Some Thoughts on Water
by Richard Whittaker, Feb 22, 2021
photo - r. whittaker
As an experiment, a few years ago I began asking friends if they had any memorable experiences with water. I was surprised by the blank looks I got.
“Do you remember any experiences of swimming or playing with water when you were a child?” I'd ask.
That question worked a little better.
“Oh, yes! When I was a child my parents always took us to a cabin on a lake on summer vacations. I remember swimming there.”
“So is that still a vivid memory now, thirty years later?” I’d ask.
The answer was always affirmative, and usually in a matter-of-fact way. Thirty, forty, fifty years had passed. Mostly, people don't think about it, it seems. And yet, we all have a variety of memorable childhood experiences around water.
Why did I start asking people if they had any deep memories around water? Some years have passed since then - when, out of the blue, some of my own memorable experiences with water began bubbling up. This continued happening and I wondered what was going on. I realized how deep these experiences - so seemingly ordinary - had been. They'd been covered over by all the standard business of living. But there they were - alive, vividly lodged in the depths. It was perhaps the feelings embedded in my memories of water, opening like a door to a hidden secret, that felt most important. But I what to make of this?
No answers presented themselves until, also out of the blue, an explanation occurred to me. Simple. I was being visited by a water spirit. Somehow that pleased me - a water spirit - a playful notion, but why not? Maybe I was being called to say something on behalf of the water spirits. And clearly water - if we're talking about clean, living water, the kind that brings joy and life to living beings - needs all the help it can get given the great industrial pollutions that have been taking place for many decades and are only getting worse. Maybe people could be reminded about their own deep, necessary, joyful and life-giving relationship with water.
Like almost everyone else, ordinarily my relationship with water is unremarkable—like our relationship with air and sunshine. If instead, I’d started asking people, “Do you have any really memorable experiences of breathing air?” I’d probably have gotten even stranger looks. I have to laugh, even thinking about it.
It might go a little differently putting the question with sunlight, though. I can imagine responses like, “Oh, yes. I’ve noticed that some mornings, when everything is quiet, I see the sunlight falling through the window on the coffee table. There’s something about that.” Maybe even a surprising number of people would have responses like that, given the chance.
In any case, my experiment didn’t last long. However, I'm convinced that, given the right approach, most people would come around to realizing something of the depth of their own experiences with water. Maybe it could lead the new ways we need to think about this primal connection we all share.
Earth Air Water and Fire
My mother taught us three boys how to swim. When I was seven, I remember the municipal pool and the burning sensation of getting chlorinated water up my nose. Even earlier, I remember a Sunday outing somewhere in the Appalachians. We stopped along a little road and walked down to a creek with pools big enough for swimming. My mother urged me toward the deeper water. “Lay back” she said, supporting me with her arms. “Now I’m going to show you how to float. Just relax,” she said. Then, as she took her arms away, I panicked. But we did learn to swim, each one of us.
We must all have our stories, our memories of water. My younger brother became adept both in swimming competition and as a surfer, and landed the coveted summer job (among the surfer boys) of being a lifeguard in Laguna Beach, California.
On another level, it was a long time before I realized, one morning, that a shower is one of the most reliable of life’s pleasures—that, and a cup of tea.
Just this morning I was washing dishes—first the plates, then bowls and cups, then silverware. My hands woke up in that warm, soapy water - both as being hands - and as being my hands. My wife was delighted by my discovery. I used to kid her, saying, "washing dishes is my spiritual practice." It's funny how deep some of one's tossed off statements can turn out to be.
Water and sensation.
Water and the mystery of sensation.
I don't know what it means that we first existed in water. In that amniotic sea we had not yet encountered even air or light. And from the beginning, we are more water than anything else.
It’s one of those fundamental things that, for the ancients, might have had more meaning. Somewhere in school didn’t we learn that for the ancients, everything was some version of earth, air, water and fire?
"How naïve!" we thought.
But lately, there are glimpses of how such a view begins to seem reasonable. In spite of all our learning, moments can still occur where we are so close to our experience that it silences all our knowing. It’s like the satisfaction of picking up a rock and holding it in one’s hand. Haven't you had moments where you've slowed down with that weight in your hand? What is that?
Rocks. Water. Sunlight.
A friend told me she was careful to regularly take her toddler son and stand him barefoot in the freshly turned fields of her father’s farm. “This is the earth,” she would whisper to him.
