THE FLUID EDGE
When I was a child, my parents and teachers taught me about personal boundaries – which I still think of in terms of my “swimsuit area.” Partly because it’s on a childhood trip to the pool that we learn about these boundaries. We change clothes in a room with naked people, probably with one of our parents (who we see naked and never forget it) and we learn not to stare and point at others in their un-tanned vulnerability. Including that one really old dude in every changing room who really wants to be seen. Ladies, I honestly don’t know if there’s any equivalent, and I don’t want to know. In modern times we see notices saying not to pretend to talk on your cell-phone while taking sneaky pictures in the locker-room (wow, I’m glad I grew up in the eighties!). Then we’re at the pool or beach and everyone is in this strange state between dressed and undressed. You’re sort-of in clothes as you step up, but then as you wade or lower yourself in, there’s that moment of yeep! when the water does its, I dunno, the water-version of a handshake greeting and you know the water does not respect your boundaries. The water has known your nakedness.
As children going for a swim, we were told to wait forty minutes after eating before getting in, so that lunch will stay inside the bounds of our bodies. And we sometimes saw clever signs saying something like “Our Ool doesn’t have any P in it.” But kids pee in the pool anyway – for children it’s a chance to experiment with legal boundaries, prohibitions… Will something happen? Will the Olice show up? Nope. Except the person next to you might ask if the water got warmer. And… Not to get disgusting here, but when we actually think about it, we know that all the water in the pool (and the ocean) is urine, every drop has been drank and sprayed by whales and jellyfish, elephants, orangutans, dogs and cats and squirrels and people. All of the world’s water has been urine at some point, and even his imperial majesty the Pope can’t bless that away. Babies get baptized, and that water in the baptismal font has passed through bodies – maybe Jesus, maybe Muhammad, Mother Teresa, Sitting Bull, maybe Madonna. And a tyrannosaurus rex. Any drop of water, or look at a single snowflake, think about where it’s been, it’ll blow your mind. “I was the blood of Caesar, I was sweated out by Muhammad Ali, I was a tear of Harriet Tubman, and I got pissed off by Eminem.”
I’m not here to gross you out – all the world’s water has passed through animals, but nature also cleans the water, with evaporation into the clouds above, and also the water-treatment facilities we call “plants.” Rain comes down, then passes through roots and accumulates in berries, coconuts, tomatoes, onions, nature’s way of purifying the water. I would not drink a cup of rain-water from this area, but an apple grows in my front yard and I’ll eat it, I know nature has purified that water. Ironically, the water in our baptismal fountains has been cleaned by forbidden fruit.
Our bodies also process water – we’re like power-plants, factories, we constantly need clean water coming in and constantly have waste-water coming out. Not just from our swimsuit areas but from every inch of our bodies. Our parents and teachers taught us that our bodies are solid, our skin a boundary between what’s inside us and what’s outside. But none of us here is made out of diamond – our skin is a bag for holding water, and the bag has millions of holes in it. Water is passing through my skin, you are breathing it. Water is passing through your skin, I am breathing it. We are exchanging water right now. When you smell someone, that’s not a supernatural spirit in the air, it’s water from their body carrying flakes of skin into your nose and lungs and blood. Also I sometimes spit when I talk, so if your mouth is gaping open in shock right now you might want to move to the back row.
Our parents and teachers taught us about boundaries, but in a biological sense those boundaries don’t exist – we are all continuous, connected by water. Not just people, all organic life – plants, trees, fungi, bacteria, animals, Keith Richards, cockroaches, fish, that smelly guy you sat next to on the bus (who might have been Keith Richards, I don’t know). The Ojibwe scholar and activist Melissa Nelson wrote, we “are not separate from the environment. We are the environment! …With every bite of food we eat, every drop of water we drink, every breath of air we inhale, we are on the fluid edge of ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ ‘me’ and the ‘environment,’ the person and the planet, and the individual and humanity.”1 Water respects no boundaries – especially the artificial and cultural ones we make up for ourselves. We want to close ourselves off from nature, but it’s inside us. Rivers don’t care about our imaginary borders, and even if we build a wall against Mexico, those rivers will defy us by still connecting us. We are all from and of water.
DUST TO DUST?
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” an old funeral saying goes, but our lives don’t begin with dust or ashes at all. Human life begins in water – we all started out as single-cell organisms in a primordial sea, I mean all life collectively and each of us personally at conception (and the water in a pregnant mother’s womb maintains that same salinity as the oceans at the beginning of life long ago). Then we evolved into a little tadpole-looking creature, then into some sort of frog-like thing, before we started to look primate, except with gills on our ears. And then labor begins with the breaking of water. I love that expression, it sounds so sacred, so sacramental, “water breaks.” (Of course it didn’t seem very sacramental when it happened – I was half ready to say “Send the midwife home, we’re calling an exorcist!”). But the water breaks, a new life begins…and two lives end, the social lives of the parents.
