Keith Eubanks II

Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Wine-Dark Sea

In Dreams on September 14, 2010 at 2:45 am


” Gray-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing over the wine-dark sea.” – Homer, The Odyssey

In the opening lines of Moby Dick, Melville describes the compulsion that drives men (and women) to the sea.  We lean on the weathered wooden rails of wharfs and launches, or walk the smooth sandy beaches and stare as the world turns and the tides change. Children will run and play in the sand, but adults become introspective. You can see it in their wistful expressions and longing eyes. Even lovers, holding hands, will withdraw into their own thoughts, their own private spaces, lost in the sensual whispering hiss of water advancing and retreating across the sand, breathing the fresh, clean, saline air. I can sit on a rock, and gazing out to sea, lose all track of time. Staring at the light reflecting on the water  I imagine that I will glance at my watch only to find that it is not hours, but years, that have passed me by. A beach-combing Rip Van Winkle, unable now to move his aged body from the high rocky perch on which he sits, yet content to spend his remaining days there in forgetful, meaningless contemplation.

Melville’s novel spends little time on land, with those that only stand watching. He goes to sea. And he wasn’t writing about a whale. He was thinking about God -which the great white whale represents- moving through the seemingly infinite seas. Little is known about Melville’s true religious beliefs, but Starbuck and Ahab are Quakers. The first, traditional in his beliefs and faithful. The other, a blasphemer. A man that has had a brush with a powerful force he cannot completely understand, and it has maddened him. Ahab is described as monomanical, I think, because one loses the self when it confronts the infinite. He is scarred by the experience both physically and spiritually holding with finality to one idea, unwilling to relent, even to the point of madness and damnation- for Ahab, in the end, is lost, stabbing at the whale “from Hell’s heart.”

Yet, this loss of self, the viseral confrontation with something greater than ourselves is, for many, why we are drawn to the sea. We see something so complex it is hardly fathomable, yet are able to recognize within this vast eminence of creation a place and purpose. And we are included in it.

But Ahab rejects the diminished image of himself when confronted with the infinite.  To illustrate the crippling effect of Ahab’s spiritual condition, Melville dimishes him physically.  Ahab labors across the deck of the Pequod with an artificial leg carved from whale bone. His life -and ultimately his death- determined by the whale. A philosophical and spiritual foundation has been compromised and Ahab rails against it, attacking what he believes to be the source of this existential dilemma – the white whale. All that remains of Ahab, confronted with this greater, incomprehensible truth, exists in this struggle. And it consumes him.

The whale moves purpusefully through the dark waters -as He always has-  for the Spirit of God “moved across the waters” before the act of creation. Human beings, cognizant of time, cannot truly comprehend this. We think we can, but we can’t. We are the only creatures on the Earth bound by time, existing in moments, trying to understand something infinite, immovable, unpredictable. And some, like Ahab, fight what they cannot understand – to the death.

The Greeks worshipped the ocean personified in the form of Poseidon, the god of seas and earthquakes. It isn’t hard to imagine a God throwing thunderbolts from the heavens, or some majestic power roiling the wine-dark seas. And even though the Greeks were pagan, worshipping many gods, they did recognize, or witness, the divine that is in creation. I gave little thought to all of this, until I began to explore the world under the surface. I was no longer drawn to the sea to stand and observe. I wanted to go further, deeper, beneath the waves. In the beginning, I went seeking adventure.

I found something else.

As a young boy, I liked watching Lloyd Bridges on Sea Hunt. Unlike the science fiction shows I loved, Bridges, as Mike Nelson, showed me a world of adventure underneath the waves that was actually accessible. Many years later, and a long way from home, I heard a commercial on the radio advertising Scuba lessons at a local dive shop. It was Bridges that came to mind, and the thrill of those early adventures that had so excited my imagination. I mentioned all of this to my roommate, Matt, a big crazy guy who jumped at the idea of getting certified. Together, we worked through a fun and demanding week of textbooks, tests, and pool dives that ended with a weekend in Monterey, California, where we would repeat every skill we had just learned in the ocean. The reward: a lifetime certification to explore the world’s oceans.

Danger. Adventure. Shipwrecks. Sharks. Giant squid . . . white whales.

Some divers are superstitious and our instructor, Roy, revealed his particular beliefs about the sea in subtle ways. I think it was Roy that first personified the ocean for me and I was a good student, so some of his beliefs slowly became my own. What Roy didn’t teach me, the ocean eventually would.

I was certified on Breakwater Beach, and there is no other place on Earth that has certified more divers. Matt and I waded into the gentle surf with Roy and the rest of the class. The cold water made its way into our wetsuits where the temperature of our bodies immediately began to warm it. Roy pulled off his mask and stuck his face into the bracing, briney water. He said, “You have to kiss the ocean.” And we did. All of us. There is a practical reason for doing this. He was acclimating us to the water’s temperature. The Pacific is very, very cold and cold water diving requires more protection. I wear a vest with an attached hood under my wetsuit which is a two-piece ensemble that covers the entire body. I also wear boots and gloves. The face, however, is still exposed to the cold water. Roy was getting the class past that first cold shock by getting us to stick our faces into it. But I have always believed there was more to it than that. Some element of ritual.

