I grew up scared of the ocean. Oceans are genuinely profound and for me they were totally abstract. I knew next to nothing of the everyday realities of beaches, or boats, or waves because I grew up in a desert and it wasn’t until I was almost twenty that I moved close to any notable body of water. After that initial move, I stuck close to various coasts. I walked with friends along shorelines in Maine, Oregon, and British Columbia, but I was often still too scared to jump in, even when my companions promised me the water was fine.
Most of these friends had grown up either next to or close to the ocean. The water was a regular part of their lives. Low-pressure systems, nor’easters, accidental swallows of salt water, and sand caught in pockets and shoes were all normal and known. I, unlike them, could not feel close to the water even when I was close physically. So I filled this gap with romance and dread. I kept the sea at arm’s length by imagining it as a mythic portal to elsewhere.
Late in my twenties I experienced a phase of deep depression; the reasons for it are impossible to go into except to say it had to do with love and family. I walked around feeling exposed both literally and psychically. Abbas, Kaia, Steven, and other dear ones told me to hold on, to ride it out. They said I would recover and that these feeling were transitory.
Outwardly I accepted their comfort, but privately I still felt in the grip of unbearable vibrations. I resolved that if I couldn’t find a way to make living bearable by my thirtieth birthday, I would commit suicide by drowning myself in the ocean. I didn’t tell anyone. I was born in January and thought the water would be cold enough to make dying fast.
Then I went to art school, where I fell in love, deeper than I ever had before, with a man from the East Coast who loved the ocean. We began our romance shortly before Christmas, when he was set to visit Puerto Rico with his family. During his trip we talked on our cells while he looked out at waves of the Caribbean meeting the North Atlantic and I stumbled through swells of Chicago snow.
We loved each other for a few years. I sheltered in our togetherness. Thoughts of suicide went out the window.
Under his influence, I began swimming more often. We swam in the Connecticut River, which perfumed us with a woody scent. We splashed from crowded Chicago beaches into Lake Michigan, which was oil-slicked and trash-dotted but still refreshing when the city burned humid before nights of lightning.
After two years, his family invited me to go with them to Puerto Rico. This trip made symmetrical the beginning and the beginning of the end of our love.
In the Midwest there is a region called the Driftless. It is named this because it was a place between glaciers during the last ice age. Even if you don’t know what geological forces made the Driftless, it’s impossible not to notice that the area is unlike the surrounding Midwest. The Driftless is wooded mountains and valleys in contrast to the rest of the region’s mild plains. The drive in from Chicago moves you from wheat-field flat to mountain swells carved sharp by rivers and streams. Their banks rise to cliffs where the water finds its way into the Mississippi. It is an off-the-radar place.
The Driftless contains microclimates. It is home to unique plants and animals that don’t appear even in the next valley over. Sheltered as it was from the harshest climatological reconfiguration, the Driftless now serves as biological refuge for ancient remnants.
Maybe this is accurate. It is at least my memory of the lyric explanation Billy offered while drinking a Hamm’s as a bunch of us floated down the Kickapoo in inner tubes. Our swim-suited asses froze in the hole of the tube while our fronts baked dry in the July sun. His description made me feel like we were hiding inside a mystical gap in the continent’s history.
I was on that river listening to Billy describe the Driftless because we were in an artist residency together with a few dozen others; I am writing about it now because one of the artists drowned last summer. She was on a camping trip and she jumped into the Mississippi very late one August night and never resurfaced. Her name was Virginia and she was twenty-nine years old.
The artists, designers, thinkers, cooks, and radicals who together run this rustic utopian residency hosted a memorial for Virginia last Sunday. This group, when not in the Driftless, work together in a former funeral home in the Pilsen neighbourhood of Chicago.
I was not at Virginia’s memorial. I was in New York at a strangely parallel event, another memorial hosted by another group of artists for another woman’s life jarred abruptly to a stop.
Last Wednesday night in Queens, a librarian and poet was murdered by her roommate. It seems he killed her for no comprehensible reason other than his random rage, madness, and inebriation. He is being held now on Rikers Island.
This poet librarian’s name was Carolyn and she was twenty-six years old. She was a well-loved part of a group of people united by a commitment to making art, reading, writing, protesting, and thinking together.
It has been the kind of humid that shifts from clammy hot during the day to wet cold at night. It is hard to dress when the season is changing.
Carolyn’s memorial took place in the storefront library workspace she helped found. Intense and charming people, much like their absent friend, filled the long room to overflowing.
