Thirty-five years in Los Angeles and at last I have access to a swimming pool. I get it now. The limpid David Hockney paintings.Our communal reverence for the color turquoise. The pool guy jokes though mine is a community pool; I don"t actually know who cleans it. Not since childhood have I been so eagerly waterborne. I like that word, both its long vowels and its hinted double meaning. Born and buoyed. An element to inhabit and make use of. Forget about its connotations with disease.
My waterborne life began at 14 months aboard a stately old ferry, the Nobska-the start of a summer pilgrimage that lasted for decades. The ship's benches, red leather, were cracked; its austerely furnished staterooms were rented by families like mine with babies for the two and a half hour trip between Woods Hole and Nantucket-- or more often by boisterous bridge players. Its gastronomic high water mark was a grilled ham sandwich on bread like damp kleenex, and I'd like to eat one right now. There's a photograph of me and a friend, we're about 8, crammed into the sharp angle of the bow on the open top deck. Both of us girls are wearing captain's hats and grinning to beat the band. There's nothing like a ship to make you feel you're going somewhere. In 1973, when the vessel, commissioned in 1925 was finally retired, my mother needlepointed a portrait of the Nobska on a blue jean jacket.
The repeated journey to a beloved location--the hour's drive to my godmother's house on a hill in the woods, the even longer drive to the Woods Hole ferry dock--were for me, an only child, alone in the back seat, a kind of illustrated storybook. After pages of trees (there were so many trees ) a picture would suddenly appear. I titled these with all the solemnity of a Victorian publisher: "The House That Goes Around a Corner," "The Mailbox That Stands on a Chain." (Its links had been fused in that curving shape, my father explained.) His science rested not all that uncomfortably with the wonder of the thing, as though in a separate but accessible compartment. Consciousness as a TV dinner? Is that the template of my generation's mindset--we like distinctions to be clearly observed and maintain the freedom to mix everything together? But I have missed a turn here.
I learned to swim at five. (My mother never did, but went to the beach as often as she could and always "took a dip" bending her knees until the water came up to her neck and moving her arms with fierce concentration.) Starting at ten I was taught to row and then to canoe, which I managed creditably on a lake, but the competitive nature of sailing undid me. I crashed a borrowed Rainbow into a newly painted cabin cruiser and cost my Dad a hefty fee. In my twenties, having acquired a workmate whose family owned yachts, I discovered to my sorrow that I was hopelessly seasick even in port. So it was with great nervousness, and sea bands, and dramamine that I accepted a San Pedro friend's invitation to a harbor cruise aboard his newly acquired sailboat. Success (It was a very calm day.) So calm we even ventured outside the harbor, past Angel's Gate, the lighthouse, bulked up with scaffolding for a paint job that first trip, out into the just plain open blue. No landmarks to my untutored eyes just incidents- a flight of gulls, a freighter, and a blank blue page written and rewritten in blots and scrawls of foam. This is the life for me, I thought. Waterborne, inches above sea level, moving fast, someone else at the tiller. But my friend sold the boat.
Now that I am fully a West Coast dweller, what I have instead of the Nobska is the Catalina ferry, a squatter, stubbier, and much faster vessel. It's a rougher trip so I don't regret the ham sandwiches and opt instead for a Virgin Bloody Mary. One pattern of the trip, though is the same - a slow participatory passage through an inner harbor, then a lurch and burst of speed as everything drops away but sea and sky. How I love that featureless expanse, which doesn't mean I don"t search for features. Dolphin or whitecap? Usually whitecap. One thing I like about Catalina - I don't have to throw pennies overboard in order to be sure to return. I can see it on the horizon driving home from the grocery store, unless fog interferes. When the fog does, we joke that the Conservancy which holds Catalina in an iron grip, has taken it away for cleaning.
Does everyone try to fit their present life into a beloved pattern from their past? Every trip to Catalina has me naming the channel landmarks-the pink fish building, the beautiful bridge-all prelude to the moment things speed up as we reach open water. There's nothing quite like it- exhilaration wrapped in fear. The seasick prone will understand:. Is this going to be one of those trips? Eyes glued to the horizon. Seabands pressed tightly to wrists. And yet I would not be not waterborne. I suppose, like my mother, I'm not about to let incapacity stop me.
Because that's what it means to be on the water: To be relieved of the burden of carrying oneself. Not just the physical burden of the body, but the burden of rising and shining, of deciphering the fine print, To float to drift to hand over the tiller of being capable and living up. All journeys create a space neither here nor there. We leave our lives behind and let chance and the elements take over. Of course that's just an illusion we carefully nurture. Our lives are still with us and they can be so easily wrecked. As a species we have been happily enjoying the trip and ignoring the fine print. Forget about the connotations.dismiss the inconvenient truths. But now the water is leaving, the fire is coming and it is not clear at all that we will rise to the occasion, let alone shine.
During September's heat wave we camped on the Arizona side of the Colorado River and set our beach chairs in the flow. One of us, not me, immersed himself. I stretched my legs and let my feet bob to the surface.
I have nothing good or new to say about our disappearing waters But here in this desert flanking the river there are traces of how others reacted when the waters dried up a millennia or two ago. Stones laid in patterns black and white, huge figures carved into the desert floor. The impulse to lay down images to say we were here, we observed, we wondered and worried, is human and seemingly universal.