Tuesday, January 26, 2010

on drowning

I have spent the last two years seriously considering the notion of drowning.
I have made pictures of it, read about it, considered it in cultural terms, in aesthetic terms. How drowning is considered a feminine death, a womanly thing. The relationship of madness and drowning.

But the reality of drowning here and now, in the real world, intrudes upon my considerations. The secret truth of drowning, not the paintings of Ophelia, of female martyrs, the literary drownings of Edna Pontellier, of Maggie Tulliver. The truth is it is men who drown, men who overestimate their capabilities, who are reckless.
Four people have drowned this week, three men and one woman. Three of whom went in to retrieve children, three of them on unpatrolled beaches.

I swim in rips. I swim when the beach is closed, I swim when the surf is outrageously huge. I can do that, because I know intimately every breath the ocean, here in my small stretch, will take. I know each  bump and runnel of sand beneath. Every artery of pulling water. I have competed in marathons swims of up to 10 kilometers. I have swum in the ocean every day for at least twenty years.

Even so, I rarely swim at unpatrolled beaches and when I do it is usually at a very shallow depth. Unknown waters make me nervous, edgy. Who knows what secret rips lie beneath? what unmet creatures? If I swim I wear fins, in case I need to sprint to shore. I holiday at a remote and lonely beach, where the cicadas are shrill and the dry heat bites, and I am always cautious. Dolphins once herded me to shore when I set off to do a swim along the beach. They circled me and drove me in until I was knee deep.

Dolphins, as benign as they are, are still colossal great mammals, dark and sleek. To have them suddenly appear at eye level is disconcerting at the very least: a fin is a fin at half a meter away. To have a whole bunch of them appear and shuffle you to shore is alarming, and I wonder to this day whether it was a shark they were herding me away from, or their babies. The pod is a familiar sight at that beach, and they delight in catching waves next to surfers. As I said, it is vastly different to see dolphins from the relative safety of a board from seeing one eye to eye with no warning. With nothing between you.

I think of that pod often, the way they appeared, how huge they looked, how close they came and how insistently they urged me to the shallows before departing themselves back to the deep. It was an overcast day, and few people were around. The water, as is usual up there, was the temperature of bathwater, and full of fish. I was  swimming  parallel to the shore, in not too deep water, nervously trying to concentrate on my stroke, when the dolphins appeared and sent me out. I remember standing knee deep in the surf, incredulous at their cheek.
There was a shark the next day, though to be sure, there are always sharks. 

It only takes twelve seconds to drown.

I remember one time leaping over rockpools so I could reach three five-year-olds who, washing their feet, had spilled into one of the waterholes were drifting in the rip. 
Drifting very quickly. Nonchalantly, the sea had reached a hand and hooked the children to itself.

It is hard to hold three children at once, the thing is to make it a game. A chain, holding hands hold tight, children ring a ring a rosy ocean in your nosy
Twelve seconds.  
The lifeguard had gone home.

The pull of the ocean against their small hollow chests. The weight of them, needing strength to pull them in, this little chain of bodies, laughing. Had the water been even two inches deeper when I reached them, I would have lost them to the muscled pull of the ocean. Heard the crack of heavy water against frail clavicle, and even frailer lungs.

Once when I was sixteen, 

I was surfing at an out of town beach with my then beloved. 
The wetsuit he gave me to wear was archaic, and meant for a boy. Girls back then, didn't go surfing, and my physiology made the suit too tight in places and loose in others. It had no zip, just a wide neckhole.

Way out to sea, the beloved sat in his usual position, hands on thighs, nonchalantly watching waves and  ignoring me. Was I an embarrassment? Or too capable a sea creature to be watched over? Girls were supposed to be looked after, but I was a top class swimmer, better than him and he knew it.

I took off on a wave, stood up, and nosedived immediately.
The board washed in and left me stranded in the deep with a whole nation of waves and channels through which to travel.
I set off towards shore, quite a way, but, you know. Swimming was my thing.

What I had not accounted for were the binding qualities of wetsuit rubber, the weight of the water and the way the sea entered the suit, filling it with a weight and inflexibility I was far too slight to fight against.
Unable to escape, the water made me sink to the ocean floor. I could barely raise my arms.
The beloved rose and fell from view, still looking out to sea, flicking his hair in the sunlight.