The mic stood open in the middle of the room. Anyone could get up to share. The mourners sat on the floor or on folding chairs, stood or leaned. Kevin said we looked like a mountain range dressed in black. People near the open door pulled their coats close while those at the front had stripped down to T-shirts. I leaned against the window, which cooled my back while my cheeks flushed from the press of the crowd. It felt like when you sit at a campfire.
People took turns reading quotes, poems, and fragments from journals and emails. Most read off their phones and faded out at the end. They rambled with latent hysteria, speaking often in the present tense as if the woman they described were in the room. And she would have been, if not for the unreal real facts.
Adjua beaded memories onto a long strand of speech that encircled us all. Rachel hovered beside the alcohol, chips, grape tomatoes, and the cupcakes Emily brought. This crowd preferred whisky to baked goods; they swayed more and more and filled the recycling with their empties. Kevin slurred as he slipped into Arabic exclamations. People squeezed empty the bag that had been in the box of wine. Gabe over-poured Four Roses for anyone who wanted some. The group tended to one another.
Like Carolyn in New York, Virginia had been enmeshed in a group in Chicago. They were both the kind of women who did the needed emotional labour but would also point out what they were doing with a laugh and an eye roll. She would purify the library with a sage wand and post a note about the recycling. Virginia co-organized readings and dinners that were both political and intimate. She would share dish duty. Both knew the necessity of doing the work that gets ignored, the necessity of talking about this work in order to honour what keeps life going.
I imagine the memorial I did not attend in parallel with the one I did. Both spaces have the ratty folding chairs and tables that all artist-run spaces seem to have. These are the chairs we take out and put away to accommodate for events and the time after events.
I imagine the group in Chicago shared a proper meal. There were probably salads garnished with flowers or Parmesan crisps, meat dishes and dishes made for vegetarians and vegans. They are a thoughtful group.
It seems to me that one difference between New York and Chicago is that those in the middle have a bit more space to make their homes, and by extension to cook and be together in domestic spaces. That group of artists at least, always treated food as the bonding agent it can be; they make cookbooks as a part of their residency.
But I was telling you about that Christmas in Puerto Rico.
We spent a week enveloped in family, with nights of collective cooking and drinking and morning games of paddle ball on the beach. For the most part, our group barely left the area around the rented house. The house was surrounded by unfamiliar plants, including one whose invisible pollen made everyone itch intensely but only for a moment. There were also many unfamiliar animals, like the finger-sized lizards that gathered to bask on the driveway but darted away when anyone moved too close. I wanted so badly to get close. They never let me.
The first night there an earthquake shook us awake, and from then on we made jokes about death by tidal wave, but really I believed we were inside a safe bubble.
On our last full day, we went to a new beach. I played in the waves. For the first time, I was not afraid of the ocean. My love said, “You have to just let it move you.”
He went off on his own to explore the other end of the cove. I dried off and joked around with his brother. Then, because it seemed we would soon go to lunch, I decided I’d better have one last swim before we had to fly back into the Northeastern winter.
As soon as I was in, I realized the tide had shifted. I was pulled before I could think. One tidal pulse and I couldn’t touch the bottom. Another and I had almost reached the cliffs wrapped around the beach’s left side. More quickly than I could process, I was going to drown in a struggle against sharp rocks.
Within the panic I had a clear, calm thought: If you don’t want to die, you must save yourself. And when brought to that, I knew nothing within me wanted to die.
With muscles called on suddenly to respond, I grabbed and clung to the sharp, shell-crusted rocks. I had to climb between waves that broke ceaselessly. I kept getting knocked against the rocks, which were slicing open my hands, feet, and sides. My new red two-piece twisted and pulled almost off and I felt ashamed. How funny to find modesty clinging close to crisis.
People watched from the cliffs above as my love ran across the beach yelling wildly. He found me clinging and climbing between the breaks of waves. We met in the middle on the edge of rock that I’d climbed up to and he’d climbed down. We both had to climb back over. The whole thing lasted only a few moments really.
I began writing this last year in Greece. The idea came in Tsagarada.
We had arrived at the seaside village on a late September night, and though some cool clung around the edges, the next day was bathed in a dazzling warm light. It was still hot enough to swim, and those of us who lived north wanted to swim before we had to return to cities where autumn had already arrived.
We put on our one- and two-pieces and descended the steep, overgrown path in our flip-flops. The Aegean was the turquoise of tourist posters, so high-contrast it rendered all our photos kitsch. But still we took them.
Pictures of the sea. Pictures of white marble boulders standing half in, half out of the water. Around us on the beach were a dozen or so other groupings, families in ice cream–coloured suits and lovers reading side by side on Turkish towels.