Do you remember how, when you were very young, how your feet were still a little bit like your hands? How sometimes you even reached out and used your toes to grab something? And there’s still the pleasure of going barefoot.
I’ve often wondered if it’s only a fantasy that I remember the touch of the baptismal water on my forehead. Do we even begin to understand sensation? How does matter make itself known to us? And do we make ourselves known to matter?
Is this too far out? At least, we talk about "the power of touch." What is this encounter with the materiality of life?
Looking at water from this angle, one of its primary qualities is how it awakens sensation in contact with our skin. But for most of us - except in those moments of having really slowed down - this experience is so close to us we hardly notice. Like other everyday experiences with air and light, it remains hidden in plain sight.
A Mountain Lake
It was in the Sierra Nevada range high along the John Muir trail. Let’s say it was in August. At that altitude summer has finally arrived, though snow is still on the highest peaks. Like other lakes high along the Muir trail, this one was crystal clear. Amazed, I stood at its edge looking at granite boulders fifty feet below the surface. There was no reason not to strip off my clothes. But dipping a foot in the water, I lost the nerve to dive straight in. Instead I entered the water cautiously. Finally, I was up to my waist and I looked around. Several peaks to the east reached above 14,000 feet.
It was the melting snows that formed the streams flowing down into these high meadows with their string of lakes. This was near the timberline. Stands of lodge pole pine were nearby among the tumbles of granite dividing the meadows that reminded me of Japanese gardens.
When the shock of the cold had receded a bit and my breathing was back to normal I gathered myself and dived forward. The experience of that immersion is etched indelibly in memory, the holy shock of the water's cold embrace waking one joyously to life.
Clouds Are Water, Too
Typically, in the Sierras, clouds start forming over the peaks in the afternoon. Today the sky is clear. I’ve hiked up into a wide spare basin of granite in which five or six small alpine lakes lie scattered. In stretches there are flowers in bloom, a small variety of lupine are prominent. Here and there, if one pays attention, a marmot can be seen sitting on a boulder. Reaching Desolation Lake, I’ve settled down on a patch of the deep green, low-lying grass that often grows along the edges of the lakes. A large granite boulder serves as a backrest. Pulling a sandwich out of my pack, my gaze settles on the rugged ridge of granite off to the northeast culminating in Humphreys Peak.
Just above it in the open sky I notice a small cloud. It’s not much of a cloud, thin and vaporous, but it’s the only cloud in the sky and its position, precisely above Humphreys Peak, lends it additional charm. After a moment, it occurs to me it would make a good photograph and I start wondering what lens would frame it best. Maybe my 50mm. No, there’d be too much sky and too little cloud. On the other hand for the photo to work, there has to be enough of the peak and surrounding sky. Otherwise, the little cloud would lose its solitary drama. I wonder, too, if I’ve packed my red 25A filter, but then decide that would darken the sky too much. An orange or yellow filter would be about right. But is it really worth the trouble?
As I’d been eating my sandwich and pondering this I notice that the cloud seems to have gotten smaller. Focusing more intently, I realize it’s slowly evaporating right before my eyes. So I’ve missed the shot! Now I feel a tinge of self-recrimination. Ah well, not that big a loss, I decide - and taking my eyes off the cloud, I return to my sandwich.
Fifteen minutes later, when I glance back at Humphreys Peak, it takes me a little while to find the cloud. Only the slightest trace remains and I wonder what caused it to form in the first place. Why right there above the peak? And why was it disappearing now?
After a few minutes of this, and feeling the warmth of the sun, it seemed like a small nap was in order. Maybe twenty minutes passed before I opened my eyes again. Now the cloud was back! A shock. So the cloud evaporates, and then another one forms—how mysterious.
I watched it carefully for some time afterwards, but never took the photograph.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
I am the passenger as my brother drives down highway 5 well south of Portland. As we roll along I’m craning my neck to see as much of the sky as possible, given the limits imposed by the windshield. I’m appreciating being the passenger for a change. The gray cloud cover, which stretched over us at Salem, has been left behind. The sky across the Willamette Valley is a sea of little broken clouds with fluffy edges floating at several different altitudes. The lowest can’t be more than a few hundred feet above the ground. And traveling at 75 miles an hour, this floating sea of clouds steadily rearranges itself as we roll south. The Willamette River runs serenely though a wide valley providing ample water for the farms and pasturelands stretching for miles and miles. No shortage of water, and hence, by some atmospheric magic, these particular clouds.