I sank to the bottom.
And had an idea. I ran along and then pushed as hard as I could to the surface, like a seal. Took a breath, sank again, ran again, and pushed. So I was running along the seafloor, and then rocketing up for air. All the way to shore.

When I made it to the sand, I lolled and flapped there like a sea lion.
 A bunch of boys sitting on the sand clapped and grinned and hooted, catcalling and whistling. I tried to remove myself from the wretched wetsuit to find that I couldn't budge it and was wedged inside. Self consciousness, the default setting of the teenage girl, made me weak, and hot in the face
I writhed and twisted and pulled. I used feet hands teeth rolling this way and that in a fury, wedging it up over my head, blinding myself. 
With wetsuit stuck between chest and upraised elbows, I pulled it with my nails with superhuman strength, millimeter by millimeter, until finally my face was free with a loud sucking plop.

I flung the wetsuit onto the ground and collapsed onto the sand by the waters edge, exhausted. The boys still hooted and clapped. I stood up, adorned with tatters of my own dignity, and arranged my bikini into a logical order, trying to ignore them.

Mute with rage when the beloved finally sauntered in, I watched as he flicked his hair, glanced at my audience, and gave me a look, as if to say, have you been flirting?
I wanted to say I have been drowning,
I sank to the bottom of the sea and you didn't save me. All you care about is that I have attracted attention from other males.
Words evaporated on their way out of my mouth, and I said nothing. The tightening of his lips, in the very corners, gave it all away.  
He was not beloved for very long.


Here and now, among the crowds of holiday swimmers, twelve people on the beach are staring out to sea. I can hear them calling out to swimmers who stray, I can see them circling the swimmers on their yellow boards. I  can see also those invisible folks on the beach, who will leap to their feet and go to the rescue of anyone who looks like they may be in the wrong place, whose eyes , like mine, will see these things, who cannot help but watch. I can see the dawn patrol who saved the bipolar man from heaving surf one morning at 5am: myself, the vet and the dentist. And I know in those deserted places all along the coast, far away from here, the only watching eyes are those of birds, of dingoes, of dolphins, of silver bream.

No doubt one day  the sea will get the better of me. It will capture me and I will become a part of it forever. 
But for now I am watchful of myself and of others.  The ocean is a vastness and a terrifying force: this week has proved that so.

I am going now to be in the sea, to have a few words, to pay my respects.
 Buy myself some time.


Linda Sue said...

I am still holding my breath...Grew up in the high desert palins, no water except manageable creeks. I was unaware of the force that is the sea until I went to the big Island, HI. I was spared, only just...and came away quite terrified.Your tales of relationship with the mysterous ocean leaves me shakey, still holding.my.breath.Brilliant writing as always.

Mary said...

Not flirting ...drowning.

Between you and Kim I have a lot to show my kids..


Leenie said...

Your photos are so alive. It is good to be reminded how fun can become terror in an instant. How we have to be mindful when dealing with nature.

I've seen more underwater than I've wanted to a few times. The most fearful was after being tossed out of a whitewater raft into a whirlpool. Nothing I could do could save me. Only my lifejacket was between me and the end. Lungs full of water is a terrible thing. Stay safe.

KPB said...

Since I met you that first time at Kyushu now, whenever I am at the ocean or think of the ocean I think of you. I had no idea you swam everyday (although I did suspect as much - but in winter too!?) I was gobsmacked with awe when I discovered you do ocean marathons.

The ocean holds a power over me I have at worst ignored and at least down-played all of my life. This summer marks the return of me to the ocean and what it has done to my being.

But I am wary. I do not have the experience of someone like you, I want to get out there beyond the breakers and swim and swim and swim.

Your stories scare and invigorate me.

eurolush said...

As always, beautifully written and photographed.

Reluctant Blogger said...

You scare me so.

I am petrified of the sea. I am sure that in a past life I must have drowned because I often have dreams where I am drowning and I have a real fear of my lungs filling with water. I am even scared of putting my face under the shower!!

I did buck up courage to snorkel but I would only do that where I could touch the ground.