Roy also told us to never turn our backs on the sea. This is common-sense safety, but I began to think that if I turned my back, the sea would strike me down, perhaps for some unknown breach of oceanic etiquette. And so I always “kissed” the ocean as I entered it, and I never showed it my back.

Until one day at Salt Point in Northern California. Matt and I were abalone diving in  our “secret” spot – a cove another diver had told us about- when I forgot that important lesson. And the ocean did rise up to remind me.  I saw Posideon that day thrashing about the surf and I will never forget it.

I love Salt Point. If I could retire and live anywhere in the world, I would settle for a small house up on some cliff over-looking the Northern California ocean.  Driving up the winding coastal roads, Matt and I would watch carefully for a break in a certain fence and some other local indicators that told us we had reached the spot, which seemed unremarkable from the road. We parked the car close to the fence -the roads are narrow- and hiked a mile across a beautiful grassy meadow and down to the cove. There was an easy entry, though it was filled with spiny purple and pink and blue sea urchins. Out at the mouth of the cove, about twenty to twenty-five feet down, depending on the tide, was a reef and a ledge rich in abalone. The waters are rough and shark infested. Nearly every time we dove that spot there was a warning or sighting. Salt Point is at the northern end of the red triangle – an area that stretches from the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco all the way down to Santa Cruz. It is a known breeding ground for Great White sharks.

The water that day was rough, surging and churning a frothy white. I thought about not going in, but it’s a three hour drive to the cove and I wasn’t about to go home empty-handed – and I had seen this before. If you want abalone, it’s going to cost you in either money or effort. Matt used to say, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.” And he’s right. We entered the water and sailed across the urchin bed stretching out before us, like a colorful path into the heart of the cove. It is illegal to hunt abalone with scuba gear in Northern California so we were lighter and quicker in the water, using only our masks, snorkels, wetsuits, and some light weights. We began to dive, and in the deeper water, the visibility is always difficult. Sometimes you can’t see an arms length in front of you. Once, on another dive, I couldn’t see my hand.

I dove to the bottom feeling for the rim at the base of the reef and this day it took several tries to find it. It took everything I had to swim in those waters. Holding tight, peering upside-down under the ledge, I saw three or four abalone gripping the rocky rim. Choosing the largest, I slid my bar quickly under the flesh before it could latch down. If they latch down before you can slide the bar underneath them, forget it and move on. They aren’t coming off. I was practiced, quick and efficient, and the abalone was soon free of the ledge. I stuck it into my wetsuit jacket darting for the surface, my heart thumping in my ears as the blood pulled the last of the oxygen from my lungs. I broke through the surface and took several quick breaths placing the abalone into the float. I didn’t really need it, but a float is a good place to keep abalone and fish in case the sharks come looking.

I had caught my limit in less than twenty minutes swimming that cove, but this day was different. The water seemed to be fighting me personally, with intention, and the cold was sapping my strength. The surge was strong and the waters rough. I lost track of time and at some point I realized that I was too tired to swim for the shore. I swam, instead, for the rocks that made up the outer wall of the cove. I just needed a few minutes to gather my strength. I was dangerously tired as I pulled myself up onto the rocky ledge and out of the water. There was a long flat space just above me that seemed made  for the purpose and I pulled myself onto it. I sat for a few minutes gathering my strength as the sea pounded the other side of the rock wall. I felt safe, and I was getting warm. I studied the cove, looking for Matt who was not far from me, diving for abalone.

And then I sensed that something was wrong.

There was a momentary stillness – a quiet. I could no longer hear the surf crashing against the rocks and I realized, with an almost prescient sense of dread, that I had my back to the sea. I looked over my shoulder and saw a massive wall of water at least twenty feet high clearing the natural rocky barrier of the cove. I remember how fast the water moved, rolling upwards, into the sky. It muted every other sound. I remember how green it was -like looking through an emerald- and beautiful and mesmerizing. And how angry, I thought, this god of the sea.

Before I could take a breath, the wave plucked me off the ledge and threw me high into the air. And then I was falling – fast. The sea pulled back exposing the rocks beneath me and I landed with a rubbery thud, feeling something pop in the middle of my back – breathless. The seas surged again, and I was swept back into the churning waters of the cove. Desperate, I called for Matt as the wave carried me off the rock, and he was there in the surf when the sea finally released me. Wrapping his arm around my chest Matt pulled me through the churning waters, out of the cove.

As we approached the shore he asked if I could move my legs. Wiggle my toes. Move my arms.  I could. Matt moved his hand down my back looking for damage, finding none. Minutes later, I sat on a rock near the shore, stunned. I saw something in the sea I had never seen before – an almost whimsical force that tossed me around like I was nothing. I saw the thing that I had been warned about. The thing that Roy, and so many others, revered. The salt water dried as the sea wind caressed me, soothed me, and I felt the brine beneath my fingers as I rubbed it into my skin. I breathed the ocean air, deeply, consciously trying to restore calm. The happy exhaustion, reflection, and peace that normally followed a dive was gone. I felt small and insignificant.

