Words by Justin Craigen // Illustrations by Megan Palmer
The sky was wide and long where I grew up. It would stretch in all ways, still in itself until it reached down and touched the dirt horizon, the same red earth you stood on while looking way out. Lazy hills would roll here and there, laying space for skinny, sporadic cactuses that made lonely shadows out of light. In the twilight mornings the desert looked like glowing embers, spreading under a blossoming sun. Then after some time and movement the day would come, the embers turning into hot coals, sending streaks of heat dancing upward with the pieces of dry earth that would join the dance in wind. The town I spent my first days in was ghostly. Some days, when it was hot enough, everyone hid in their houses or under little tin awnings, faces peaking out between seeking shelter with shadows. I often wondered why we lived there, among those burrowing creatures and stark vegetation. It seemed everything struggled to live in that dryness. At times I felt the longing of those cactuses inside me.
On the north side of our town rose a rocky foothill. It was a common sight to see lone silhouettes perched atop, gazing out over all that was displayed. Such open spaces provided clarity and easy breath, and I was often one of those figures looking at it all. I cherished times when a storm would climb like a beautiful silent beast over the horizon, dark against the orange ground. There was an anticipation in seeing those two opposite worlds collide and a quiet that came with it, like the moment before the sun rises or just after it gets pulled below, empty stillness before the change. Then cool water would slap and splash the smoky desert. Everything in that desert would sigh, able to hold onto life that much longer. On a day just like this, an old Indian man from town with lightning-cracked skin and dark eyes joined me. We sat with no words for a while as the black clouds moved closer. When the wind blew, I asked him if he knew where all this rain came from that kept our little town alive. He told me it came from the great mother who sits in all blues underneath the sky, and surrounds the land we sit upon. She gives all of herself to the earth, keeping the rivers and lakes and little streams moving and full. And keeps us full also. He told me his people believed we all used to live within her, long before we knew, but it was dark and we could not see well, so we headed for dawn.
I remember the family car veering down the steep drops towards the ocean. It was packed full like Tetris blocks, so none of us could even see each other, only hear voices behind coolers and camping gear. The trip had been long. We went through giant, snow-glazed mountains that stood with clouds and moved through trees in thick forests hiding all types of little birds and animals and singing streams. The rivers and streams were going the same place we were, my father told me. From my little window it looked like everything was getting greener, filling with lush life, as we got closer to the sea and away from the desert. We rolled down the last hill with wide windows and salty wind blew through the car. There were grins and giggles and quiet amazement seeing all that glistening and shivering water moving endlessly underneath the sky like one giant blue pulsing jellyfish.
The days and nights fell into each other on the shoreline. Everything had the feel of a dusty, old and beautiful photograph. The ocean had a way of crystalising moments before they were past, letting you experience the subtle joys of nostalgia while everything was still right there, at your reach. I remember it in that timeless way, my mum and dad walking with handfuls of hands through the waters edge, the ocean laying walkways of smeared sky out in front of them. They would stop and sit and just look out at it all, barefoot in the sand. I was just a little kid at that time, having giant problems of Game Boy batteries dying and bee stings, but I understood that for adults, life seemed heavier. You could see the weight in my parents sometimes. But at the beach, by the ocean’s side, whatever peace lay rolling along the vastness of all that water seem to blow lightly into shore, and through my parents. Problems were made smooth, like the old pebbles singing in the shore break. Those pebbles murmured songs of the wisdom of time and its lengths and the sand whispered in agreement. It was the peace I think my parents felt, as they listened to this and the hymn of waves gently marching, knowing in the silence of thoughts that this has gone on since the beginning. The iambic heartbeat of a rhythm of pulsing water that pushed us from our womb and watched as we struggled and cried to make our new homes on land warm and familiar. The same mantra that kept us close still, reaching out fingers and arms in huge hugs of clouds, reaching past mountains and deserts and through valleys of dry grass and grazing animals and other pieces of life that left the sea with us, but still need to drink, still need the replenishment of the source.
