Two days ago I wrote this as a final submission for my class:
Right now I'm staring at the spine of a book, The Devil's Teeth, that's sitting on a shelf at the foot of my bed. It's a narrative about great white shark researchers who live on the Farralon Islands in California. They spend every waking hour observing the sharks devour elephant seals. I told my dad I would read this book. I have not.
The things I have learned this quarter are things that have momentarily lifted me out of the dangerous waters, onto the privileged vantage of dry ground. I am sure that at some point in the book, the author draws a parallel between the jagged, volcanic geography of the islands and the serrated horror of a shark's jaws. But the mountains on my island are molar. Flat, reassuring. My footing there feels so sure. Then I'm slipping, have slipped, am once again shivering and terrified, surrounded by vague symmetries of monsters half-perceived in the murk.
I have learned that I have to start swimming, that rogue waves issued from the chance physics of the deep are not enough to keep me safe. I have learned that some people swim better than others. I have learned that my form is poor but that it improves with practice. I have also learned that treading water is easy. Easier than swimming.
It is a curiosity of humanness that the fear of challenge can overwhelm the fear of drowning, of great fish come to collect. Curious because it means that we are not indigenous residents in our own souls. The spirit is domitable. This is fact.
So what of the swimmers? What magic fuel combusts in their hearts to compel them forwards?
The answer is secret. It cannot be contained in self-help books, analogies, stories, therapies with names. The answer is unspeakable and holy and precious. But I have a feeling it has to do with selflessness. They must know that those of us content to bob listlessly in the tide are disturbed by their wakes. They must be more awake to the fear, because they remember more vividly the feeling of earth under the feet. They must be frenzied with self-preservation.
Some of them come back. Out they swim, to smack the blood into our faces, to coax our reluctant bodies into motion. And they do it again and again, for the rest of their lives. They become faster, more agile than the monsters. This is the definition of heroism.
In the past weeks, I have been touched by wakes. All I can do now is put one arm in front of the other, flutter the legs and start swallowing water until I'm strong enough to swim, dive, porpoise away from snapping maws. I hope I will make the return plunge if I am lucky enough to face it.
Here's a prayer, we floaters. Move.
This morning I found out that my friend Mathew has died. A fellow floater, lying on my floor at two in the morning, both of us drunk, both of us lost in morose reveries over girls not paying enough attention. I hope he felt something beautiful before he went. I hope that if he can still know, he knows that his rings will never really settle in my waters.
He seemed to know that he didn't belong. I can say of him what he maybe couldn't of himself: he was better. Smarter. Blessed and cursed with disappointment because his imagination was strong enough to make him know that there was more. Anger, America. He never got his chance. He felt the sting of your lifelessness deep in his heart. Anger for my dead friend with the big soul. He was better than you.