Strange, Familiar Seas

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.

The Trap

Sometimes being a person on the internet feels like tap dancing.

I love to dance. I’ve trained in it, I take joy and pleasure in it, and I like doing it where other people can see me.

But the more of a following I amass making a living from my selfhood online, the more it feels like I’m still dancing, but someone is erecting…walls. Like theatrical flats around a stage. They don’t start out so bad—just the odd two dimensional shrub or trompe l’oeil archway to work around here and there—but over time they get taller and more crowded and suddenly they’ve got big honking metal spikes all over them and come to think of it they’re rather tenuously balanced and the spikes do look terribly sharp and here I am, in the middle of the it all, stomping on the floor.

So I take smaller steps. I’m not leaping and spinning and pounding and whirling anymore. I’m tiptoeing.

I’m afraid.

You might not know it to look at me. I’m resolutely sharing things I find meaningful or beautiful or proactive. I’m staying engaged. I’m trying to make art and support the people I love and encourage everyone around me because I struggle to see the value in sharing the ugly, hopeless stuff and I want, more than anything, to be of use.

But this behavior is, in and of itself, a kind of restriction. The act of sharing these days feels different. There’s no “FUCK IT, WE’LL DO IT LIVE” energy in my public online spaces, or if there is it emerges in manic fits and starts, tinged with an undercurrent of desperation and anxiety. The dancer I have pared myself back to doesn’t feel like me.

And of course she doesn’t. This year is a nightmare—for all the collective reasons and a host of personal ones as well. My partner and I split up six months ago and no matter how sound a decision it was I’m still torn up about it. I’ve signed a contract for three graphic novels that will take up the next six years of my life and I’m terrified I’m not up to the task. My dad is 81 and has dementia and I’m trying to figure out when The Correct Moment will come to move home and help look after him. It is utterly unreasonable to expect that anything could feel normal or okay right now.

And yes, maybe the tenor of this post has something to do with the fact that I’ve been housesitting alone in a three-story building with four cats and a deaf, flatulent dog who probably weighs more than I do for the past week. My internet blocker also failed to activate this evening so I got to engage in a rare bout of Nighttime Twitter Yelling—something I’ve effectively prevented myself from doing for months. All of this is to say: it’s 1:15 in the morning and my filter is MIA. As someone said to me over email recently “just…being very blunt right now because, and i cannot emphasize this enough, it’s 2020.”

Anyway, remember the spiky theatrical flats? The trick, in these moments, is to get proactive; go for catharsis. The longer I wait for a perfect solution, the more trapped I’m going to feel. I can’t explain this in any kind of rational or systematic way, and I certainly can’t win playing by the rules. Better to just heave it all out into the open—get on a stage somewhere and yell about the paradox of it to a room full of relative strangers. Kick the flats down from the inside and they’ll fall away like dominoes; harmless.

Dramatic, too.

People will probably even think it’s part of the show. 1

Maybe this is my brand. Not the part where I yell about boats and post goofy bespoke GIFs and write a zillion letters to voters and keep my chin up no matter the cost, but the part where I crack and articulate all the other garbage in an eloquent torrent.

Or maybe, more likely, it’s both.

1. Once, in the summer of 2006, I watched five different cast members desperately try to reason with an audience who refused to leave their seats during an active fire alarm because they were convinced it was part of the play. It took ages to get them out of the theater. In their defense the show was set on a space ship and featured many other blaring alarms, but STILL.