Wow. Wow. Wow.
In the past 24 hours, I can’t even comprehend the amount of unannounced brightness that has been shined upon me. I just need to write it out somewhere and say it because it’s all too good for me to handle.
So, I’ll begin by saying life isn’t always easy for me to get through. It’s harder when the people I love are as busy as I am or too far away for me to reach. And so these blessings are not only surprising but just in time:
1. A spontaneous conversation about music, theology, and faith with an acquaintance at my friend’s art show. I’ve never gone so deep in a conversation with someone mostly a stranger, never resonated so similarly with (technically unconventional) beliefs, and I’ve not felt this spiritually encouraged in years. Years.
He embraced me as he told me, “Your faith is validated. You are good. And no matter where you are in the journey, no matter if you’re sinning, Christ is with you every step of the way.”
…At one point in the conversation, I kind of just smiled and stared at him and said, “Who are you?”
2. An unexpected late night drop-in from my brother. Screw the concepts paper—I had the most connected conversation I’ve had with him in a long time. To finally let each other know the truths about ourselves and our experiences with depression and God felt so relieving. He prayed for me. And said that I need to realize that teachers that try to act scary are literally walking dicks and that if my senior seminar professor failed me because of a formatting problem in my paper, that I can just walk up to the department head and let them know it’s only because the professor was being a dick.
He hugged me before he left, saying, “When this is all over in two weeks, I’m gonna ask you ‘Did you crush college?’ And you’re gonna say, ‘Yeah, I crushed it.’”
3. I let myself get eight hours of sleep. Cheers for feeling mostly awake.
4. An out-of-character, beautifully written and heartfelt e-mail from my grandma on my dad’s side, in response to my Saline writings. She told me how my grandpa and I seem to have a similar relationship with the ocean and a similar ability to process thoughts by writing—I finally know for sure why I felt so connected to him, despite our few tangible conversations. My grandma almost never opens up and I am so astoundingly privileged to be the recipient of some of her deeper thoughts. And thus encouraged.
But seriously…what the heck is going on here.
The first time I dropped in on a wave, really dropped in, I finally knew what it felt like to be in my rightful place in the world. The timing, paddling, pop-up, and steering had culminated into that ever-desired perfect glide. For a few seconds, I spread royal wings and flew. For a few seconds, the sky rolled back to show how it was made of something as beautiful as an abalone shell, and how every struggle had become worthy.
* * * *
The painting is titled “Theology,” I said. One hundred eyes passed over the piece, consuming its wild blue spilling and plunging. Now they awaited my defense and explanation.
The correlation is simple, this idea of Sublimity in the character of God; One experienced as powerful, infinite, mighty, and ultimate. Yet when we experience this, we are somehow allowed to live, often leaving full of something like love or respect. The same experience is manifest when I am in the ocean, delighting in its power without it killing me—hence the “theology” of the crashing wave.
* * * *
It is an important moment in life when you realize that the calmest part of the ocean is the water directly beneath the wave. It is like finally realizing that to dance in the arms of another person, you have to stop struggling to lead your way. It is a moment of enlightenment in which you realize to keep from drowning, you must go underwater. No matter how the white water roars, if you duck below the plummets of the break, there you will find peace. Finally, you must learn to listen to the sea, for it will tell you when it’s safe to return to breathing again.
* * * *
Noah arrived by my side and with his classic bemused half-grin and complimentary fist-pound. Kick-ass were his first words. Others had offered similar congratulations. But he followed to say something that struck me with clarity. Good job capturing the calm water right under the wave. A lot of people forget that part, he said. I looked back at the painting. The effect had been unintentional, but now that he pointed it out, I saw it. And I realized it was something I had known about all along.
There was a lull in the swell.
Look! Dolphins. I lifted my hand dripping with saltwater to point out the dorsal fin tips peeking out of the watery blanket, not many yards from where Jordan and I drifted.
My brother is an extrovert. He laid belly-down on his surfboard and started paddling toward the grey-skinned mammals. I began to follow. There was an exciting fearful tension of wanting to get close and stay far away at the same time. I am an introvert.
We paddled close enough to hear the sputtering sound of blowhole exhalations. I wondered if they could sense us, what they regarded of Jordan and I. wondered what their underwater world looked like. I regarded them as creature cousins, physically categorized as cetaceans, yet connected to us by a mix of sibling DNA and spirit capacity.
The scene made me think of a book I had read when I was young, Island of the Blue Dolphins. I barely remember much about it except that there was a tribal girl left to fend for herself on an island, and a lot of imagery of sun-bleached whale bones.
The dolphin brothers seemed unthreatened by our presence. Their smooth grey backs passed by us calmly, the same way the humpback whale swam by my uncle’s boat when we were giving my grandpa’s dust back to the sea. The way he said goodbye with his whale tail waving in the sky, slowly, nonchalantly.
