Ripples Blog Series | Jamie K. Reaser
The latest installment of our Ripples Blog Series. Jamie K. Reaser author of Note to Self: Poems for Changing the World from the Inside Out, shares with you her thoughts on hiraeth.
by Jamie K. Reaser
My mother had been a life guard in her teens. She taught all three daughters how to swim. Most attentively, she taught all three daughters how to float. I can still feel her cradling my head in the palm of her right hand, her left hand firmly at the small of my back. “Relax,” she directs as she releases my body to the mercy of the sunshine and pool and lets her hands descend into the tepid water.
Mom said that floating could save our lives someday. I wake up from nightmares having been saved from sure demise by floating.
Buoyancy is the property of floating on the surface of a liquid or in a fluid. The science of buoyancy was discovered in the bath room; specifically, in the bath of Greek mathematician, physicist, and inventor Archimedes. At the time, Archimedes was, among other things, contemplating methods for determining the weight of the gold in the king’s crown. So excited was he, so the story goes, that Archimedes leapt from the tub and ran naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!”
Archimedes’ principle holds that the buoyant or lifting force of an object submerged in a fluid is equal to the weight of the fluid, as measured by the volume of fluid displaced.
Bobbers don’t displace much water. They float easily – red above, white below the waterline – and keep the wriggling bait at just the right depth for piscine allurement. When I was five years old I caught a five-and-a-half pound largemouth bass on a big stick and long line. He pulled the bobber all the way under and I had to hold on tight to get him in. I fell in love with that fish. He was sleek, mottled green-brown, and had big golden eyes. I visited him several times over the course of the day; my father had placed him on a stringer at the end of the dock, next to the ten pound bass he had caught on a real fishing pole. When the cool of evening came, I skipped down the planks to say “goodnight” to my friend. Both fish were gone.
My mother served bass for dinner that night. I stared at the plate in horror. Stared in disbelief. My father had let his fish go, and murdered mine. I imagined the terror and excruciating pain my fish experienced as his head was being severed from his body. I felt horribly guilty…no, ashamed…for having caught him – for having pulled him gleefully from his grand watery home with a sense of childish pride and accomplishment. I cried hard, refused to eat, and lost a piece of my soul.
Is buoyancy of spirit something all beings are born with? From my window I’ve watched a doe introduce twin fawns to water. At the edge of a large grassy meadow there is a medium-sized, murky pond. One end of the pond shallows into a muskrat thoroughfare and spring-fed pool. It is here that the brave wood frogs breed in late winter and here that the gentle deer come in spring through summer.
The doe casually wandered down the ferny bank and into the muskrat thoroughfare, water just reaching her knobby knees. The fawns looked at her quizzically, cocking their heads. Then each, in turn, stepped in with a single forehoof, then the other. And then, there was pure riotous joy. Water and mud took to the air and nearby vegetation as the fawns jumped and pranced and skipped into the pond and back out again, kicking up their heels. Again and again they pounced and sprang. Until, finally, they had thoroughly exhausted their dappled selves. I smiled and laughed. What sprightly innocence.
The doe looked my way and our eyes met. I’m sure she asked me, “Do you remember?”
Not everyone holds on to cheerfulness as an optical lens. On May 23, 1885, the S.S. Wisconsin was steaming across the Atlantic from Liverpool, England to the United States amidst a field of majestic icebergs – some floating as much as 70 feet high and spanning 200 feet long. Immigrant Percy Groom wrote in his journal, “One large pile of ice had as a passenger a polar bear. This boy was no doubt beyond his depths, as when the iceberg melted, which it surely would do, then the bear would be without a footing and while very clever in water, they have to come up for breathing, and eventually the poor bear would become a victim of its own thoughtlessness.”
There are times when we lose our insightful footing and need help to stay afloat. In such moments, Buddhist nun and wisewoman Pema Chödrön suggests that we simply “abandon hope.” A defeatist she is not. “If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated,” she says, “then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.” The path is one of heart and mind consciousness. It’s a path of becoming comfortable with uncertainty and befriending fear. It’s the principle of floating while fully acknowledging the rough seas on which we are bobbing.
“Relax,” my mother had directed.
A few deep breaths usually help. To be buoyant is to recover quickly from adversity. It is to be resilient. Resilience is a word you need to know. It is a concept that should be swimming around in your consciousness at this time, fervently. “What capacity do humans and other forms of life on Earth have for resilience in the face of rapid environmental and socio-economic change?” Scientists are asking this question. So are policy makers. I’ve been told that a few insightful parents have started to ponder it as well.
Interestingly enough, polar bears may have developed some resilience to warming temperatures by inter-breeding with Irish brown bears during a previous period of climatic stress. According to a study released in July of 2011, all polar bears living today may be able to trace their maternal ancestry back through 20,000 to 50,000 years-worth of grandmothers to a single female brown bear who roamed in or near the vicinity of Ireland. This gives some people hope, but not Steven Amstrup of Polar Bears International. The warmest global mean temperatures that polar bears likely experienced were about one degree Celsius warmer than current temperatures, and climate models suggest we will exceed those conditions within this century. “Crossbreeding or not” says Amstrup, “polar bears will not be able to undo 150,000 years of evolution, or even 20,000, in 50 years.”
I know only two generations of my material line. I ‘floated’ in amniotic fluid of my mother’s womb for approximately nine months, and she did the same in her mother’s womb. My grandmother’s mother would be my great-grandmother, the first of a long line of ancestral woman who I never met, but who I do know ‘floated’ in their mother’s wombs before coming into this world.
We become human while in a state of ‘floating.’ Do you remember?
At times I find it somewhat odd that I’ve spent so much of my life learning how to be buoyant. We humans are supposed to be terrestrial creatures. But somewhere deep inside me there is a memory of being immersed in tepid waters, and too of a knowing that all that was required of me was to relax and be.
I wonder if this is the basis of all longing.
Mom, wherever you are, I want you to know that you were right. Floating, on most days, saves my life.
© 2012/Jamie K. Reaser