To paint the sea: is it a process or is it a state? Maybe one leads to the other?Anna Iltnere, discussing Philip Hoare’s Risingtidefallingstar
Surprise outcome after yesterday’s mope: I have rather abruptly returned to being a person who says she’ll do things and then feels capable of doing them???
I’m not saying nature is healing and Portland Lucy has reestablished herself, but the ambient back-to-school energy I’ve been craving is certainly doing something.
This is what it takes:
- The feeling, however trivial, of control (over my movements, my schedule, my food intake, my sleep)
- Microscopic movement in the direction of something that’s been scaring me—I’m talking truly microscopic, like moving a pencil five inches closer to a notepad and then calling it a day
- Letting the dog see the rabbit
- Securing caregiving help during the week
- Moving piles of mulch from one end of the property to the other in a wheelbarrow, raking them over the parched earth, watching the ur-heap on the concrete shrink bit by bit
- Leaving the house at least once every day
- Asking for help, accepting meals from friends, letting them lighten the logistical load
- Starting the process of buying a friend’s old car so I can have my own reliable transportation
- Undergoing a healthy dose of heartbreak
- Getting in the sea
- Allowing myself to fuck around in the afternoons because the fact is I feel lethargic and dismal every day after lunch, so if I’ve done something early enough it’s not a hardship to watch Ted Lasso or read a book or stare aimlessly into space
- Making diary comics again
It’s the shift when weeks of broken promises to myself stop feeling like impenetrable, sticky guilt and instead alchemize into rocket fuel. Suddenly everything is happening and the urge is to ride the wave, tackle it all in one fell swoop, but my most important job is actually to do less. Rest must be just as much a part of this as consistency. The hardest discipline.
I feel so much relief in my body.
I lost track of how many plunges I took last year, I just know it’s been a minute since I marked the two little wavy lines on my calendar that indicate “Had the opportunity to get in a body of water and took it.”
Wait, no, I do remember the last time: New Year’s Eve!
Oh man, it was frigid and perfect and early enough in the morning that I just got to the river and stripped down and flung myself in and then screamed and jumped up and down and dried off and walked home as the sun was rising.
Anyway, all this to say that I dropped James at the airport yesterday and then immediately took myself to the beach next door (Santa Barbara, you outrageous creature) and Got in The Sea. We’ve got a horrible heat wave on this week, but the wind was also blowing somethin’ fierce so I didn’t stay in long. Still: every time I take those first strides across the sand, feel the water on my thighs, mutter to myself until I can’t deny it any longer and plunge under—it’s like I’m coming home to a part of myself I didn’t know was missing. And the more I come back to it, the more it works. Every return heeds the voice in my head that says “You want this. You’re made of this exuberance. It will enlarge you.” while ignoring the one that says “You don’t have a change of clothes. It’s too cold. Ew, there’s seaweed.”
The “ew, there’s seaweed” voice can take a hike.
Sometimes, when I haven’t been on Twitter in a while, I go look at my friends’ Likes instead of drinking from the timeline firehose. It feels slightly creepy (sorry, Robin), but often yields real gems outside the wind tunnel of my own circles. Sometimes it’s a whole new person to follow, sometimes it’s just a phrase. Today it was this:
our ever-present mutual responsibilities are more visible when we’re at sea […] seafaring makes obvious something that is always true.(Charlie Loyd)
Hear that? It’s the exhaust-spitting, bolt-rattling din of my brain firing up and gnawing on a new idea.
If you’ve been here for the last couple years, you might remember that I’m an authorized representative of an intergalactic entity known as The Boat Gnome.
If you haven’t been here for a couple years, here’s a visual introduction:
This spacefaring nautical merchant, operating in association with known Space Gnome representative Shing Yin Khor, accepts trinkets and trades via post in exchange for a special Trusted Trader pin. (You can also trade with the Space Gnome for pins by becoming a Patreon supporter of Shing’s, but you didn’t hear it from me.)
I’m delighted to announce that the Boat Gnome has now updated her ledgers and is open for the 2020-2021 trading season!
Desired items for this season are as follows:
- A favorite passage describing the ocean (from an artistic work of your choosing)
- A (mailably small) piece of driftwood
- A design for a flag
- A sea creature in any condition (illustrated, bottled, described with words—ideally not live because the ship has no aquarium in which to keep them)
To participate, print this intake form, fill it out, and pack it up with your trade item of choice AND a self-addressed-and-stamped box or bubble envelope (5×7” or larger) with at least $3.50 in regular postage (for US residents), or the equivalent for a 4oz package (for international residents). This envelope will be used to mail back your Trusted Trader pin. The Boat Gnome regretfully cannot accept thin paper or cardboard envelopes—padded is best!