* * * *
Is coming up for air by works or by faith? I was baptized by my own volition in the ocean. An overcast day off of Santa Cruz. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They said getting baptized was like dying and coming back to life. I wonder if it is regarded as literal by some people, similar to the Catholic Transubstantiation. It makes me wish Pastor Chad would have held me under longer so I could remember what dying felt like. Seems that I have been baptized many times since then, with the countless times of getting tossed by rough close-outs, under and back up again, like a soggy ragdoll. That’s when I really knew what resurrection felt like, when I could come back up to breathe again. But maybe that’s by works, not faith, so it wasn’t supposed to count?
Is coming up for air by works or by faith? Someone had asked the same question to Dr. Culp during his lecture.
Well, technically, breathing itself is αργος, so what do you think? he said, smiling.
* * * *
Tonight was the night, and the painting was dry just in time. It was carried by four arms and four legs into the meeting hall, to the back wall, in preparation for the exhibition.
I was beginning to learn that some of the best times for surfing are when the sun has not been awake for long or when it’s not out at all. It was similar to the way I was beginning to learn that happiness is not a virtue. The waves are calmer in the morning, and they’re more smooth in a balmy winter fog, and they’re twice as magical as the climax of sunset is chased away by the moonlit twilight.
This realization began when my dad and I were out in a sunless yet strangely warm tide. We were trying to feel alive while Grandpa John was dying in his bed back in the Beach House. A family of seals passed by, eyeing us, but not severely intrigued. Just swimming. We might have been trying to escape, but as we bobbed in the middle of a placid, engulfing mist, it seemed to wrap us up and tell us Stay, that the world had some peace in it worth living for.
* * * *
We are not unlike ocean waves; each one is unique with varying tenacity, temperature, angle, and undertow. Each has a lifespan: a force beyond itself births its initial movement, it begins to swell, reaching its climax as it crests, turns to break in its fully-formed grandeur, closes upon itself, and finally disperses at the end of its course. Ultimately giving way for the next life cycle.
* * * *
Some days, I wondered if my balance and my arms would ever be strong enough. Willing, but weak. Willing, but a thorn ever in the flesh.
A professor once told me that he believed he spent so many years in agonizing occupations to prepare himself for the handful of semesters he was finally able to teach in an academic community program that he truly loved.
* * * *
I had to keep This isn’t what it’ll look like, shutup until I’m finished clenched behind my teeth as passersby behind my back made their impressed remarks. I watched the sun and then the moon pass through the windows, favorite DVDs and mix CDs assisting the progression of time. When I stood up straight to wash my hands and brushes in the bathroom sink down the hall, blue tint saturated the water spiraling down the drain. I pumped the soap dispenser again.
I went to Balboa Beach one time for a bonfire with some friends. I always felt so lonely and loved at the same time when I was in front of a bonfire. But when I stepped away to feel the cold lick of the sea, I could sense the way there was no fire left in me. I was more like the crescent ghost moon that punctured the inkiness of the night, reflecting in indigo silver over the waves that crashed in such a quietly chilling, chanting way. At that moment, I was sure that if I was alone I could just walk into them and never come back again, and I was only disturbed to realize I believed this was a moment of beauty.
* * * *
Jasper certainly came unannounced, but we were no where near the ocean. We went out on our first date to a fish taco joint in the city. I should have just been honest and told him that lately I had been feeling sleepy and was hoping he would wake me up, so he could have said No up front. Instead, I told him things I never should have said, like how I would take the ability to breathe underwater if he chose to have wings, so I could take him through the sea as long as he would fly me through the sky. Like how I told him the things that I had learned, namely how the Fourth of July was the most lonely holiday, how nice it would be to cuddle in a blanket on the beach with a tin of brownies. I eventually realized Jasper didn’t understand these things, the same way he did not understand the composition of the saltwater that would run out of my eyes from time to time.
I finally realized there was a practical joke going on that wasn’t funny. The ones I had wanted to call beloved were all ubiquitously afraid of the ocean. Those that I knew that were not afraid had already fallen in love with sirens; one siren was Pride, another was Marijuana, the other was my roommate Robyn.
* * * *
Never try to be a land mammal when you think you’re tired of feeling like just another fish in the sea. The body and spirit do not exist without each other, Aristotle mentioned. Neither does the dolphin without the wild ocean.
* * * *
I put on my torn painter’s jeans again. Heaps of paint were squeezed out from a drawer-full of Liquitex tubes. Photographs on a laptop screen guided the way I mixed the paint with knives on my thrift store plate palettes. Three shades of blue, phthalo green, alizarin crimson, burnt umber, cadmium yellow & oxide, and massive amounts of titanium white.
