IN THOSE DAYS we were held by water. I came into being by an abyss, the deepest sea in the world. My parents raised me on a forty-three-foot sailboat in the Southern Hemisphere. For twelve years, the world settled on us as brine and brushed our toes with kelp. Even now when I think of touch, I think of ocean.
By way of explanation, I used to say about writing that the process involves taking discrete ideas and throwing them up in the dark as star tacks. You write yourself from one sharp point to another and back again, tacking and threading. When you stop and step back, a constellation takes shape, and there is meaning in the shape. If you are very lucky, there is meaning behind the shape.
In the Coral Sea, my father has sent me out in the skiff to collect pieces of the world, an exercise that has less to do with education than diversion. I don’t care. We are eight years into a downhill sailing run that began in the Northern Mariana Islands and followed the southeast trade winds to New Caledonia, an archipelago in the southwestern Pacific. The surrounding lagoon is the planet’s largest. A limpid expanse of twenty-four thousand square kilometers. I drop my small anchor and put my face to the surface. The reef is alive and waving. I put on my flippers, take a breath, and dive. Branches, hot pink and orange and red, fan out. Eels startle and then peer shyly from their holes. Clownfish dash the sea anemone. I kick down and hover. My hand in the water is danced over with light. I lift a blue Linckia sea star from the fire coral. It floats up lightly just above my palm: no fight.
Lately, the idea of process seems like a luxury. I am focused on locating a reason to write, which is a lot like trying to find a reason to do anything. A storm comes to my window every day. Summer in the South gets so hot the sky has to break and give.
I understand the tension of the sky.
In my late twenties, for no identifiable reason, my autoimmune system went completely insane and, to varying degrees, has stayed that way. Endocrinologists suspect a growth on my brain, the causation of which is confused. Either the genesis is intrinsic to my physiology or extrinsic, linked to medications prescribed to treat a different disorder. “The stress and fatigue you feel, the intrusive thoughts—all that comes from your body reacting to a perceived threat,” a specialist informs me.
Some people get sick and their capacity for grace and kindness increases. This has not been my experience. By the time the virus swept the world, I had been living alone with sulky satisfaction for ages.
My dog, deep into his dementia, circles the room endlessly without purpose. We go outside and cut figure eights in the rain for a while, breathing in the smell of wet on asphalt. His steady whirling is such an accurate manifestation of my mental state that I interrupt to save us both, catching up his body and carrying him to bed, his feet hurrying in my arms. If I do this too soon, he twists away, looks at me gravely before looping again. He walked with purpose, people say, meaning he walked in a straight line and did not come back. When the dog doesn’t settle down, I sit on the floor. Every time he turns my way, I wave and smile, and he remembers me, trots over, and is happy.
Twenty years before planting his palm forest on Maui, W. S. Merwin wrote in “The Shipwreck”:
The tale is different if even a single breath
Escapes to tell it. The return itself
Says survival is possible.
I like to think of him on the failed pineapple plantation he bought in the Pe‘ahi Stream Valley, putting into the devastated ground one tree after another, each sowing an argument that survival isn’t just illustrated by the ability to return. Merwin didn’t grow up in nature but in Hoboken. As a little boy, spotting weeds coming up through the pavement, he felt glad that the real world was there, right underneath.
And then there is Plato’s theory of forms, which maintains that, behind everything, an ideal and truer shape exists. I am experimenting with believing in this.
In the Coral Sea, July is winter. The whales are migrating. Morning at the bottom of the world is quiet and milk-washed, leaves not even trembling on the trees, water solid as a pearl.
In the small galley, my mother moves quiet and dark, a shadow. I bring her the pail of clams I had dug up the night before, alone on a long beach. In a pan with butter and garlic, the pale shells shiver and bloom. My father slants over charts in his underwear, epoxy and varnish glinting in the hair on his arms. It makes him rough to the touch.
Soon, we’ll eat together at the stern of our boat, Slow Dancer. From the solitary mooring, we will sit with our buttered fingers and watch the high spill of a waterfall too distant for sound. Later, we’ll row the yellow dinghy to the empty beach. The water elapsed will be clear as glass, stingrays drifting over stonefish and gray rocks and brown pebbles, and on that glass-water nothing but the faintest reflection of our faces, sprouted with coral and vanishing fins.
“We are asleep with compasses in our hand,” Merwin says.