Mail your trade item and SASE to the following address:
Boat Gnome Mercantile
c/o Lucy Bellwood
PO Box 734
Ojai, CA 93024
In exchange, and under no specific timeline, you’ll receive one of these shiny Trusted Trader pins in the post:
That’s it! The Boat Gnome is very much looking forward to pawing over all your mailed offerings and I, as her Representative, can’t wait to file all the necessary paperwork.
Yours in aquatic shenanigans,
Boat Gnome Representative
Take an old man’s word; there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror—on the things that I might have avoided. We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle.— E.M. Forster, A Room with a View
I underlined this passage hard when I read it last year. Muddle. Yes. I know this state well, although I often refer to it as waffling.
Here’s what I notice about waffling: I do it often, and it’s almost always to justify not doing something that I know, deep down, will bring me joy.
- Quitting social media platforms that no longer make me feel connected to my community
- Leaving relationships that aren’t fulfilling or functional
- Starting creative projects that intimidate me
- Getting in the sea
- Doing literally anything that I think of as benefitting me and me alone
It’s no good. The sea’s too shallow here—too full of hazardous rocks. I’m threading my way through pudgy, puckered anemones sunk flush with the surface of the sand. It’s getting dark. My car’s parked in a 24-minute parking spot and I’ve already been out here for at least 15.1 I should call it. But I’ll feel bad if I call it. But I should call it.
I try walking down the beach instead, just to feel like I’m choosing something. I know there’s a stretch where the sand smooths out into a gentler and more welcoming crescent, but I misjudge the distance and end up equally far from both my car and the better beach. I jog back along the boardwalk, cursing my indecision through my mask.
I spend several minutes in the car caught in The Waffle—the dreaded space where I justify and wheedle and drive myself batty with excuses and alternatives—until my Wise Self barges in.
You’re not seriously going to drive all the way home and go to bed knowing that you were right here and didn’t do this thing that you KNOW always fills you with an unstoppable sense of power and joy, are you?
I drive the five minutes down the waterfront, throw the car in the parking lot of the hotel from Little Miss Sunshine, and march past everyone enjoying the last glimmers of sunset. I have a covenant to keep.
I’m bolder with my strip down/stride in routine this time—almost too bold; I nearly enter the water still wearing my mask. A quick return trip to my pile of belongings and I’m running back into the breakers. The water is easy and delicious. It’s not even that cold. Six waves pass before I plunge under the seventh. I stand there staring at the tiniest sliver of a new moon rising on my right for what feels like hours.
She’s right. I’ve never regretted this. Two for two.
1. Why only 24 minutes? Such a specific number. Remind me to look that up later on whatever civic planning blog is nearest. ↩
Not every night, but most nights, the English writer Philip Hoare gets into the sea.
I know this because he tweets about it. Not every night, but most nights. A brief, poetic, timestamped dispatch from the waves.
I read Hoare’s book Risingtidefallingstar toward the end of 2018 and fell hopelessly in love. It’s a sweeping voyage through various coastal regions, literary lives, and strange creatures of the sea. It defies categorization—feels tidal rather than textual. (Just describing the book makes me realize that it shares many qualities with Always Coming Home, which should hardly come as a surprise at this point.)
When I followed Hoare on Twitter, I started seeing these fleeting messages in my feed. The nature of the platform meant that it took me a while to realize how consistently they cropped up, but when I noticed, it shifted something.
In 2019, I made a pact with myself after a week by a lake on an island in Canada: if I find myself near a body of water and it is even remotely possible for me to get into it, I must get into it.1 I’ve since plunged into frigid waves on the Oregon coast, silky river waters of the Columbia Gorge, and the hidden shock of a creek in my hometown of Ojai, California.
Often, as I’m sprinting, screaming across the wide expanse of sand toward the breakers, or furtively scrambling out of my clothes in the underbrush, I think of Hoare’s constant devotion to being where he feels most alive. Most held.
It’s not even about whether or not he swims every night, or what time he goes (does the man ever sleep? Unclear), or what the sky is doing on that particular Tuesday. It’s just a reminder that there is a person who embodies his affection for the sea so fully and faithfully that he’s out there, in the water, baptized night after night.
Whatever Hoare writes next, I’ll probably love it. But my primary interest isn’t his creative output. The thing I want to know is whether he is still himself, and as far as I can tell plunging bodily into the ocean on a near-nightly basis is the backbone of his existence.
I’ve chewed on the idea of object permanence a lot this year—dug into my mistrust of fleeting social media feedback, questioned how online creators can feel secure in taking leaves of absence, and wondered at what it is about our work that truly endures. Hoare makes me consider relocating the idea of permanence from deliverables like books and art and films to the substrates of our creative practices; these undercurrents of selfhood.
That is the thing I want to celebrate and support.1. Even having trod on a stingray and endured unimaginable agony two months after taking said vow, I still believe it to be sound. ↩