Marcyn took a dip before wandering the shore. Klara stood in the shallows filming the water. Sven and Friedrich swam far out. After letting the water move me, I got out to watch the scene, and I dried in the sun.
Beside the biggest rock a father and daughter floated. He was a solid man in a Speedo riding the swells with his chubby daughter. She had long curly hair that plastered her face when a wave hit hard and a softer version of her father’s deep tan. Parent and child rose and fell together.
After a while in the water they decided to climb a large rock. As she struggled for her hand- and footholds, her two-piece kept getting pulled down. Her father stayed behind her, supportive and laughing. As he helped her with the final step he gave her bottom a kiss and a pat. Once they were both up, they stood smiling as waves full of people swelled around their perch.
Dark thoughts came in. I was suddenly sure that the little girl was going to slip, or that the sea was about to push someone against the rocks or drag them under and fill their lungs to a choke point.
Despite these premonitions, nothing happened. Nothing except that a bunch of tourists played in the sea.
Our group reassembled. We took our final photos of the blue-green-white waves before climbing back up the hill.
Still, dread stayed with me, though I kept acting as if I were happy. We were in Athens by night.
I wrote this in Athens, in a building located between a group of Chinese shops and some brothels marked with white lights. Every time I walked the neighbourhood I would pass men coming out of brothels. In each encounter I felt a frisson of bashful interest, shameful curiosity, like I was accidentally passing through a private moment. The men seemed like outcasts or escapees. I imagined the women they’d been with, the women I could not see but knew were involved in intimate exchanges inside these buildings.
Maria, a local, described how she’d knocked on the doors to invite the neighbourhood people to a block party, but only the male brothel owners ever answered her. She never got to talk to the women. After many years of working on these annual parties, the most Maria had ever seen were a few women coming out onto the brothel balconies to throw confetti.
I sat reading an article on our thin white balcony. I was trying to escape from the stuffy heat of the office. The summer kept slipping into fall then back again. I was constantly sweaty, grungy in sink-washed travel clothes. The article I was reading outlined an academic’s hypothesis that the war in Syria was bound up in social stresses created by climate change. The author suggested that the civil war and the refugee crisis was only the beginning of such climate-related human catastrophes. Countless more would probably take to the seas in search of new and safer homes because their lands had become completely inhospitable. The whole eastern Mediterranean was drying. More changes were coming.
After reading I opened my computer and happened upon an editorial cartoon. It was a drawing of some people in a boat with one end up while the other end sank. People on the lower end were trying to bail out the water while those on the high end watched smiling. One of the higher people said in speech bubble, “I’m so glad the hole’s not on our end.”
Toward the end of Carolyn’s memorial, Adjua and I started talking. At moments in our conversation one of us would look and the other’s eyes would follow and we’d pause as a group of people formed to hold one another and cry. They would shake in sobs together for a moment then stop. It kept happening in a sort of rhythmic pattern, a grief choreography.
It is 8:06 p.m. The time between when I write and when you read grows. As we move apart, the pressure grows. I feel like I’m getting to the end of a letter when I press to say what I meant to say the whole time.
Writing so often comes to this, a desire to declare that a person—Dylan or Klara, Friedrich or Sven, Carolyn or Brian, Virginia or Ben—was alive and I knew them. It so often comes to a desire to note simply that I saw them beautifully alive in some mundane moment in a living room or a park, on some sidewalk or beach. All I want to do is describe precisely that time when we sat together on a rooftop, looking at the city lights and dark spaces. In coastal cities you know the dark gaps are where the water is.
I wrote this fresh because we need to refresh our memorials. People need memorials as plain as possible but no plainer. A memorial is a way of not forgetting in public. A memorial is praise. The task is to honour endings without reducing the complexity of all that came before. This is a memorial to the me that died when I didn’t die. This is a memorial to the women I knew a little, and to all the people I have never known who’ve crossed the water.
Praise the boundary, the edge, the end. Praise the shoreline, the coast, and the island. Praise the independent library–artist spaces of Bushwick. Praise the artist-collective potlucks of Pilsen. Praise the sky over the Quebec countryside and its watercolour-fine fade from burnt orange to fiery grey-peach to caramel to dove grey going darker and darker to blue-black. Praise specific dates and glacial eras. Praise the people who cross borders. Praise the drift and the Driftless. Praise the precarious. Praise the wave that carries you away and all the ones that don’t.
Joni Murphy is an artist and author of the novel Double Teenage. She has produced work for North American and European organizations including Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions (ACRE), the Capilano Review, Canadian Art, Darling Foundry, Resonance FM, the Rusty Toque, and Sound Development City. She is from New Mexico and lives in New York.