A body levitating in the first atmosphere receives fourteen and a half pounds of pressure per square inch. The daylight is close, shattered in pieces all around, and your skin is a map of refractions. In the bright backscatter light of the shallows, the sounds of the known world hush. Your hair is gulfweed, pulled and floated. Most of us live in this measure, the first twentyodd feet, but you can train yourself to hold your breath a little longer, dive a little deeper. The sun is always directly overhead, and what slow light falls, falls gently and ever more slowly. At thirty-three feet, you gain an atmosphere, and the pressure doubles. The sound now is big and dense, empty except when the groaning and keening cries come fast and from anywhere. Being handled by depth can haunt you. There is no calculus to determine how much we need the world insisting on us before we are comforted. And like any intimacy, it can freight you with a yearning to plummet.
A therapist once told me that a person should be hugged at least ten times a day.
“No one does that,” I tell her.
Through research, conducted shoddily and almost exclusively on my phone during late-night walks, I gain these insights:
Loneliness in the elderly is as deadly as smoking or obesity. Unexpected loneliness is worse than planned isolation.
Women over sixty-five make half as much as men and so are likelier to age alone.
Lonely people expect the worst.
Living alone is not the same as being lonely, but they go hand in hand.
Excess cortisol is a common denominator in the health complications of the lonely.
More women age in isolation as compared to men, but more men report loneliness.
Perceived loneliness and isolation are as bad or worse than loneliness and isolation.
Loneliness is contagious: caring for a lonely person can make you lonely.
So can caring for a sick person.
Lonely people and “lonely-like” monkeys face similar health challenges.
Because I am too tired to parse my findings carefully, the facts remain confusing and overwhelming. I do, however, feel faintly triumphant that I have seldom found loneliness unexpected.
I have been receiving pictures from friends and family out West of orange skies, red air, smoke, and ash. I went to four high schools, one for each year, and the last was in San Mateo.
To my friend May-lee, who teaches at San Francisco State, I say that I don’t remember worrying about fires in the late nineties. She has to remind me that, back then, there were no fires in Northern California to worry about. Now the smoke is so thick it can be seen from Europe.
We lived close on the wide water. If we reached out, our hands would touch. But over thirty years have passed, and we all washed ashore long ago.
There is my mother now, near the crescent moon trench of the deepest ocean, alone in a small apartment. She has been back in the Northern Mariana Islands since 1992. Outside, the narrow, concrete walkway is made nearly impassable by an out-of-control container garden of snake plants and vincas and Japanese poinsettia. “Just try it,” she tells me every day. “Try growing something. It’ll make you feel better.” Inside is a low table with saints, candles, and a portable television, which she’ll use to livestream Sunday Mass. When the service goes long, she stays in her plastic chair and lets food burn on the stove.
And there is my father now, limbs stiff with Parkinson’s, living in a bamboo house on the Bukit cliffs of Bali with his eighth wife and a Great Dane named Freddy. My father sits at his computer and writes out his burial wishes. In letters, he refers to himself as “the deceased.”
My father used celestial navigation to sail us. He plotted the course. To this day, my father could use the stars, the ecliptic of the sun’s annual track, lines of right ascension, and circles of declination to locate me within his deep past. After all the different countries, the nonstop travel, I found my way to his old hometown on the southeastern coast of North Carolina at eighteen, the same age at which he left it. I have lived here for twenty-three years. He has been gone for sixty.
Walking into the kitchen, I find my dog standing with all four paws in his bowl of water, trying to drink from it.
After two hundred days in isolation, I realize that I don’t know who I touched last. A girlfriend calls from Costa Rica, and I decide it might be easier to recall by person:
- My father, outside a Peruvian restaurant in Seattle three years ago. We were in town for my cousin’s wedding. His decision, last minute, to attend was a surprise to everyone, me especially. He hadn’t been to the United States in decades, and I hadn’t laid eyes on him for at least one. I’m sure he was happy to see us, but the reason for the trip was to visit the University of Washington’s Medical Center, where he would refuse, yet again, to believe the doctors who diagnose him with Parkinson’s. On my last night in the city, in the rainy street, we turned to each other and froze in the opening of a hug. His hand felt big and strong on the back of my neck. It was his face that shook.
- My mother, at the Wilmington Airport two years ago. Resting my chin on the top of her head, I smelled the last cigarette she’d tried to sneak when I wasn’t looking. We sat on a bench for a long while with our arms around each other. When we had no time left, and I pulled back, she smacked me hard on the thigh three times before standing.
