Follow the Water: Learning to Float
Updated: May 9, 2021
I am water, deep, but I wade in only to my knees. - Edith Södergran
I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are furs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage. –Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
We return to places that hold our new depths in familiar waters. Gig Harbor is one of those places for me. I grew up visiting my grandparents here, building sandcastles and fishing kelp from brine, pulling up rocks just to see crabs scurry. Now, in my early twenties, my parents have moved a ten-minute drive from the mossy beach house that my great-grandpa built. Even as the house sits vacant, the wooden seagull that my mom painted is still at attention in salt wind.
Each time I visit, I find myself wading into the crossing currents of who I’ve been and who I am. Pierce County public library with its dinosaur feet leading to the YA section; the cry of seagulls perched on roofs; the curve of white sails; potted pansies and the smell of garden dirt; the pair of scissors I cut my grandma‘s finger with, a ribbon of her blood mingling with dahlias.
I follow the familiar water. Curl into its line, always with something new to see.
When I was eight, walking the shoreline with Nana, we came upon a dead deer. A fly landed on the open eye, clear and sightless as glass. I remember the heap of its body, the curve of its ribcage, its spent limbs. Even then, I felt the discrepancy in being so close to death, with my Nana, flowers springing open at her touch, just beside me.
In her gentle way, she explained that the deer had gone out too far, unable to turn back, unable to move forward, and had exhausted itself.
My animal instinct is to go deeper, wade in further, use muscle to get wherever I think I need to be. I want to get to the gleaming shore made of green lawns and teaching writing, a husband to share curious dreams with, a shelf of sunlit books, a little boy with my eyes. But in my rush to get there, I was drowning in things unresolved. My legs aren’t made for the waters I want to go through. Not yet. I need to rest for a while, learn the curve of the shore I’m called to, and who is calling me there.
There is room for depth, room for the call of the next wave, the movement of water. But I’ve had to remind myself to hold back. Notice what’s drowning me. What’s died.
Drowning for me was white wine, twelve-hour work days, endless emails and recommendation letters, nights drenched in insomnia and sweat. I notice what has died—the childhood home; Nana’s memory, now a dark film of dementia; the need in me to drink my thoughts away.
In noticing what’s died, I see what’s still here. What floats.
Floating for me is walking and writing. An apartment close to work, a fire lit over Mary Oliver. A Seattle summer that reminds me we hadn’t been breathing before. Here, I hug the waterline where I can delight in life again. Here is a blank page just before a poem fills it; lilies open on my table. Here, there are daily walks when I reach out to touch an azalea, notice how it bleeds at the center, how the whole thing’s a wound.
I see Jesus, chin toward the sky, eyes closed, water falling from his dark hair. John—the cousin who leapt in the water of Elizabeth’s womb--tips him back in the Jordan. I see Jesus, limbs outstretched in mercy. He floats.
We will find those depths we are called to move through with purpose. But we can find room, also, for the play of light on the surface, for the touch of a friend. For floating, upturned in grace, leaned all the way back. God dwells here: a dove made of sea spray and light.