An Autobiography in Water

by Harmony Button

 

In fourth grade, at my artsy hippie school, we used to walk to the local YMCA to go swimming. It was about a mile from the school to the pool, and we knew the route backwards and forwards: past the weird historical building with the lions on the porch, past the rod iron fence, over the freeway bridge, past Loraine’s Lunch Basket, which always seemed like an incredibly romantic place to me. The locker rooms at the YMCA smelled like hot chlorine and hotel shampoo, and I hated the first touch of the wet floor on my dry feet. It was always an odd feeling to shed our winter coats and hats, our sweatshirts, our t-shirts, our underwear — we had just walked through the snow, and now here we were, naked! We were supposed to shower before getting in the pool, but who ever heard of taking a shower with a swimsuit on? It felt wrong, stepping into the warm water, letting it soak through the tight, dry Lycra.

I started as a Guppy, which meant that I could float and paddle, but didn’t really know how to swim, per se. I don’t remember learning to be comfortable in water — is that something you learn? I have these foggy memories of my mom taking me to the pool, when I was small enough to hold like a little soggy football. I remember the smoothness of her skin, in the water, and the way she held me under the armpits. I was weightless; I was there and not there. I was terrified she’d let go of me, but kind of wanted to let go. It was the best thing, ever.

The next thing I remember is being moved to the “Fish” group at the Y, where kids were kicking and swimming and churning their way back and forth through the lanes like they were little water-cogs in the great pool-machine, as if we were all parts of a watery clock. Tick, tock. Their mouths were open little holes that fished and closed and fished and closed, over and over. I remember learning to do a flip-turn and getting so much water up my nose that I thought I was going to die. I clung to the side of the pool and gasped and felt a wave of pain wash through me, but nobody noticed. Everybody else wore goggles, but after that, I insisted upon a full scuba mask, so that my nose was covered. The other kids made fun of me. I cared, but not enough to get rid of my mask.

In seventh grade, we were walking back from the Y, past Lorraine’s Lunch Basket, letting our wet hair freeze into amusing shapes and listing all the things we wished we had to eat for lunch, when my walking buddy — my best friend at school — pointed and laughed. There was a hotdog stand that had just opened on the corner. It was called “Boners.”

I didn’t see why that was funny.

“You’re kidding, right?” my friend asked me.

I was not.

I knew there were things going on around me that I didn’t know about. My friend’s chest, for example, had started looking different in her swimsuits, and out of them. I knew there was some fresh hell called Puberty to come, but I did not expect to be ambushed by Boners on every corner.

My friend laughed outright. I was horrified, and avoided eye-contact with the offending hot dog stand. My friend had a swimming pool in her backyard that had a diving board and a grassy yard and a big wooden fence all the way around the yard. Her mother let her and her sister go skinny dipping late at night on weekends.

I had never done anything so transgressive and amazing.

*

Middle School girls have a thing with the elements, especially if they congregate in groups of four, which we did. Four was the right number for playing jumprope games, for dividing up the elements: who was earth? Who was air? To our credit we quickly rejected the literal: despite my red hair, I was never fire. Fire was my friend who knew about the hot dog stand. The quiet one was earth. The gymnast was air. I was water.

I’ve seen this ritual play out, over and over again, in my own classrooms, over the years. The claiming of the elements is as elemental as cootie shots and friendship bracelets. What is it that makes someone identify with water? Is it a sense of shifting depth, a tidal pull, a tug of the unconscious? Is it the state of loneliness and longing? Water is a lonely element. Water is ungrounded, timeless, viscid, trapped and not trapped. Water is recursive, yet never quite repeats.

The logic of little girls: even at that age, we knew you had to choose. Who are you? Will you be an Air girl, a Fire girl, a girl of Earth? The whole world is made of mirrors, at that age. What your friends choose for you becomes the truth.

*

When I was in eighth grade, I moved from my little urban alternative school into a college prep program in the suburbs. No longer did I walk to the YMCA or the Zen Center for my gym credit. Instead, I joined the ranks of soggy adolescents who were forced through a program called “Drown Proofing,” which took place in the school pool.

The first stage was to teach us how to reserve energy: instead of treading water, we were taught to float passively, chins tucked to chests, legs dangling down towards the bottom of the pool. Then, with a small scoop of the hands, we could lift our chins, take a chorus of quick breaths, and put our heads back underwater. This tactic, we were told, could keep us alive for hours, long after we would have succumbed to fatigue if we were treading the whole time. The key was not to fight it — let the waves push us up and down. Let the water cover our mouths, fill our ears, blind our eyes — all we needed was a breath here or there. It was an incredibly tranquil, timeless kind of feeling, to make peace with submersion. I rested, I breathed, I rested. If my body hadn’t needed air on a regular basis, I swear, I could have fallen asleep, right there in the pool. At what other point in the day was I so completely relaxed, so unaware of shape and weight and gravity? It was in these moments of greatest vulnerability and nakedness that I found myself most confident, most free.