- Amelia, on the front porch of her beach house, the day before she moved to Nosara two years ago. She had her feet kicked up on the railing and her head tilted back. Her sun-warmed shoulder was smooth against mine. I was reading a poem called “Holdfast” by Robin Beth Schaer, which ends with the following lines:
People really die of loneliness, skin hunger
the doctors call it. In a study on love,
baby monkeys were given a choice
between a wire mother with milk
& a wool mother with none. Like them,
I would choose to starve & hold the soft body.
Sea stars belong to a group of marine animals called echinoderms. They are cousins to sea urchins and sea lilies, feather stars and brittle stars. In all the oceans, there are nearly two thousand species of sea stars. Although most radiate five arms, some have forty. Sea stars have no brain. The arms do the thinking. Regeneration occurs when one arm takes charge and the star splits purposefully, deliberately into two.
What has become known casually as “skin hunger” refers to the neurological craving for human touch. Pressure on the skin stimulates the vagus nerve, which cues relaxation and lowers cortisol. Some types of touch trigger the release of oxytocin, the hormone commonly associated with love. It’s why the monkeys chose the wire mother dressed in flimsy fabric over the one offering milk. Touch lowers blood pressure, lessens fatigue, and increases dispositional gratitude. Conversely, skin hunger weakens the immune system. The hippocampus shrinks. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland make mistakes. The adrenal glands respond to the faulty information. Without touch to the skin before bed, we don’t sleep deeply, and when we don’t sleep deeply, a neurotransmitter responsible for reducing pain and stress is lessened. Depression, anxiety, loneliness.
Still, when touch is harmful, even the simplest forms of life flinch away.
There is a type of mimosa known as a touch-me-not or shameplant for the way it droops and folds at the slightest handling. As a kid, I never missed an opportunity to run my finger down the fragile spine of its fronds, delighting in how the compound leaves furled so suddenly.
One of Merwin’s most recognized poems, “Separation,” is only three lines long:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
Doctors tell me that, in spite of the risks, my sudden withdrawal from the world may have been a mode of self-preservation. “You’re allergic to something,” a specialist observes. “We just don’t know what.”
Even trees have been known to socially distance. Scientists, upon noting gaps in forest canopies, termed the phenomenon “crown shyness.”
Sitting cross-legged on deck, I pull the blue Linckia from my bucket and place it on a slender board of weathered wood. I trace my fingertips over the spiny, calcified skin on top, the innumerable tube feet of its underside. My father is not trying to teach me how to memorize texture, but I’m learning the lesson anyway.
On May 14, 2020, at 9:37 p.m., Benjamin Abrams wrote:
Hi. When a foreigner dies and is to be buried in Indonesia, what is the most cost-effective procedure?
On May 15, 2020, at 2:14 p.m., DS wrote:
Cremation is cheapest, as it is everywhere.
Whereas illness can prompt a leaping away, my father’s progressive failing has made him more desirous of contact than ever—a psychology totally at odds with his own predictions. “I’ll tell you what,” he would say with a low whistle, “if I get sick at the end, I’ll take myself out. I’ll drop in the saddle.” Such pronouncements, when made to a five-year-old, are terrifying, but they also seem like gospel. “And you get rid of me in the cheapest way possible, kiddo. Drag me out back and burn me.”
In addition to calling himself “the deceased,” my father has started omitting the “o” in god. He is writing it “G-d.”
The bright blue Linckia sits peaceably on the board of weathered wood in front of me without moving. The majority of starfish die after a few minutes out of water, but I am not watching the clock. Nor am I aware that my sea star is blurrily watching me as it holds its breath. Using a narrow knife, I make my cut through the tough body and let them fall back to the bottom of the pail, the sea star and its lost arm.
One thing about being alive during a time of visible, incontrovertible, global disaster is that certain conversations require less justification. When I am not watching the Merwin documentary, I am polling my friends about their will to live.
“How are you finding it possible to care about anything? Is it because you have a daughter?” I can hear Nina smile on the other end of the line. She is on her daily walk in the woods with her two yellow Labs. “It’s so hard,” she says cheerfully. “But I guess I’m a pretty optimistic person.”
Eric yawns and asks me to say the question again. “I don’t care,” he tells me. The television is on in the background. I ask what he’s watching. A brief pause before he says 90 Day Fiancé. At some point, I text my editor, who is also the smartest person I know. He writes back immediately: “It’s complicated but has to do with how someone who believes deep in their heart in communism learns to be okay with a libertarian future.”
What I would like is to walk very fast into traffic and lie down in it. Instead, I am somewhat morosely sending my mother a picture of plants with the caption, “Gardening.”