And I was afraid.

The fear was healthy, I think. Maybe I had become too comfortable. Perhaps I had become dangerously over-confident. My instinct to not go into the water was, probably, correct. I had been looking at the water long enough to know. It is easy to look into the ocean and see something staring back at you. But maybe what was staring back was my own recklessness, not the god of the sea. Maybe.

I don’t turn my back on the ocean, but when my back hurts, it’s in that particular place, and I think, “Yes, don’t worry, I remember.” And I do.

What no one else knows, not even my wife, is that I’ve started talking to the ocean.

And I talk out loud.

I’m not exactly sure when I started doing it. Sometimes, when I do this, I am talking to God. Sometimes that god becomes the god I saw in the waves. Sometimes I confuse the two, but then remember that they are the same. But then, sometimes, they are not. Sometimes I talk to the one moving underneath the wine-dark sea.

I think it began with a song. My oldest daughter, Maddy, was not quite two years old. We were in Monterey for some quiet time, our usual stop after a visit with my wife’s family. Maddy and I walked into the shallow surf at Lover’s Beach looking for sea shells. They have to be small, colorful, and have a small hole in the center. “One day,” we say,  “we will make a necklace.” The ebb and gentle swell of the surf turns the sand revealing tiny treasures and then sweeps them quickly away. We gaze carefully into the sparking water and pluck these prizes from the sand before the ocean can reclaim them. Time stands still and the sun shines down on my back and shoulders as I wade deeper into the surf, the water lapping at the hem of my cargo shorts. I lean deeper into the water and scoop a handful of shells from the shifting sand. I am farther now from the beach and the sounds of surf. I am rocking with the tide, singing, though no one on shore can hear me.

That night as I walked in my slumberI waded into the sea strand
And I swam with the moon and her lover
Until I lost sight of the land

I swam till the night became morning
Black sea in the reddening sky
Found myself on the deck on a rolling ship
So far where no grey gulls fly

All around me was silence
As if mocking my frail human hopes
And a question mark hung in the canvas
For the wind that had died in the ropes

I may have slept for an hour
I may have slept for a day
For I woke in a bed of white linen
And the sky was the colour of clay

The song, The Wild Wild Sea, is from Sting’s album, The Soul Cages. I’ve been listening to it for years. It sounds like the ocean, at least to me. And as the swells gently pushed and pulled me in their ancient organic rhythm, I felt a deep love for this place in particular. I felt calm. I felt the relevance and the irrelevance of my life in one moment of perfect clarity, and my spirit reached out beyond myself and across the rising and falling sea. I sang this song again and again, losing the words and their meaning, communicating with something both inside me, and surrounding me.

I was singing to the sea.

Later, I emerged from the ocean burnt and bleached, the dried salt dusting my skin, my clothes, my hair.  As I  stepped past the gentle surf my daughter met me at the point where sea and sand meet. It’s a line of demarkation between those who stand watching, and those who, like Melville’s Ishmael, are drawn into “the watery part of the world.” I picked Maddy up, impulsively, and waded back into the sea strand. Waist deep, I held her in my strong arms, swaying in the surf to this world’s endless song.

And then I began to speak.

I said, “You know me. And I know you. I have kissed your face a thousand times. But this is my daughter, Maddy.” The swell rose around us and I dipped her tiny little feet reverently into the sparkling water. A kind of spontaneous baptism. “She is strong and smart. She is loved, and she will love you as I have loved you. Let no harm come to her here. No harm. Watch her, keep her, and protect her.”

I walked out of the surf thinking, “What was that?” and wondering at what I had just done. I didn’t tell my wife, because I didn’t know how to explain it. I felt strange, like maybe I had crossed some line. But I didn’t regret it, either. I sang, and I prayed, to the God that I could see. The God of the waves and the lightening; the God of the trees, and rivers, and wind. The God of all creation.

Years later I found myself standing in the surf again. There had been an addition to the family, Abby, who was not yet one year old. I had returned to Lover’s Point. The day was much like any other day there. Abby walked in the sand. My wife sat on the beach. Maddy played in the surf. I waded into the waters, calm and still on this particular day. I scooped shells from the sand, stuffing them into the pockets of my cargo shorts, humming a tune that became a song, a song that became a prayer, and before I knew it I was holding my daughter, dipping her feet into the sea. “You know me,” I said. “And I know you. I have kissed your face a thousand times. But this is my daughter, Abby.”

I couldn’t deny that this was becoming some kind of ritual. And I still struggled, all these years later, with its meaning. I told myself that one day they would know all of this, and they would come here with their children and know that we shared this place together. They might dive this beach, as I once did. They might look for, and find, what I once looked for . . . and found.

And time moved so gently that we hardly noticed at all.

And I am standing in the surf at Lover’s Point. In my arms, a darling little girl with bright blue eyes, blonde hair, and dimples set deep into her plump rosy cheeks. A favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, sings across the wine-dark sea.

This is my daughter . . . Katie.

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