And then, straight away after birth many of us were rushed off for a religious cleaning – having spent ten months in mother-water, we get sprinkled with father-and-son water. I was baptized as an infant, held by a nun who then ran off with a man because she realized she wanted to make a baby. I would like to think of that as the first time I caused a religious conversion. Then I went to seminary-school and realized I don’t believe in infant baptism. When Jackson was a baby, and I’ll never forget it, Elizabeth and I visited a church and this beautiful Episcopal priest, a lady-priest, she beckoned me over to ask about something. I walked over, holding the baby and while she was talking she reached back, dipped her fingers in the baptismal font, and suddenly flicked it at him! As a new parent I instinctively shielded him from the sudden motion and then realized my shoulder was wet. That sneaky priestess tried to baptize my son! Like a JFK grassy-knoll baptism! And accidentally baptized me a second time! So, I don’t know, maybe that cancels my infant baptism out.
Just as water knows no personal boundaries, water knows no spiritual boundaries – water is the common element binding all the world’s religions. They’re all related through water. The Christian baptism (copied from the Jewish mikveh), the ritualistic washing before prayer in Islam, the sweat-lodge of the Lakota, the Hindu wish to be sunk in the Ganges after death, the sacred wells of the Celts – they used to celebrate times of peace by breaking their weapons and throwing them in water, and they would pray for health or luck or fortune by throwing coins to water spirits. The pagan tradition continues in wishing-wells, every semester I ask my college students: “when you throw a penny in a well and make a wish – who are you talking to? Wouldn’t the Christian God be happier if you gave your offering in a church?” At the wishing well you give your coin (a sacrifice) and say your prayer to ancient water-spirits. My college students don’t know that the wishing well connects them with their pagan ancestors.
Water freely flows through all belief-systems, but belongs to none of them. In the Bible, water is there before “In the beginning” – if you read it closely, the book of Genesis does not say that God created the water, it was there before He showed up. Similarly in the Qur’an, Allah creates all things from water, but does not create it. Here in Western New York, the creation story begins with a world entirely covered with water, and a muskrat dives down to bring some dirt to the surface. The Mayan, Babylonian, Egytpian, Greek and Roman creation stories all begin in a swampy chaos, before the gods arrive and start building.
Water is creative, it can also be destructive. Glaciers of ice once tore their way through this land, it was water that carved out the Grand Canyon. It happened really slowly in human time, but in geologic time it was like a bulldozer on rocket-fuel, like Babe the blue ox hopped up on red-bull, roaring through, digging canyons and thrashing up mountains. Now nature gets mad and throws water at us, flash floods that sink whole towns (usually targeting southerners who refuse to believe in climate change). Water can be hurricanes, tidal waves, someday water’s gonna eat California. We’ll have to air-lift our movie-stars to Wisconsin – I guess we’re in for a lot more Thor movies. We used to get these brochures in the mail: you can buy a big chunk of the Florida coast, cheap! And I don’t like Florida, it smells like death, but I couldn’t help looking anyway – where’s the fine print? What’s the scam? But it wasn’t in the fine print, it was in big letters across the top: “Land Liquidation Sale!” Oh! So you’re trying to sell pieces of land that will soon be under liquid.
Water can be dangerous big, and water can be dangerous small, even in little trickles. My wife’s got potted plants, they leak on the floor. She loves dogs, they leak on the floor, she sprouts babies, they leak on the floor – one of these days I’m gonna walk in, “Honey I’m home,” and fall through the floor because of all the water damage. Given enough time, a little trickle of water can split a whole mountain in half.
Water can drive you crazy – it’s been used as a torture device for centuries, dunking witches, Japanese drip torture, water-boarding. Water has suggestive power too, deep psychic powers of suggestion. Like I say “Imagine Niagara Falls, envision all that water flowing, tons and tons of water crashing down…” And now everybody feels like they have to go to the bathroom. Sorry, I’ll try to get to the ending of this soon.
Water – what would we be without it? A little pile of dust and bone. And each of us has water sources that are sacred to us, maybe just the bathroom sink where you ritualistically begin and end your day by brushing your teeth. Maybe the shower where you go to recharge your electricity and collect your thoughts, or sing like nobody can hear you. Maybe a toilet. Maybe the kitchen fawcet where you wash dishes and mumble about the injustices in the world. Maybe a river or lake where you like to walk and talk to yourself, or with someone else. Maybe an ocean where you get a sense of perspective. All water is sacred, and all water is part of all of us.
And we are all part of water. It connects us with all living things, not just across personal bounaries and cultural boundaries, not just across species boundaries, but also across time: Water knows no boundaries of time. The past, present and future are all coexistent in water. The fluid in our bodies today will not be the same fluid there tomorrow. But the water we borrow and carry at this moment has been the life of creatures past and will be the life of creatures yet to come.
1Nelson (2008) p. 9