Before the bathyscaphe Trieste touched down in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, we tried other ways of mapping. We built cameras to photograph through miles of water and disappearing light. We lowered microphones and pressed our ears to the speakers. Tuned into the fury of the Gorda Ridge and listening to the volcanic outbursts of Juan de Fuca, we made notes on yellow pads about heat on the dark seabed, how it can beget a jungle of life. We fell asleep cradling radios that spilled whale songs. We told ourselves, “This is ours.”
On top of the long ropes, the anchors, the echoes, we sent ourselves. First with the lenses of polished turtle shells, with fins of palm leaves and tar on big, stiff-legged kicks. We trained ourselves in apnea, little deaths. Seven minutes, nine minutes without air. The body in blackout, with its convulsing limbs, dances a samba. And still, we have weighted ourselves to tunnel faster. To plunge alone with just a narrow beam of guiding light before beginning the slow-frequency, big-amplitude kick up.
When touch is harmful, even the simplest forms of life flinch away.
I’m happy to report that an animal against you is a sound if not equal substitute for a person. I adopted my dog over a decade ago from a rescue where he was trying very hard to kill himself by doing nothing. He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t drink, wouldn’t walk. I forced him to live. He looked at me solemnly as I carried him up and down the stairs of my four-story walk-up, and moved politely, resolutely away when I tried to pet him. For the longest time, his only pleasure seemed to be gathering receipts from where they fell on the floor and carrying them gingerly to the corner of whatever room was emptiest to sleep.
On May 19, 2020, at 1:23 a.m., Benjamin Abrams wrote:
We can bury the body. We just need to know who can prepare the corpse for burial (embalming, etc.)?
On May 19, 2020, at 11:20 p.m., DS wrote:
Ask at the hospital where the person died. They’ll make a referral.
On May 19, 2020, at 3:08 p.m., Benjamin Abrams wrote:
Good idea Danielle. Will give it a try, although the deceased will not die in a hospital. He is to pass away at home.
W.S. Merwin died in March of last year, something he wrote about in 1993. In the poem, rain falls for three days, and as it falls, the speaker imagines how he passes, every year, the day of his death. A reverence materializes that is not less for being without a source or direction. Perception can be tricky. To combat loneliness, mustn’t it first be perceived? And anyway, I am not having any luck finding studies that quantify healing when a long isolation is ended.
On the open ocean, we suffered minor injuries: burns, cuts, infections. Just off the hook or in bad weather, my mother and I were briefly seasick. My father’s shoulders dislocated with such frequency, the tendons required surgeries that left moon scars waning and waxing silver on his skin. When he moved the wrong way and something popped far from land, though, it was up to my mother to plant her foot in his armpit and pull back with all her might until we heard the bone click home in its socket. The disks in his back slipped, too, on occasion. Because that had no quick fix, he would limp around for weeks with the help of an old oar. Our drawers were stuffed with first aid kits and medical guides detailing how to set bone, how to remove a burst appendix, how to amputate. Mainly, we were lucky. Our bodies were lean and brown and strong, our vision keen. We lived at steep angles and kept our balance. The coming aground pitched strangely. We stood in line for movie tickets in Sydney with tangled hair and salt-stiff clothes and the roar of pelagic winds in our ears. Whatever film we watched first was never well remembered. We had arrived ahead of ourselves in some strange way, and it would take time to catch up.
In the summer of 2013, divers noticed that the population of sea stars on the North America Pacific coast was being decimated, not by predation but by mass suicide. Ochre stars and sunflower stars, giant pink stars and leather stars, vermilion stars, bat and sun and mottled stars, dwellers of the deep sea to those in the intertidal zones—all killing themselves in the most grotesque of ways. Videos posted online revealed to horrified viewers the speed with which the stars formed lesions and tied themselves into knots before their arms helplessly walked off in opposite directions and they tore themselves apart. From Alaska down to Mexico, millions of sea stars were dying, leaving behind only spines and goo.
With no land in sight, the world moves at different speeds. Full tilt, then paused. Clouds skid by, the sea rises and falls. Atolls, sandbars, shoals, countries come and go. Wasps nest in the sails and tumble in loose bundles from the boom. The wind, salt-heavy, deposits gray scales on skin. If we’re not moving through bad weather, I spend the nights on deck with the inheritance of observable light stretched over me. The moon fills, and flying fish leap from the waves, thudding on my sleeping bag like hail. In the morning I push heaps of silver bodies overboard. Dolphins race us. At the bow, they take to the air. Gripping the steel of the railing, I lower myself as far as I can, trying to touch my toes to the water. The whales come, too. Sperm and humpback mostly, their barnacled and scarred backs sometimes surging upward under my feet with no warning as I scramble backward. When their great flukes and spouts surround us, my father turns off the engine and we glide in silence until they’re gone. The days are huge. We see tiger sharks basking in the sun. The ocean is every color not repeated. We find bays lit with phosphorescence so that every drop moves with light, and a spray in the dark glows like coral. The arm in the yellow bucket has become a comet.
