. The parents are ineffectual and their large family of children is running so wild that they scare the parent’s little flock of “native” parishioners and, I think, scare the parents a little, too. So the parents put the kids on a boat and send them back to England, to boarding school, to be civilized.

The kids are running wild on the ship, having a ball and causing the captain and crew no end of stress, when the ship is boarded by pirates. The pirate captain is no Johnny Depp; he is gross and scratches himself and farts and probably smells bad – more like the bandit who, at the end of a Fistful of Dollars, balances precariously on a rickety wooden cross, a rope around his neck, while Clint Eastwood rides off into the sunset with the gold. Not the kind of pirate you want to hang around.

Somehow all the kids end up on the pirate ship and the pirates pretty much take them in stride as they go on pillaging and plundering. But then the pirates learn that everyone is saying that they killed the kids and even pirates know that’s not a helpful reputation to have so they start trying to offload the kids on other people. The kids themselves are having a good time until one of them, purely accidentally, through no fault but his own, falls to his death. Then it becomes a little more serious. And, now that one of the kids is really dead, no one wants to help the pirates with their little problem.

One of the children, a prepubescent girl, is the focus of the movie. She and the captain start to come into conflict. At one point, he chases her around the ship, all the pirates cheering him on, and he’s clearly angry at her and wants to beat her for something she’s done. In all of this, they trip and she ends up lying on the deck with him lying over her, and they look into each other’s eyes, and there is clearly attraction there. It’s creepy because she is a child but, to me, it’s also about recognizing something in each other, like looking in a mirror. The captain is the first to look away.

Later, the girl gets injured, and is tucked away in the captain’s cabin, in his bed, delirious with fever or drugs. He is desperate for her not to die – he’s already worried since her brother died while in his care – but he’s still a pirate and his ship boards a merchant ship and takes their captain prisoner. The bound prisoner is tossed into the captain’s quarters and he tries to get the girl to cut his bonds but, in her delirium, she stabs him fiercely and he dies. The pirate captain comes upon them and takes the weapon away from her, and then he and his crew are captured by the British Navy, with blood on their hands.

The movie then moves to the courtroom, where the pirates are on trial for their crimes and, in particular, for the death of the naval officer. The girl, now healthy and cleaned up, looking like a sweet innocent child, is called to the witness box to testify against them. And she lies. She lies about who stabbed the officer because, like any child caught doing something she shouldn’t, she doesn’t want to get in trouble.

And all of the pirates are condemned to death.

The pirate’s first mate protests to him, that it’s not fair, that they hadn’t actually done the crime that they are being convicted of, that the pirates don’t deserve to die. The captain turns to him, sadly, with a wry humor.

“Oh, my friend,” he asks, “Have you never done anything that you deserve to die for?”

Because of course they have. They are pirates.

And then it cuts to the children, playing in the sunshine in a park, dressed in sweet white dresses and pantaloons, watched over indulgently by civilized adults, without a care in the world, pirates forgotten.

I feel like the whole movie is justified by that one line, which I may not have even quoted accurately above but you get the spirit of the thing.

We all spend so much time in our lives wanting things to be fair. Protesting that we don’t deserve all the minor slings and arrows that are inflicted upon us. We don’t deserve the pain we feel, we don’t deserve the stress that is around us, we don’t deserve to be treated the way that people treat us. We don’t deserve to have to take care of the people in our lives who need care. We don’t deserve…. We deserve better…

But it isn’t about getting what we deserve. Life happens. We’re not perfect. Sometimes we get things that we don’t deserve – a life of adventure on the high seas with beautiful women, deep flagons of ale, and someone else’s gold in our pockets. Sometimes we get hung for a crime committed by a delirious child who is afraid to tell the truth.

Life just happens.

If we focus on what we deserve, we will always feel cheated. If we bemoan how others do not receive the divine retribution that they deserve – Covid for the unmaskers and so on – we will be disappointed and unhappy.

Life just happens.

Our actions are our only true possessions. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions. Our actions are the path on which we walk.

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