Water and Stars

September 22, 2017

We crossed the Pacific in a ship. There is no adequate English verb for what a ship does in the ocean. In Russian (my only language of comparison), it’s quite comfortable to say “корабль плывёт,” which would translate to “the ship swims” – an absurdity in English. “Sailing” implies a sailboat, implies a skill we don’t possess and a self-reliance we did not exhibit. Our cruise days crossing the ocean were called “at sea,” which is certainly where we were – just not what we were doing. In any case, we crossed the Pacific in a ship.

The Pacific is big, man. I have always had an affinity for water, for big water. Whether the banks of the Neva, the Hudson, Orchard Beach or Ocean Beach – my first three decades were spent in coastal cities. Living in San Francisco within sight of the ocean, I learned to go to the water to heal my mind. I sat alone and watched the water when it was light out, listened to the surf in dark. I learned its rhythm, its language. More recently, in landlocked Calgary, I still found myself going to the water, standing by the banks of the Bow, under Louise bridge where the river surfers go – watching the push, listening to the rush, wondering, breathing, listening.


A sixteen-day voyage across the Big Water, the water that covers half of the surface of this planet, the water that I’d glimpsed at various lifepoints in California, Vancouver Island, Costa Rica – the unifying and ineffable Pacific Ocean – this was the part of the early trip I awaited most eagerly. We sprung for a room with a balcony, and it was fully worth it. Pushing off in Vancouver, the hyper-excited kids pointed out the myriad jellyfish to each other and howled at the sight of a seal. “We’re sure to see a whale,” they said. As the days went on and the ocean turned out not to be, in fact, a zoo, their excitement for the balcony waned, but Dina and I still went out there, watched the breakers on the waves or the glassy stillness. When we crossed into the Bering Sea, the winds became too cold to spend much time out there, but I made sure to go out at least a couple of times a day – watching the water, trying to feel it.

In one sense, the water is totally stable – any direction you look, for as far as you can see, it’s there, it’s what there is. The 1000-meter-deep water, strong, holding us up, holding us steady.  In another sense, it is always shifting. The colors are infinite – at different times, we saw shades of blue, green, silver, black. The waves are ever changing direction, intensity. When a wave breaks, it’s possible to see multiple layers of water – a thin layer running “downhill” over the side of the wave.

As time went on and we experienced weather changes and iterated through the cycles of days, I began to spot patterns in the changes, the tumult of the ocean becoming less chaotic, more homey. It made me think of The Wayfinders, Wade Davis’s book about Polynesian seafarers, and their ability to navigate using the shapes and motions of the waves themselves. Our own navigational ancestors – the Phoenicians and Greeks – used the stars to navigate water. The Polynesians used the water to navigate water. And in thinking about navigating our lives, too, I began to wonder about the difference between using the “stars” – ideas that are distant, permanent, unaffected by context, and the “waves” – things that are immediate, in constant flux, chaotic but here. It made me wonder about our propensity for ideals, at the cost of relationships.

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