As the sun is obscured, a pale disk behind one cloud, it lights the edges of two adjacent clouds. The edges are so bright I have to turn my eyes away. This constantly changing play of light and shadow among this floating sea is so beautiful I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a dimension about some experiences of which we’re not aware. It’s hard to formulate this intimation properly. After a moment, I turn to my brother, who is riding with me. “What do you think of Jung’s belief that one of our reasons for existing is to help God experience his creation in a certain way?”
I expected that my brother, who, at that time, was chairman of the philosophy and religious studies departments at LSU, would have thought about this.
“I like the idea of it,” he said, after a pause.
I liked the idea, too.
Share Your Comments and Reflections on this Conversation:
On Jun 28, 2021 Danjin Zhu wrote:Very intriguing! A friend participated in "What Would Water Do?" and she loved the experience. When will you offer it again? I'd be so looking forward to the exploration. Thank you, Richard!
On Feb 25, 2021 Samela wrote:I grew up on the East Coast. My first memories are of the beach at Cheesequake - if I recall it's a State Park or something near the Atlantic Ocean. I must have been really young then because we moved away from NJ when I was 8. I remember the sand, my pail. and shovel, running into the water, scooping it up, and giggling all the way back to the shore trying to outrun the wave...The beach is my happy place.
On Feb 25, 2021 K Kalidas wrote:When I was about 12 years old, I remember buying bread from a nearby bakery, holding it over my head and walking back home with flood standing my waist level and the mild current pushing me a little here and there. If only I had a camera then, I would have asked someone to take a photo of me to keep for posterity, a miss opportunity lost for good.
On Feb 24, 2021 Vinod Eshwer wrote:Moments filled with wonder and beauty happen almost everyday. Thereâ€™s much of the supra mundane in the so called mundane. For example, just this morning, the morning sun shining through the window lit up the vivid (sun like) orange hues of wet steamed pumpkin, gently cooking in a clay pot. With steam rising and disappearing into nothingness. I had to pause and acknowledge the magic. Feels like thereâ€™s a layer of eternal magic and wonder playing hide and seek with us. Thank you so much for highlighting this, and making me reflect upon it. Thank you!
On Feb 24, 2021 nisha wrote:So deep and light at the same time! Thank you Richard :)
On Feb 24, 2021 Ginny Abblett wrote:Beautiful reflections which brought forth so many of my own... like recalling my time on the dock of our dummer cottage, catching the catfish which weighed down the pole, streaming through, searching for crawdads in the cool water, and ALL THAT before my younger sister was killed... how well I recall the miracle
of water, my mother telling me of the night when she was COMPLETELY lost on a boat and on and on...
On Feb 24, 2021 martina wrote:This is a wonderful set of reflections. I love the idea that we are helping God experience creation in a way which goes through our human filter of ideas. I also think we must now start to care that water is holy and very needed in human experience and life, and the life of the planet. We have to work to protect the access to it, as privatizers try to "own" the water, and as fracking and other extractive processes puts our aquifers and lakes and streams at risk. THANK YOU.
On Feb 24, 2021 Mary Lynn McCarthy wrote:I loved all these images! I have one memory of being in my work cafeteria, mostly empty and as usual I would down a glass of water in one breath. I loved how the water looked in a glass glass. As I finished it I thought, "This is how is felt when I had gills."
On Feb 24, 2021 Patrick Watters wrote:Ah yes, of course this is all near and dear. I too have visited all your water places and many more across the years. Born on the banks of the Missouri (Big Muddy), living near the American and Sacramento, even spent a short season on the Willamette in Corvallis (heart of the valley). And yes, I will be along for the water pod ride too. }:- a.m.
On Feb 24, 2021 Sean wrote:Thank you, Richard, and my thanks also to the others commenting on your post. Yes, thinking about water can restore a deep connection to the world. So many memories come to mind, but one that I treasure is holding my week-old daughter late one night, trying to soothe her as she cried. In the midst of a downpour, I opened the slider. I've always loved listening to rain. In that instant, my baby girl stopped crying. She leaned ever so slightly toward the open door, looking, listening, and no doubt smelling the scent of a summer rain. It dawned on me that she had never experienced rain before. It had touched something primal in her, an ancient instinct that long predates our species. In that moment, quiet but for the sound of the rain, I felt connected with my daughter in a shared sense of wonder. Now, when someone uses the word "epiphany", I think I have a sense of what they mean.
On Feb 24, 2021 Sally Mahe wrote:Loved reading your reflections, Richard. Reminds me to do likewise...remember and enjoy personal experiences with water. As I sustain political actions for the environment, my intimate experiences with nature feed my soul.
