of seas and oceans

And as life itself began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.

— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”

I was reading “The Sea Around Us” when I was offered a companion piece of a very different kind.

“Becoming Ocean: When you and the world are drowning,” her essay is titled. Eiren Caffall is a writer and musician based in Chicago; a denizen of the Great Lakes talking about rising waters. Lake Michigan is not an ocean. But the lake is not her point of reference: her own body is.

Caffrall has inherited PKD, polycystic kidney disease. Her kidneys are riddled with fluid-filling cysts, slowly, almost imperceptibly, flooding her body with the polluted waters of a lifetime, quietly “letting fluid and poison back up into my blood until I die.”

“The ocean and I have a conversation every day, even though I live very far from its shores. It is rising, and I am drowning from within. I have been drowning all of my life….”

— Eiren Caffall, “Becoming Ocean”

The grief of this tragedy pulses through my heart, the saltwater of bad blood inching forward with every beat.

This is how her family has been dying, most before the age of 50. Drowning in their inheritance. Choked with the weight of their broken DNA, unable to rise above. Hope is an organ transplant, not a healthier lifestyle choice. She compares her PKD to the march of climate change across our planet. Her metaphor is slowly drowning ourselves.

My metaphor is self-immolation. Burning myself alive.

As my heart beats this moment, Australia is on fire, another result of climate change. 46 million acres already burned. How do I measure 46 million acres? How do I measure the pain of burning?

The dusty memories of what was Australia are completing a full circumnavigation of the earth. Ash covers us all. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

My life’s losses carry as ash on the winds of my years. It’s such an easy metaphor, it’s ridiculous I didn’t see it before Caffall’s story. My grief, my filter, blotting out the sun, letting me see only red.

Her loss will be her life, slowly darkening as she goes under the weight of too much water.

Must my loss be my life as well, given as the fragile nothing of ashes, darkening as I myself come between the sun and earth, between the source and the now?

I have carried tragedy for too long. I have used it for kindling, carried it in my pack as firestarter for each evening’s campfire. Tragedy, my old friend, my constant companion: it has paid the bills as casework with the homeless; it has chosen my life partners and doomed us to failure; it has been the limestone foundation of the old farmhouse where I grew up, tornadoes swirling above, rainwater flooding through cracks below. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

The new earth, freshly torn from its parent sun, was a ball of whirling gases, intensely hot, rushing through the black spaces of the universe on a path and at a speed controlled by immense forces.

— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”

Liquid metals, flowing minerals, red and seething; yet somehow, even the earth cooled. The image Rachel Carson gave was one of heavy elements consolidating into a molten planet while other lighter elements, hydrogen, oxygen, remained as gases, becoming steam. Rock formed. Clouds gathered around the layering earth. And over eons, the elements returned to each other. It began to rain.

What an image. Rachel wrote quite a few years ago; her science may be simplistic compared to what is known now. But the poetry of her imagery soothes my fiery heart.

As soon as the earth’s crust cooled enough, the rains began to fall. Never have there been such rains since that time. They fell continuously, day and night, days passing into months, into years, into centuries. They poured into the waiting ocean basins, or, falling upon the continental masses, drained away to become sea.

— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”

What Australia needs is rain. What I need is rain.

But I fear Caffall’s drowning.  I, too, have been drowning all of my life, in the overwhelming sadness and hopelessness of damage and loss. As if the burning core of me could stop the inexorable rising of the seas of generations who will cry and suffer. As if my volcanic roar could keep making more solid ground under my feet, your feet; as if I might be an unending rock of ages for all I love.

But no one is unending. And no one can be the solid ground under someone else’s feet. We are cracked, leaky foundations of aging stone, barely holding up our own house in the storms of this life. Storms of suffering, but clearing into calm, and even joy; tears that fall like rain, rain we need, even as we fear it.

From the moment the rain began to fall, the lands began to be worn away and carried to the sea.

— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”

Eiren Caffall seems to agree, even as she is dying. Because we are all dying.

For years, I told strangers we were dying, the climate was going to make every single thing over, that they just had to open their eyes to see.

In my experience, a life-threatening diagnosis is one that must be faced. Facing it looks like letting go of the world and the life you had up until the second you heard the news of collapse. That life ends. That world ends. And the world is reborn for you alone. It is reborn and it is destroyed. And you are there to see it, stranded, solitary and broken.

But in that brokenness, if you face it, is the power to change everything, because destroying the old world can break open a light that shines on a new one.

— Eiren Caffall, “Becoming Ocean”

I am terminally human. And I’m tired from carrying my tragedy. It has been heavy, and cold, like an anchor dragging me down when I want to rise above.

Carson says the sea contains the means of its own renewal. The impulse I had as I first reached adulthood was to go out into the world, meet other people, and hear their stories. Bear witness to their tragedies, and their triumphs.

And whenever two currents meet, especially if they differ sharply in temperature or salinity, there are zones of great turbulence and unrest, with water sinking and rising up from the depths and with swift eddies and foam lines at the surface. At such places, the richness and abundance of marine life reveals itself most strikingly.

— Rachel Carson, “The Sea Around Us”

I have started on this journey; I need to continue. I cannot simultaneously travel the sea and remain landlocked. That old farmhouse collapsed into its broken foundation years ago; I didn’t have to burn it to the ground. I didn’t have to do anything except continue living my life.

Here where I stand, in the warm light of a new day, I am seeking the balance that can save me: mind and heart, fear and courage, respect and empathy.

Lived experience is the best way to feel a thing. Tragedy gives you experience, but not everyone has the same tragedy; we require openness to each other’s tragedies to reach wisdom. Empathy with those tragedies wakes you up, lets you cross into communication, clarity and eventually action.

— Eiren Caffall, “Becoming Ocean”