At age 22, on my way back to Australia after having spent a year with my grandmother in Switzerland, I had a newly-awakened sense of my soul.
She had recently come to the conclusion “I know what you are looking for,” and introduced me to the Baha’i Faith—which I enthusiastically believed and accepted.
She went with me to Naples and I got on the boat alone. As soon as the P&O Line boat, named the Canberra, left shore, we had fire drills where we learned where our lifeboat was and where to go in an emergency.
Then I returned to my cabin and did not bother to unpack. I put on my nightdress and went to bed. My mind was in such turmoil about returning to a country where my parents had so much social power. On the other hand, the man I loved lived there, and my future was linked with his.
Suddenly the ship seemed to shudder to a stop. I heard scurrying up and down the deck. It was all very odd. Then the captain’s voice boomed through a loudspeaker: “There has been a fire in the engine room. Everyone put on warm clothing and proceed to your boat stations.”
I put a coat over my nightdress, grabbed my passport, opened the cabin door … and smoke poured in from the blackness outside. My cabin was in the lower part of the boat, and I had to join all the people crowding up the stairs, complaining about the smoke and coughing, even though many of them seemed to have chosen to save their cigarettes and nothing else.
Up we went to our boat stations, where the lifeboats began to be lowered. I heard people saying “We will never survive in a sea like this,” which was quite bizarre since the sea was calm. We ended up sitting on the deck (some of us cross legged, others on chairs), in front of our lowered lifeboats, the entire pitch-black night. Occasionally the loudspeaker would blare words to the effect of “We nearly have the fire under control. Be prepared for more messages from your Captain.”
We did not believe the fire was quite under control, since the smoke was incessant. However, I sat there somewhat enjoying the theatricality of the situation. As an example, one man turned up much later than all the others, in a suit and tie for the occasion, saying he was late since he had to choose which tie to wear for this kind of event. Meanwhile, whatever was going to happen would not be a great tragedy since another P&O Line ship, the Strathnaver, pulled up not far away to save us if we had to get into the lifeboats.
Many things ran through my mind during the long night as we sat there–in particular, various doom-filled rhymes, such as one about seeing a mermaid, which is considered bad luck:
Three times round spun our gallant ship,
And three times round spun she;
Three times round spun our gallant ship
And she sank to the bottom of the sea, the sea, the sea!
And she sank to the bottom of the sea.
I felt pretty detached, and eventually the morning light dawned. At last the British crew announced all was under control, which relaxed everyone. Now the male passengers began looking at the women to see how they might appear when they had just got out of bed, with no lipstick and so on. I happened to be wearing a kind that doesn’t come off.
We found out all cables had been burned through, so as our boat struggled to get up enough steam to move, the refrigeration was ruined and most of us were still in the dark since there was no electricity. The other ship’s captain told us we could board their vessel, but our captain and crew were too proud to allow it.
I spent a few days in my black cabin, with not much need to go anywhere else since there wasn’t any real food. There was no hot water either, and I had to bathe in the dark.
The crew did their best in the massive dining room by providing a salad for our first meal. As soon as those who arrived were seated, we heard a crackle from the loudspeaker. We all audibly drew in our breaths—undoubtedly a post-traumatic stress reaction to remembering the ominous messages from the Captain throughout the previous night. An announcement came: “The deck quoits tournament will resume at 4:30.” A huge sigh of relief went through the room. Life was back to normal.
The officer at my table invited me, with his friends, to his cabin and wanted to know why I didn’t drink.
“Because it’s against my Faith” I said, explaining that I had become a Baha’i.
One of the other officers butted in with “People in Australia drink. With your intelligence, your breeding and YOUR LOOKS,” leaning forward and shouting quite aggressively into my face, “everyone will be attracted to you; but when they learn you’re a Baha’i, they’ll think you are completely insane.”
This turned out to be true often enough way back then. I tried to explain the Baha’i Faith to the officer, mentioning little things first. He rolled his eyes and puffed on his cigarette, obviously thinking me a fool.
Our boat continued to sit still in mid-ocean, trying to get up steam in tiny puffs. It turned out Malta was the nearest port willing to accept us. After three days, we began to move, ever so haltingly.
When we reached Malta, I posted letters to friends in Europe. I went to the hairdresser and, as I walked the streets, I was tempted to just get a job here, begin a new life and get completely away from my parents and their wide-tentacled hold on me.
I took a bus tour, and saw how this poor island had been bombed when the British had been stationed here and used it as a base against Italy. It was an island of graveyards, and very sad, amidst all its beauty.
We passengers were waiting to be flown by chartered plane to our destinations. We were supposed only to have the clothes we stood up in, since we were not allowed to carry a heavy suitcase. But I couldn’t bear to be parted from all the tokens of love I had received from the Baha’is in Switzerland when I joined the Faith. I packed a small suitcase with a Baha’i prayer book, explanatory books on the Faith, a Baha’i emblem to hang on my wall, and jewelry and paintings created by my new and dearly loved friends. Carrying all of these things made me think of these Baha’i teachings:
O God, my God! Fill up for me the cup of detachment from all things, and in the assembly of Thy splendors and bestowals, rejoice me with the wine of loving Thee. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i Prayers, p. 57.
Detachment does not consist in setting fire to one’s house, or becoming bankrupt or throwing one’s fortune out of the window, or even giving away all of one’s possessions. Detachment consists in refraining from letting our possessions possess us. A prosperous merchant who is not absorbed in his business knows severance. A banker whose occupation does not prevent him from serving humanity is severed. A poor man can be attached to a small thing. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 135-136.
Somewhere along the way, without my knowledge, my suitcase got dumped, and I arrived with only the clothes I stood up in. But I realized that I had what was important within me.