I stopped listening to that Mae song. I watched fireworks on the Fourth of July offshore by myself. But maybe that was the point of the song, after all. What a tease. I started having a hard time sleeping again, but it was worse than my insomnia from high school. Ironically, the song I moved on to was just a different Mae song, “The Sun and the Moon.” It was the only thing in my life that could ever feel quiet enough. It was the only thing that felt hopeful without the farce of assuming; simply stating Painted skies, I’ve seen so many that cannot compare to your ocean eyes, the pictures you took that cover your room…
* * * *
Remember that it is like almost drowning for the first time—heartbreak. It’s a veil torn. You realize that just because you were born in fluid, that doesn’t mean you can breathe it, that doesn’t make you deserve the ability to swim. Even though the sunny sky makes the ocean spray so bright—remember, it is heartbreaking to almost drown for the first time.
Remember that it is difficult to ask for help when you’re already in the process of drowning.
* * * *
Once I wrote a story of a girl who got so bad she tried to bleed out at the feet of the ocean, but she was rescued by a lover. That is the way I wrote things in high school. Call it curiosity, call it imagination, call it under-the-influence of the pituitary gland. But there was something lingering in my DNA, something related to whatever it was that gave me the reason to sit in an armchair across from a psychiatrist at nine years old.
And I think it found me again, dehydrated, a year shy of 21. Those university years—there seemed to be so much transition, so much compression, so many car accidents, so much dying. I was still making up stories, but now my imagination was educated enough to leave the rescuing lover out of it. Now they were places I would wander into during the expanse of my waking hours. I called them my daydream terrors. Suffice to say I would never come out unscathed.
I was learning to leave the white water for the swell, the way I was learning to leave Sweet Sixteen. I had picked out a sealskin in the same colors as the one from my first memories: magenta and black. The world isn’t always in earth tones, neither was I. Like how for special occasions, I was learning to wear dark lipstick or opalescent blue at the corners of my eyes.
* * * *
The first time I heard a heartbeat, I thought I was under a pounding wave, yet the world was so strangely calm.
Come over so we can take a long walk on the beach, he teased. Ironically, Tobias met me in the mountains, but he was the first person that called me a siren. No one had ever called me a siren. In truth, it made me feel afraid. I had always been taught that sirens were dangerous and drove men insane. Tobias and I had both read how Odysseus almost wrecked his voyage by listening to the sirens’ sweet song, growing frantic while his crew watched him with their ears plugged by wax. How he struggled with his binds, begging them to untie him from the mast—until his fever broke after the ship had finally sailed far enough away.
What was my sweet song? I had a hard enough time speaking my mind. Maybe it was because I let Tobias hear me play the violin. Maybe it was because he was from the landlocked midwest.
Even so, I had just started to get used to the idea. I made him a shell necklace as a Christmas gift but we didn’t make it through January. When I turned to look at my tail in the mirror—I saw I was a dolphin again. Incidentally, that summer he went on a study abroad trip over the Atlantic and met a real siren on the ship.
* * * *
I twisted to crack my sore back. I let the painting sit out for two weeks before I touched it again.
If I could find you now, things would get better, we could leave this town and run forever, I know somewhere somehow we’ll be together, let your waves crash down and take me away-ee-ay-ee-yeah—
Everyone needs a pop-punk romance like Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue.” Whenever I listen to the song now, it reminds me of this one time I was out surfing with my family a few weeks before I turned 15. Two blond boys my age showed up in the water near us. The cute one was making splashes as he back-flipped off his board when he finished a ride. We started talking as we waited for a swell. His name was Sean, the other guy was called Joey. They were from Springfield. Before I left to go home, Sean and I caught a wave at the same time and he tried to jump on my board. I had starfish and quicksilver in my head for the next three months.
I started listening to Mae about this time, too, the band that swooned me with their song “The Ocean,”singing You come over unannounced, silence broken by your voice in the dark, I need you here tonight just like the ocean needs the waves. It would make me feel soft and nostalgic for a time I hadn’t breathed in yet; it was my dream serenade.
The next time I came back to Cayucos, I watched the break from the Beach House window, checking every hour to see if I would catch sight of someone back-flipping off their board to signal when I could suit up and dive into my daydream again.
* * * *
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling….When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and [yet] with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience.
Edmund Burke distinguishes the Sublime from the Beautiful. The Beautiful is small, delicate, smooth, pleasurable, finite, and controllable by the viewer. Conversely, the Sublime is vast,rigid, infinite, powerful, inspires a sense of pain and/or danger, has the ability to control the viewer, and a produces a terror delightfully felt when beheld at a safe distance. Burke argued that the human ability to find delight in something terrible is actually what allows us to have sympathy for each other or be inspired by awe instead of wanting to throw up and run for the hills. It keeps us tending to others’ wounds and solving murder mysteries, the same as it keeps us watching thunderstorms and drawing lions.
* * * *
I made a map. Utilization of hands, fingers, narrow palette knives, and bristle brushes were chosen for a thick, impasto rendering. Paying attention to rules of physics, light, and color would agree with Formalism; I would deviate slightly by emphasizing saturation to evoke an emotional vibration.