Harry is reckless in water. He needs to spend more time learning to respect its power.

Meggie said...

Although I have almost drowned twice, in the sea, I still regard it as magical. I love the feel of the salty water, the rush of the waves, but now, I am too decrepit to take on the wild waves. It still holds magic, it is just that I do not have the strength to cope with it now.
Love your words & your pictures are amazing.

Anonymous said...

Your thesis sounds utterly intriguing. Well done.

I stopped breathing as I watched the young woman sinking inside the unsuitable suit, using her marbles to survive, then landing like a castaway with an audience of boys straight out of Puberty Blues. Loved the evaporated words image – that meek place the feminine used to inhabit. As I said, your thesis sounds intriguing.

My oldest friend’s mother nearly succumbed to the waves. She felt incredibly serene as the water poured into her lungs, and resisted being rescued. After Haiti, and the reminder of my most fundamental fear – being buried alive – I understand this notion even more. A return to our original home. And thank you for the pictures – last one in particular.

And here’s my favourite bit of water. At age two I suddenly plunged into its cold, cold waters – I’m told it looked like freestyle only I kept my head down. Once emptied of the water I swallowed, I began to giggle, so I’m told. I’d seen home maybe.

Kirti said...

untergartens untergartens untergartens I cannot WAIT to use that in a sentence....

Please do not ever drown precious Fifi. You go make a pact with that sea.

Anonymous said...
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Jellyhead said...

ah, fifi, that ocean can be so two-faced. I'm glad you have a healthy respect for it. I loved every word of what you wrote.

I love the water but fear its depths & deadly creatures, too.

Lady Pants said...

You are an excellent, excellent writer.

At present, that is all I can manage to say.

Pam said...

Ah, I too love the sea. But from the shore. Even your beautiful words do not tempt me to launch myself into its powerful grip.

Mind you, it's a lot colder here.

meli said...

very beautiful post fifi. i'm sorry i haven't commented for, oh, months and months. i've still been reading. but saying 'very beautiful post' every time was starting to feel repetitive!! but more than that, those photos are just stunning. and the ocean was very kind to me, recently, when i needed it to be. x

Anonymous said...

I've always been frightened of the sea, the deeper out the more the fear grabs me- unlike air adventures and travel which holds no fear at all. I find it hard to look at the slapping water around pylons at the end of the jetty.It is intruiging reading your posts, always so well written, taking me into a sea-green world that I both respect and avoid,yet am fascinated by. Thank you Fifi.

Regulus said...

Hi Fifi,

You really should incorporate this entry in your larger essay on drowning and its relation to the Romantics -- since part of it involves your own experience. This is literally a ready-made several pages of essay.

Re. the other essay, I'm finally getting around to it ... My apologies.

Also, on another note, re. that weird anonymous Chinese comment, I'd be careful about those ... That was a prelude to a nasty virus attack on my old computer because my computer was compromised due to a vulnerability in Blogger (made worse that I was using my de facto administrator account as my daily use account, which I no longer do, thus opening up all kinds of possibilities for viral mischief). Anyway, I would delete that above comment outright.

Unapologetically Mara said...

I´ve always felt connected to water, it is always present in my creations, I feel free if I have water around. But you fifi, you give me such an amazing dimension of the ocean. I really love your words and the images they generate. Thank you for that.

オテモヤン said...
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Anonymous said...

Glad I dropped by. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am slowly easing myself back into blogland. Look at what I have missed !

I am also drawn to water, especially the ocean. Always have been. I have very little if any fear of the water, however, I do have the deepest respect for it.

Fabulous post.

Eleanor said...

Hi Fi!

Can't seem to find your email address so will put it in a commentbox:

Of COURSE I didn't erase any comment from you? Are you INSANE?

Although, that's a really really good silly worry for the list. So well done you.

Oh, and I love you too xxxx

P.S. I plan to have a dip in the ocean today and shall (of course) think of you.

Red Hen (dette) said...

You tell such a great story. I love the image of young fifi in a rage as she had not been flirting but drowning!
I see you have had some strange comments left on your blog too. I am going to delete mine right away.

unique_stephen said...

I was a Surf Life Saver at Tammaramma.

Pulled more than one body from the sea's last cold embrace.

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