Now, this program got a little weirder and more intense at times — we learned to swim with our hands tied behind our backs, to retrieve a brick off the bottom of the pool with our teeth, to float with our legs “broken,” ie, hog-tied at awkward angles to our waists, so we couldn’t kick. In all of these cases, the solution had to do with relaxation and breath control: exhale, sink; inhale, float. Wait. Breath. Relax. Breath.

While I suspect that there might be some liability issues surrounding required gym courses that tie kids up and throw them in the deep end of swimming pools, I kind of loved the program. It was the passive equivalent of learning self-defence: suddenly, I could brave any body of water, at any time of day or night. The water was no enemy. The water was just water. I abandoned my childish snorkel mask. I let the water in my nostrils, in my eyes. I let the water press itself against my face, and I liked it.

*

A few years later, I joined the swim team in high school because I was dating a swimmer boy. Is that what you called it? Dating? I had fallen in love for the first time with the school’s smartest, most respectful nerd. As far as first boyfriends went, it was the best thing my parents could ever hope for, and yet, I was absolutely terrified to tell them. In the world of sex and girl/boy things, I was a guppy. Every time I tried to explain, I felt the nausea of uncertainty, the burn of learning I was something other than, I thought, what they wanted me to be. Why do children not understand that their parents expect them to change, fast, to evolve little adolescent fins and legs, to crawl out of the primordial soup of childhood and become — what?  Perhaps that was why I didn’t want to talk about it: I didn’t know what kind of creature I was, let alone what I was becoming.  These were waters that still felt transgressive, and I couldn’t make a move. I was passive, face scrunched, lungs held tight, face first in the drink.  I had no snorkel other than my absolute refusal to articulate my own metamorphosis.

But I was drown proof, which meant that I knew how to make peace with discomfort, how to wait it out. I didn’t know what to do with boys, but I knew that in the pool — the real pool, on the swim team — our bodies were as close as they could ever be. Water made everything else come into an alternative kind of focus: physical contact in the water is surreal, not-real: a bushed thigh or a grabbed foot was an act of intimacy, separated by a thick barrier or liquid. We stood around in one-piece swimsuits, nothing but taut bags of hormone-bursting skin.

And so, I swam. Every day, I submerged my face into that most intimate mirror: the water. I faced down the silence of it and the roar of it and I learned to push my lungs and my limbs in ways I had never pushed them before. I suffered through the awkward slosh of having cried into my own swim goggles, and I learned to calm my lungs and re-assert my breath. And afterwards, I could share a plastic bus seat with the boy and feel the thrill of bumped elbows and knees that brushed and didn’t shy away. I could feel the rawness of dry waffle shirts and cold jeans against my chlorinated skin. And I could swim.

*

Age sixteen: I took a Red Cross course to get my lifeguard certification. I learned how to grab a struggling swimmer from behind, to avoid being dragged down with them. I learned how to climb out of a pool while holding an unconscious person by both hands, to prevent the body from slipping back into the water. I learned how to give CPR to dismembered mannequins who were all torso and plastic mouths, and how to avoid getting barfed on when giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to a live person, not a mannequin. I learned to hold a red float across my chest like a badass and avoid making eye contact with anybody who was talking to me, because I was constantly scanning the water.

By the end of my senior year, I didn’t really want to graduate high school.  I felt like I had just figured a few things out, that I was comfortable, and really very happy where I was.  I felt like graduation was this huge life break-up: I had to let go of my established sense of self, let alone my relationships with my friends, my teachers, and my family.  And so I did what any reasonable teenager would do: I rebounded, hard, with a sexy, low-commitment alternative.  I got a job at a summer camp in the Adirondacks.

It was the quintessential camp experience, right down to the open air bungalows, the family style meals and the weirdly catchy camp songs.  There, I was a lifeguard, camp counselor, and water sports instructor. I led small surface level scuba trips around the lake to look at algae and fish and the one creepy sunken rowboat out in the middle of the lake. I spent so many hours standing on the big overlook rock with my red lifeguard rescue float slung across my chest that I got lopsided tan lines — and I was ridiculously proud of them. I made friends, and did innocuously naughty things with them, like sneak out for late night skinny dipping trips and long games of Truth or Dare. I wasn’t quite myself, and I didn’t have the time to figure out what was missing. I was a Water girl, and I didn’t fight it. Sometimes, you just have to wait for the wave to pass, before you can lift your head, catch a breath.

