On my desk, behind my laptop, is Sylvia Earle’s illustrated atlas of the oceans. All of them. Big book. Heavy. Marvelous: full of marvels from around the planet, like sargassum, whale sharks, flashlight fish. Lately I’ve had it open to page 194: a picture of an Andaman Islands elephant in the Indian Ocean. Swimming Ganesh! Remover of oceanic obstacles!
My father recently disclosed that he’s been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He has no symptoms, but the results of one test (of many many many over the years, including bone marrow – ouch) came back in the red zone, as it were. He’s contemplating chemotherapy.
This, of course, was extremely upsetting to hear. Without any further ado, I burst into tears. Uncontrollable sobs. Time out.
Since then, I’ve been angry (how dare he!), scared, and subject to fits of weeping. But the fact is, I’ve been waiting for news like this my whole life, ever since my brother died – “what? where is he? when’s he coming back?” – of brain cancer almost 50 years ago. I’ve lived in fear of fatal catastrophes removing my mother, my father, my other brother, at any moment.
“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” Cheryl Strayed’s mother told her, in the memoir Wild. Having read the book (which pissed me off — more on that later, maybe), I watched the film a few weeks ago. The phrase stuck and turned itself into a ditty. One morning I woke up, donned my wetsuit, hoodie, and gloves, and set out for the beach. “Put yourself in the way of swimmin’, put yourself in the way of swimmin’,” I sang into the crisp dawn air.
Sure enough, I found folks to swim with, six total! Since then, I swim most mornings, usually alone, if one can be alone in the big, wide, chock-full Pacific. I just needed a bit of moral support, until I remembered, yeah, I can do this. I need this, no matter how cold it is. Total mood elevator. They don’t call it ‘sea-change’ for nuthin’.
When I finally figured out that my Olympia house was killing me with toxic mold, I evacuated. Got myself to the ocean. Got myself back in the way of happiness, and eventually, of joy. I don’t know why it’s such a struggle to remember what is truly important. Perhaps it’s the chatter of the world, our human species, the self-importance of so-called ‘success.’
If I were my dad — and I do know that I’m not, individuation has had its slow effect — I’d high-tail it to the mountains, where he’s happiest. Where he’s most himself. Breathe that rare air, take in the wildflowers. Build a shack. Watch the hawks. Look for mountain lions.
But he’s in charge of his body, just as I am in charge of mine. Or responsible, anyway. So I look at my elephant swimming in the blue ocean. Ears floating, legs treading, snorkel trunk out — she seems to be laughing. And definitely in the way of joy.