On Feb 24, 2021 Lynn M Miller wrote:Baptism. Yes. I remember it, from around the age of 6 or 7. My grandmother arranged it one year for my younger sister and I. I remember the shock of the wetness splashed on my hair, and then the confusion when the wet seemed to disappear almost immediately.
My morning shower is usually the most deeply felt affirmation of the day that it is good to be alive. The lovely, warm water of the community pool was also a great healer. I had to learn to walk again after surgery for a seriously broken ankle. For over a year I couldn't trust in my balance or my walking reflexes at all. It was fascinating to study how the body remembers to walk, but I was only free of the primal terror of falling when I was in the water. It was such a blessing to experience the joy of moving again.
I suspect there is a neurological healing switch or a reset button that gets flipped on when we are happily floating in the water. I certainly feel that way. An observation by one of the attendants at the pool seemed support that idea. As she collected a forgotten walking cane, she said she didn't understand how come people left them behind so often when they obviously needed them on the way in.
So many remembrances of water are supreme. The sound of bubbling creeks, or the deeply soothing sound of an ocean surf, or the thundering roar of Class V rapids are indelible memories. Then there is the sound of a loon on the placid waters of a lake where the waters are silent. The most ephemeral occurrence that delights me is when the sun is at just the perfect angle to create what I call diamonds, sparkling on the water.
On Feb 24, 2021 Glenn wrote:Water has been a constant in my life and the sensual memories are very much alive after many years. Earliest memories include my first contact with the ocean at the beaches in Brooklyn: Brighton, Manhattan and Coney Island; followed by visits to body surf at The Rockaways, Jones, Smith's Point, the Hamptons and Montauk beaches on Long Island; crossing a very choppy Long Island Sound on a ferry to Connecticut; water skiing on Amistad Reservoir on the Texas/Mexico border; wading in the Rio Grande River; hiking to pristine glacial pools in the Rocky and Cascade Mountains; playing in the warm oceans of Cali and Hawaii; and simply relaxing in my bath tubs wherever I happen to be.
Water - where would we be without her?
On Feb 24, 2021 Kay wrote:We take water (and the natural elements) so much for granted, like the blind stares of the people being asked about their memories of water. Thank you for the memories that were brought up from my own past experiences! Water is indeed a miracle!
On Feb 24, 2021 Meredith wrote:Being an avid swimmer, I love to sometimes just go slow in the water and recognize the relaxation I feel with it. This story reminds me of that sensation. So calm and peaceful.
On Feb 24, 2021 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:Thank you Richard for this poetic journey in,through and around water.
Water is meditation. In my own life countless memories bubble forth: a midnight dive into the ocean in Avalon NJ with 10 female artist friends in early May, the water so cold, do we dare? We do! Salt Spring Island, BC summer 2019 skinny dipping off a dilapidated dock surrounded by conscientious objectors of Vietnam War their skin golden brown, long shaggy hair dripping with lake water. Do I dare? I do. The water caresses my skin, I laugh. Now during the pandemic, nearly a year has passed, as often as possible i walk near water, a manmade lake near the home at which I'm sheltered in place, becomes a welcome respite and preferred peaceful place to grieve. Today, a small creek near my mother home another respite by which to sit and breathe (while wearing my mask). Water has been a forever friend and I realize, there are times I've taken her for granted. Today, like the water, my gratitude pours forth.
On Feb 24, 2021 Margaret Anne Bortko wrote:I have so many, many memories involving H2O, and I am older than dirt. Yes, washing dishes is sacred, so I never owned a dishwasher to the dismay of my children, friends and family. But such joy washing dishes with another after a meal, or several of us cleaning up after a holiday meal. Summertime and swimming in the sea... the beach or the myriad of beckoning lakes on my hikes and travels.. The loud, chlorinated community pools, the Motel 6 pools, skating on the frozen wild ice of Montana lakes, standing in the pristine Madison River fly fishing, pouring water on the heated rocks in our sauna during our off-the-grid chapter, the sweat lodge on the Rez where I was blessed on my road of becoming a healer, rowing through the Grand Canyon for 20 days, inner tubing a lazy river with both my Mother and my grandchildren, homemade slip n slides on the grass, glorious western hot springs... and the grand finale of living on my sailboat for 1.5 years! No wonder! We are grown in water and baptized through our lives with water. We come from water. Our Mother is a water.