*

In college, in the sea of uncertainty, I joined the crew team.  Again, water became my landmark, my touchstone, my shifting point of certainty amid great, great ambiguity.  I woke at 4:30 in the morning and learned to lift big boats into the water and how to row them — fast. I learned that speed of the boat is not the same thing as speed of the rower; I learned to pry an oar and pop an oar and balance and set and swing my body along the surface so that the boat skimmed, light and unburdened, across the lake. Being a good rower is as much about what you don’t do to slow the boat down as it is about what you do to speed it up, and for the first time, I was really quite good at something. Unlike high school, I wasn’t just making do — I was doing it. I left my heart on the water, over and over. I fell in love with losing myself; I found in water what my friends found in sex, which I definitely wasn’t getting, at that point. It was a feeling of wanting something more the more you get it: sweat, love, strength, thirst, health.

*

When I moved to Boulder, Colorado for a magazine internship and found myself growing ever more small and lonely, I sought refuge in the river, planning my days and routes around the Boulder Creek and the heat of the day. I read piles of books with my feet in the water, until my eyes would close around the words and I would stare into the current, dreaming of things I couldn’t imagine, my heart swelling and pruning, just like my feet. I felt raw and satisfied, purified, soaked to some new kind of understanding. I thought love was a sweet kind of chance and rejection. I was impossibly hopeful and nostalgically naive. I listened to Jack Johnson on my discman and I felt my own deep buoyancy. I felt destined for greatness. I felt destined for longing.

*

The next summer: in the ocean, you are not a body, but a buoyancy, a floating thing made up of air and kick. I learned to body surf on a scrubby little beach in New Hampshire, where I spent seven summers teaching at a prestigious summer school program. I spent my days with brilliant teachers and students from all over the world, but the summer was all about water: how to get in it, how to get out of it, how to drink enough of it. The campus was ten miles from the beach, and there were days when I would ride my bike to the ocean before dawn to swim, then pedal back in time to teach my first period. I would come to class with salt in my hair, which gave it extra curl. My whole world felt just as soft and fierce.

This is what you should do in your twenties: get sunburns around the racerback straps of your sports bra, where the fabric chaffed and wore off all your sunscreen. Get blisters on your toes from biking home at dawn with sand in your socks. Stay up too late with your friends, drinking pints of beer with fresh blueberries floating in the top of them. Go swimming in the ocean.

My wisest friend, those days, was twenty eight years old, which was older than I was by, like, two years, which felt like a lot, back then. She decided she liked me back before I even knew who I was to like, and I was a little scared of her, before I knew that good people can be scary. She taught me to see social irony and stack rocks. “Let’s go stack rocks,” she’d say, and we’d drive to an abandoned, rocky part of the shore and make little piles of rocks, balancing them one on the other until they fell down. It felt like reading Faulkner — beautiful and epic and small and significant, all at once. Everything crumbled. Everything washed.

*

And then, there was Jason. When we first started dating, we were water rats, seeking out any opportunity to tear off our clothes and immerse ourselves in whatever water presented itself to us: creeks, river, lakes, hot springs, oceans. We went on long road trips and slept in sweaty tents and washed ourselves in pumps and spigots, ponds and fountains. Our own sweat purged us and salted us. We were always in need of snacks, and our towels never dried. My hair stayed damp in the center, and I was always looking for the next place to submerge myself. It was hot all the time, and we couldn’t get enough of it. We couldn’t get enough.

Thirst is the kind of thing you think you quench, but Jason and I — it was different.  For the first time, I didn’t see an end in sight.  I didn’t see the ticking time bomb of my own life’s course, pulling the plug on this waterlogged kind of infatuation.  For the first time, I decided to stay.

But then something strange happened, out in Utah: I stopped drinking water. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I didn’t even realize it at first — I noticed the growing headaches, the sense of fatigue, the odd puckering of my fingertips. The problem was, I didn’t feel thirsty — just the opposite. I would take a sip of water, and feel as if I didn’t want to swallow it. All too often, I would try to force myself to drink water, even just a few mouthfuls, to get my through the day — and I’d end up choking on it, the liquid catching in my throat. You know that thing that happens when you try to swallow liquid, but it’s on top of some odd air bubble, and the two elemental forces have to duke it out in the middle of your throat, resulting in some kind of wicked pressure differential that causes great pain which doesn’t really make any sense to outside witnesses? That happened, all the time.