I think we all heard sounds like this on that sea’s shore, in simple ways, and felt a humble contentedness in the eternity of the song and realising its existence still, in the echoes of our absence. There was also wistful easiness in my parents in watching us kids lose ourselves in the playful waters. Riding little five-buck boogey boards on joyful escalators reeling into the shore, smiles wide and cares few, taking them back to days of their own such wonderment. I can remember peering into to that entire watery world with snorkels and masks watching the little alien creatures fluttering here and there or stuck contently to sides of rocks and reef. Everything looked different in the ocean, it was an entire world completely and a beautiful, inspiring contrast to the desert from which I came. And I remember, in my little boy bliss, swimming and looking back at the land, picturing the water around me, like that Indian man said, as mother, and her blood the soft medium in which I waded. The same blood that chanted through the rivers and creeks and slept in lakes after uttering sweet incantations in rain. Like the whole earth was one big person with organs of skies and mountains and trees and even bugs all coordinated into one whole system of life, and the mother, being the blood, the heart, and the love of it all. On the last day the ocean was changing. Before we left, I stood and watched walls of water start to rise and throw themselves in beautiful violence over the shore. I knew she was singing a different song. I siren song I couldn’t understand yet.
I never really left the sea that day, I would dream endlessly of those waters. I would run into gas stations and little stores whenever we left the desert to see if they carried surf magazines, so I could see pictures of waves like the ones we drove away from that day. When I was old enough I left the desert, the dust, dry as ever behind me.
I spent the next years of my life infatuated by the ocean. It didn’t matter so much where I laid my head, as long as the sea was close. I wasn’t the only one who chose to lay my head by her side. There were many others who were inspired by the same feelings, friends who shared the same shelters all over coastlines. Our lives took the form of simple rituals dedicated to a relationship with waves. Our interactions started early, rising before the sun, after dreams reflecting the excitement we felt radiating through us. Dreams of cresting peaks and glassy walls. Dreams of powerful barrels. Dreams of the perfect moments in the water we so faithfully chased. Those dreams seeped into waking life as we waxed boards in silence and performed little stretches (too anxious to finish any) before paddling out to meet the sun and swell. We would surf until our hunger for breakfast made even moving a torture or until some menial obligation like a job reeled us in. But we never got out. Most of what we did for work was just a way to get back into the water. Money for trips to other far-off beaches where we could explore different waves and spectrums of the energy we loved so much. I, and the others who felt the waters in us became wandering vagabonds in a sense, but we had a home, and it was at the shores. I gave up a lot to follow swells and the moods of the ocean. Relationships with friends, family and even lovers sometimes took places behind that of waves. I would wander off alone to those shores for periods of time to surf and be. There’s a quiet ecstasy in the loneliness that accompanies one who resides in the natural world by themselves. It’s a longing in the heart. I don’t think any deep love is felt without first feeling some tinge of incompleteness. That incompleteness walks in the shadow of a loneliness that exists on uninhabited shores and is almost tangible witnessing all the complex harmonies that orchestrates the natural world.
There is a feeling that man is somehow separate from all this completeness. And it was that subtle pain that caused me to see the ocean in another way, and fall in love. I learned how to see the ocean as she was. The subtle brilliance with which she moved through life and time, unfolding new mysteries in love as her delicate curves rolled over, cascading thin and full of mysterious light. The way she arced back and up, wreathing, from the unfathomable energy she kept within that was about to be shared in forms of hollow beauty before chaotically detonating and then reaching the contented purr of the shore’s ripples. The way her colours and body changed from different perspectives, always musing and inspiring and burning any thoughts that plagued the mind of life being static. The ether of she, the sea, and what she was, became an endless and beautiful enigma of the deepest sensuality. I began to watch others surf, and see how they moved with her. The style with which they slid and sprayed across the water revealed much about the relationship they kept with the ocean, and also in themselves. Some it seemed, ignored her completely. It looked as if they were using her as a prop to display their own prowess and worth, a vanity that ran with narcissism. While she threw musing seductive lines for them, they followed skillfully but always kept some of themselves contained, and in a way separate from the miracle that was occurring. They were more concerned with the spectators on the beach or giving into other distractions that inhibited them from being entranced. It was a performance that was detached and frayed. I recognised it because I saw those movements as mirrors into my own state in the water sometimes. Thinking too much if I looked like a kook, or trying to perfect some stock maneuver I had seen done, subconsciously thinking that this would prove my worth as a surfer and validate the sometimes obsessive relationship that took place between the sea and me. I noticed others seemed to have a deeper dance that unfolded. A dance that bordered on ritualistic, like a devilishly involved tango of swings and pulls and spins that reminded me of meditation in movement. I could see the burning life inside them, the love inside, exploding through water, painted on the world.
One night I sat under the diamond freckled sky. Silver sheets of a full moon blanketed the sand and water. I had been living in a small lean-to on the beach for a few days and nights, surfing and reading in mostly silence. I decided this night would be the perfect time for a night session. I grabbed my board and nothing else and paddled out into the shimmering liquid. Sitting out there was surreal. All that expanding universe and stars above, and I felt I was wading in another universe just as endless below.