Fifteen minutes before he died, the poet Seamus Heaney sent a message to his wife, Marie Devlin. “Noli timere,” he wrote. “Do not be afraid.”
My dog is his namesake. He only rests pressed against me. He hides his head under my shirt. I sleep with a hand on his heart.
When Eric calls, I’m reading about something called proprioception. I tell him it refers to the way we perceive our bodies in space. The attempts we have made to know our positions, thinking no less with our arms. The hope they might lead us to meaning and purpose.
Eric has been listening to Buddhist podcasts. He is calling to propose that I might be “radically okay.”
I called the arm in the bucket a comet, but the truth is that I can’t be sure if my Linckia survived. Sea stars can take months and years to regenerate, and I can no more clearly remember its fate than I can the last time I held my best friend’s hand.
We have always been obsessed with annihilation. We drew disaster on cave walls and in the dirt with sticks. We told stories that tied our origins to destruction, but all our preparation and imagination still could not furnish us with the right linguistics. In our ever-evolving vocabulary, one lexicon appears to be growing faster than ever. Biologists hover with stopwatches over the last of a species, and we say “endling.” When a column of air, rotating rapidly and induced by fire, touches both cloud and earth, we add fire tornado to the dictionary of weather.
Blissonance describes enjoying an unusually hot day in winter while being uncomfortably aware of its grimmer cause.
Fotminne, Swedish, indicates “foot memory.” A connection to the ancients who walked the earth before us, knowing how they changed it and how our footfalls now have a contractual relationship with the ground beneath us.
Flugscham, German, is the feeling of guilt a person may have flying on a plane.
Solastalgia, coined by the Australian philosopher and environmentalist Glenn Albrecht, describes the homesickness we feel watching our home environment change and disappear.
The Holocene, derived from the Ancient Greek word holos for “whole,” shimmers behind us. The coming epoch, characterized by profound species loss, has been named by E. O. Wilson the Eremocene. Or the age of loneliness.
After seven years, we don’t know much more about sea star wasting syndrome than we did when it started. A virus perhaps, most likely caused by warming temperatures. One marine biologist, observing the dying sea stars, said it seemed almost as if the arms were contorting to conceal their lesions.
A few effects of the massive die-off, one of the largest in marine history, are becoming clear. The sunflower star is now locally extinct from California up to British Columbia, an area that constitutes its natural range. With the largest sea star in the world whittling down to an endling, purple urchins have grown abundant and hungry. Wildfires have burned 3.2 million acres, but the less visible kelp forests off the coast of California are 90 percent gone.
Human beings can survive three to four atmospheres of pressure, a depth of ninety-nine to a hundred feet, but none of that helps me understand how, in 2007, Herbert Nitsch was able to free-dive to seven hundred feet.
It’s taken me most of my life to appreciate the way we put our hands on the world. Some of the sea stars I brought home, my father nailed to a board where they dried up and lost their color.
The rain stops on the day of the autumnal equinox. I linger in the cool, new air longer than I intend, splitting the roots of aloe plants. My dinner is still in the oven when Seamus starts to sundown. As his loping picks up speed, I turn on all the lights and sit where I know he’ll find me.
Write “survival” and watch how its letters erase. The etymology insists that surviving cannot be accomplished by living, only by outliving, by outlasting death. We have sought many shelters from erasure. When they were not apparent, we built them for ourselves out of other, lovelier words—the Abode of the Saints, the Islands of the Blessed. But more compelling to me than any vision of untouched paradise is the first law of thermodynamics, the only one I ever understood, that tells us energy can never be destroyed, only passed. This to me is a more hopeful haven: behind every form, another bodying forth. In the Age of Loneliness, some of our most incandescent flowers will be, as they are now, the ones we call fire-followers—western poppies, Australian tree grass, wild hollyhocks—all springing from seeds that lay dormant underfoot waiting for conflagration. I can see them flourishing in the ash of a downed wood as clearly as I can see my own hand reaching for a blue star in the shallow water. O
What an astonishingly powerful and exquisitely crafted piece. An essay to read again and again.
A gorgeous piece of work. Effortless, expansive. What a gift!
This is what I needed to read this morning.
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