Was this adulthood, this constant nagging responsibility to do the dishes, get more sleep, hydrate through the day?  “Drink more water” became a favorite list-topper every New Year, when I’d write out my resolutions and post them on the side of the fridge, where they could shame me for the following 364 days. I’d look at it and think, why is this so hard? This one should be simple: it’s just water. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have time. I didn’t want it. It was too cold. It was too warm. I didn’t have a clean glass. I had a clean glass, but I knew I had another dedicated water glass somewhere else, so I didn’t want to dirty it. I had a glass full of water, but there was a weird piece of lint floating on the top of it. Why is all of Utah full of weird lint? Seriously, houses in the desert experience dust like no other — a fine, pervasive, scuzzy layer of dust that falls all over everything, all the time.

I tried all the tricks: drink a glass of lukewarm water in the morning, to start your digestive system: gross. Don’t want it. Mark a water bottle with times of the day, and make sure your water level hits the line by the designated time: lame, and too rule-bound. After years of acting like a real athlete, I was done with anybody telling me what or when to put anything in my body, or what my body should look or act like as a result.

I seriously wondered if weighing in for years of crew races had damaged my psyche, and if I was denying myself water as some weird way of practicing an emotional “drop weight” for some life-race I was always on the verge of qualifying for. And maybe, maybe that’s a little bit of it — there’s something really life-affirming about water, and there have been large swaths of time out here in the desert during which I felt as if my life day was to be endured, rather than raced: I felt cut off from the proactive drive of the athlete, the kind that seeks out water as fuel, and instead, I fell into the passive suffering of adulthood: days passed, I did not drink.

I began to wonder if this my body’s way of telling me that I was in the wrong place, that the desert was inhospitable to me.  Jason worried, too — drink more water, he’d say, filling my many tall glasses after I’d left them sitting around the house like untapped pockets of wealth.  I hoarded water the way I hoarded money: for some day, some moment when, maybe, I would need it more.  It wasn’t the desert’s fault — I loved the desert, even as it dried me out.  The desert taught me to be frugal, to put my tap root deep, to live off only the most beautiful and necessary things.  The land around me dried, and so, I saved, and waited, and did not drink.

*

Right now, most of the western states are in some kind of drought. Snow packs are low, rainfall is down. California is an angry red splotch on the U.S. Drought Monitor map. And yet, my memories of Utah summers are of superficial splurges of water — the kind of waste designed to make people forget about drought.  I remember riding my bike down wet sidewalks, through sprinklers, under dripping tree leaves. In Salt Lake, people water so aggressively, the foliage is sometimes damaged by the force of the sprinklers. One time, in my first week of moving to Utah, I saw a dog squat to poop in a public park, only to be rudely startled when a high powered sprinkler system suddenly activated directly under its bum. One time, I drove past a rogue sprinkler that spun it’s spray into the street, instead of stopping its rotation at the edge of the median, and it sprayed in my car window and got me right in the ear.  One time, I saw streets flood with the water pouring from a broken hydrant, and nobody came to fix it for hours and hours.

One time, I lived next door to a neighbor who would drag his garden hose up to his second story balcony so that he could spray it over the fence, to water the dying grass in my backyard. This was not a favor. This was an aggression – the force of his juxtaposed hosing splattered mud all over my park bench, upset the root systems of my tender little tomato plants, and dug small trenches in the grass turf that did remain in the back yard. It’s not that I have a problem with green grass — it’s just that I don’t believe in overly watering non-edibles during times of drought. I watered my small garden patch conscientiously, and my tomatoes flourished, that year. But why would I pour a valuable natural resource all over my grass, which promised to revive naturally in the fall, when the cool weather and increased moisture promised to return? No, watering someone else’s lawn with a power hose is not an act of generosity. It is a passive aggressive way of shaming someone for not maintaining an arbitrary cultural aesthetic in their own back yard. It’s not like you could even see my dead grass from the street. Who was it hurting? Apparently, the sensibilities of my neighbor with the hose.

At first, I tried to stop his hosing by commenting loudly on the damage, saying things like, “My poor plants! They are crushed! And this grass — why is it so muddy?!” — but this had no effect on his behavior. He continued to hose — mostly when he thought I wasn’t looking, but as the summer got hotter, he got even bolder in his hosing. I’d look outside my window to see the thick coil of water falling from his balcony, moving back and forth across the sad patch of my dead grass. When I shouted out the window, he’d quickly flick his hose back over to his side of the fence, and scurry inside before I could confront him.