The Huichol people of Mexico believe the night sky and the ocean underworld are one in the same and they represent the most ancient part of the cosmos. This thought sat with me out there, as it was the only way I could grasp what I felt. The sea was breathing. Up and down, and I rose and fell with her until a seductive whisper of a wave moved my way. I stood up and leaned into a smooth bottom turn as she covered me with lips and an embrace that still lives in the most romantic fantasies of my mind. Time stretched and spread like the water surrounding my whole body in one perfect expression of love and astonishment. Inside her I felt not everything fade away, but pull back together. It was the knowing that all these shattered pieces of existence came from one immeasurable, impenetrable whole that separated and rained down like beautiful burning stars and dust, and then in this moment were pulled back together in the inescapable wonder of this whirling water. It was the answer to the separation I felt on those lonely shores. All the fragments became an illusion, and the world existed with her and I, not because we ignored the rest, but because it was all within us.
Sometimes an experience comes along that changes you forever. There’s no way to know what would be if I had never experienced that wave in that night, but when I think about it and picture all the things that fell in order for me to be there at that precise moment and then imagine that single storm rousing up the sea’s waters way off in the abyss of the horizon to come and meet like we did, it leaves me with thoughts insinuating that there was no other way it could have happened. When we stop and breathe and listen to the flow of it all, we realise things are like one big dream already ended and we are being carried along to that ending again, with all the things that happen along the way, in clouds of joy and pain and deja vu. But for a long time, for the ocean and I, it was bliss. I thought it would always be like that. But love itself has a shadow. It cannot exist without a shadow.
I came to know the dangerous depths of love a few years later. My confidence in the water grew with my appetite for pushing the boundaries of our relationship, finding myself in heavy waters, chasing waves that shook my heart. On one such wave I found out how different we were, her and I, and how no matter how long you spend searching another’s face, there’s always an intangible mystery that will never be revealed in full.
I took a beating. Pushed down into a dark place, the immensity of water holding and throwing me like I was sand, with no will of my own. I held my breath while panicked voices screamed in my head. With more torturous time I began to fade. I started to disintegrate into the water, struggling to hold onto consciousness. I was being pulled back into the ether of creation and chaos. I began to black out, but not before seeing myself being ripped apart and spread out through the violent sea in infinite little pieces. I became nothing in everything. I had no body but lived in the sea. I lived in the fish and plankton and coral and never-ending blackness. I saw sailors wrapped in nameless sacks sinking in black depths like silent shadows in a cave. I witnessed innumerable boats being shook with such fury on the open ocean before finally giving in to the inevitable abyss they had been summoned. I heard men howling suffocating screams as they realised they were drowning and would never breathe again. There were cities and buildings and artifacts of remnants of things that once had life, but now are silent and still. I laid under lifeless cliffs that were being shrieked at by the waters I dwelled.
I saw her in all her agony colliding with those cliffs, exploding cold white hands reaching up the rocky faces. Reaching in yearning. Reaching in violence. Reaching in rage. I saw her reach with the same hands that filled the earth with life, but I saw her reach in death. I saw her reach in great waves of destruction into valleys and mountains and forests with murderous movements. I saw the edge of the waters, dark and alone, brewing with black clouds and quiet fury. I saw the madness of it all she kept inside her. I saw the torment in creation. I saw her pain and suffering—and it was as deep as her love. I didn’t die that day. The visions I had must have been my brain still firing neurotic pulses as I floated limp in the white wash. Another surfer plucked me out of the water and I eventually puked up the salty remembrance of that vision and breathed again.
I can’t tell you how long it took me to return to the water, only that it seemed like a lifetime. For a while I even returned to that dry desert to escape the things that I felt that the ocean showed me that day. But in the end my peace came from watching another storm move over the horizon from the same cliff I sat at so long ago. In the silence of it all I came to realise the truth in what I was shown of the sea as a whole. She is the mother, who cares for us and gives of herself endlessly to keep us alive, the primordial womb from which we left for dawn. She is the love that dwells in our dreams with passion and ecstasy. The love that can make sense out of the solitude that being alive can sometimes manifest. And she is the unfathomable ether of creation and destruction, that moves in ways we cannot understand and at times fear. A love that is too great for man. She has all of these faces, and we can’t be afraid to tread in the depths of places that are easier not to go. For the depths hold life and all it contains. All its love and bliss and suffering, and to fear that is to dry up. Lifeless and without inspiration.