Interviewsand Articles


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.   


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.       


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