There were several twists and turns to the battle of the grass, but in the end, I deterred his aggressive hosing by planting an oversized American flag in the center of my dead lawn, at such a position that he could not water my grass without soaking my flag. It turned out he had, as poet Barbara Hamby put it, a “preening rotgut flag-waving cowardice.” So fine. Let him choose. My flag was set.

After that, he let me drought in peace.

*

One of my most cherished poetry teachers, Don Revell, often likened a good poem to moving water: the poem happens, the way water moves down hill. Do not expect the water to flow uphill. Get out of its way, and take any other obstacles with you. He also told me that a poem is what is left behind, after the poetry has moved through it — and I liked that, very much. It saddened me, to think of poems as little crusts of life, like small cicada skins stuck on the bark of our pages, but it also made me understand: a poem is always in need of more water. This is what you bring to a poem: rehydration. Fresh snowmelt of the mind. An eye to drainage. An ear for erosion. And then, in reading, perhaps the poetry awakens, comes alive, and finds its way through the landscape of the mind, once again.

I began to drink water while I read; I sipped, I gulped, I chugged glass after glass while I read. I couldn’t write without water. And so, I drank.

In her TED talk on the nature of inspiration, Elizabeth Gilbert tells a story of how the late poet Ruth Stone felt poetry “come on” in a form similar to Revell’s flowing water: she felt the poem approach as a storm, a wave that rolled out across the horizon and overtook her, turning her into a vehicle, a conduit through which the poem could pour out onto the page. And if she couldn’t get to pen and paper in time, then on the poetry would roll, out of sight and on down the road, searching “for another poet” to write the poem, instead.

Most of the feedback that I got on my poetry in grad school was to take things out. Sometimes, this made my poems much shorter — but what remained was the real poem, undisguised by pretension and the efforts of authorship. What I learned in grad school was how to be humble in the face of the poem, to wait for the wave to rise, and then, to swim like hell, to catch the crest, to ride it while I could. This is not to say that every wave a storm: the ocean exists, even when it lulls and lies flat. Not every poem makes my heart race, makes me fight for air. But some do. And those are often good ones.

*

My house — my real one, not a metaphor — must be a very good poem, because water comes in whenever it rains. It must be draining down the rafters from higher up the roof somewhere, but three visits from the roofer and many many dollars have not solved this problem, so now, I put a towel in the window well to catch the drips that gather inside the frame, and I pop the bubbles that form in the paint. They look all the world like tear drops, moving their hungry hungry caterpillar trails down the walls like a big fat symbol of my complexity.

These days, I feel the ocean of my own aging move me, back and forward, every month. Some days, the love of an unborn child is nothing but a riptide, tugging at my body, threatening to exist, threatening to never surface. Some days, I am the waves, instead of under them. No matter where I feel myself in these waters, there is always a depth, a silent kind of hollowness, at the heart of it all. This place is both peaceful and dark, and very cold.

On weekends when we’re both free, Jason and I go up to Lava Hot Springs, in Idaho. We watch the minerals carve colorful swirls in the sediment that turns to rock on the sides of the hot pools. We make conversation with the owl statue at the head of our favorite pond. We lay, swimsuit clad, in shallow layers of steaming liquid, relishing the pinpricks of snowflakes on our backs. We take turns holding each other in the water — one hand underneath the neck, the other at the small of the back — to create a sense of weightlessness. We close our eyes and open our eyes and remark on the starkness of the contrast between the bare tree branches, the gray sky. We grab the skin around our middle parts and shake it at each other and sigh about how we used to be so lean and hungry all the time, how love has made us soft, how love has made us satisfied. We soak until we prune, and then we nap like cats. We wake and groom and kiss and wash ourselves in the greatest luxury: unfiltered peace, the kind of peace that comes with rocks and waves and the threat of riptides.  Being water isn’t easy — there will always be a kind of pull, a kind of tidal desire to be somewhere or someone you’re not.  But isn’t longing also beautiful?  I would rather soak in it, be a part of the tides, feel the pull of their conflicting desires, than to tell myself that because I kept my head above the water, I must be afloat — I must have success, or even, that I am alive in all the ways I want to be alive.

Water travels, even in the desert.  I can feel it — the rumble of the creek; the trickle of snowmelt that moves, slowly, through the mountain.  All around me, everything shifts around water.  It is rarely in balance.  It is always in flux, but in a compelling, alluring kind of way.  I could do worse than to follow the water of my world.  I could do worse than to be a Water kind of girl.

Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy ofAmerican Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.

Image Credit: Beach, Stone Pile, Seascape, Ocean, Pixabay

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