I—Salt water (Swampscott, Massachusetts)
The waves heave themselves up onto shore, and the sea sucks them greedily back. Sun sparkles on the crest of each ripple, sky shines deeply into the front face of each wave.
I watch the fleeting patterns sketched by shallow water into white foam, as it moves over sand at shore’s edge.
I go to the beach because I want to be outside in the middle of all this restlessness that we call “nature.” As if we human beings weren’t also a constantly moving part of this big picture, as if we were somehow separate from it. Nature holds and reflects my busy mind, even if it is not my busy mind. For this reason, it makes me feel calm. Like meditation.
In fact, I like to come here after I sit Zen.
I’m walking along the length of the beach at shoreline, the sea to my right and the land to my left.
My feet are now in shallower water, now in deeper, as waves move in and out over them. When waves move in, my feet disappear under a chilly rush of water. When waves move out, my feet re-appear all wet and sandy. They are the same feet whether I see them or not, and yet they are also different feet in water than they are in sun.
Looking down at my feet and the water, I am just being. This feels good to my body:
This feels good to my mind—nothing in particular to be doing except walking.
The waves increase; they get rougher. Maybe there’s rough weather rising far out at sea, maybe there was a storm yesterday or there will be one tomorrow. As I watch, a shift in the regular rhythm of the waves has taken place imperceptibly under my feet.
Suddenly a shallow outgoing wave, sparkling over sand, flows out to sea just at the precise moment as a shallow incoming wave rushes in over the same sand.
At my feet the two waves meet and mingle in their concurrent opposing motion: the water beneath flows out over my moving feet, and the water above flows in over my moving feet.
And then, everything stops.
I feel a sudden sense of vertigo, as if my movement and the sea’s movement and all this contrary mixed-ness of activity has just become a sort of standing-still.
As if all this motion is really no motion.
The beach seems to drop away from under me in a profound confusion that my logical mind hasn’t yet had time to explain. Who is moving, what is moving, where? And in the middle of this split second of light new strangeness, I am all of a sudden here.
Completely here in a timeless still space outside all of everything, yet also inside of time and space and all of everything. Every thing, every duality, is come together here. And then it passes.
I walk on.
II—Fresh water (Sister Lakes, Michigan)
“The Lake” is the most familiar place in my life.
Here at this small lake in southern Michigan, just east of the Great lake, my grandfather built a cottage nearly 70 years ago. My father helped build it when he was 12, and at age 81 he continues to take care of it. Three generations of my family still come to enjoy the beauty and sense of home we feel here.
Things do change, many of the old year-round families are gone and vacation-homers from Chicago have moved in. Some of the cottages have been torn down for bigger houses, and many of the small fishing boats have been replaced by speedboats. But the essence of the place remains.
Set in rolling fertile fields of corn, soybeans, fruit trees and vineyards, you know you are in the agricultural Midwest where work is hard, life is practical, and change is slow.
When the wind is down, early on summer mornings, all is quiet without and within. The lake is a mirror to the sun, smooth, guileless. Canada geese skim calmly over the surface. Silver minnows school in the clear shallows, darting away together at the sight of bass.
When the sun shines on the placid water near shore you can see every detail of life under the surface.
Looking out further, there are also signs of what’s happening beneath deep water. Little flurries of ripples show where schools of small fish feed on insects. Bigger circles and flashes show where big fish jump for food. Turtles pop their heads above water as they swim along. Swallows skitter and fly swiftly down to the water’s surface after bugs.
Since storms and tornadoes can come up suddenly, we constantly watch the fish, the birds, the insects, the clouds and the wind to gauge what the weather will do.
There are few mysteries here.
Today, a storm is coming up quickly. Thunderheads have been building to great heights and the rising wind is, strangely, from the east. I‘ve been swimming close to shore with my sons, sisters and nephew all through the afternoon heat while more and more clouds move in.
Soon the sky turns dark above us and grey clouds form a canopy all around the circle of lake. We feel the increase of heat and heaviness in the air until, with a sudden stilling of wind, the rain starts.
As it falls gently, our first inclination is to get out of the water and head for shelter. There’s power in the air but so far no thunder, the dangerous harbinger of lightening, and so we decide to stay put.
This isn’t typical—I don’t think any of us has ever before been swimming in the rain.
It must be the influence of the rash younger generation, or maybe my sisters and I are getting old enough to start taking risks again. We float and paddle in the shallow water as gentle rain beats on our heads, runs down our faces. All around us raindrops splash onto the lake’s surface. Each drop creates a ring of circles, and each circle intersects all the other circles rippling out from all the other drops.
In the center of each circle, a raindrop creates a slight dip in the water where it hits and then bounces back up from that same center.
Water moving down, water moving up.
The sound of rain hitting lake water, into which I’m immersed at ear level, is something I’ve never experienced before. It’s one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard and, as if by agreement, we all stop talking to just listen.
A hollow musical plunking echoes all around.
We can hear even the stones at the bottom of the lake adding their resonance to this song. When the rain slows down it plays a delicate silvery tinkling of water, when the rain speeds up it plays a fast deep counterpoint of water.
Water from above, water from below.
Until the thunder comes, I float with my loved ones for this short time of sweetness. Finally I stop trying to wipe the water from my eyes, realizing for the first time that we’re all really inside of it always anyway.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman