I’ve never been a water person. The odds were probably against me from the start, growing up inland, in Cooma south of Canberra, with English parents whose own feelings about the sea were ambivalent at best. There were swimming lessons, of course, and my dad erected a hot blue above-ground pool in our backyard each summer. But while we spent every January at the beach, at Mystery Bay near Narooma, I never learnt to love the ocean itself.
When I was three, my pregnant mother took my five-year-old sister, my younger brother and me by ship to Britain, to meet our grandparents. I can’t imagine how stressful it was for her to make this journey alone – they couldn’t afford for Dad to come, too – and I recall very little about it. Did we kids actually even see the ocean beneath us? Surely we were too small to look over any railings. But I must have internalised some of my mother’s apprehension, or even fear.
Illustration by Simon Letch.Credit:
I have only two distinct memories of the weeks on board: first, shuffling along in a little procession of child mermaids, wearing a green crepe-paper costume my mother somehow put together (my sister won the fancy-dress contest: she was the old woman who lived in a shoe with too many children, pushing a pram filled with all our dolls, and our brother).
But my other memory is more potent. There was an enormous gathering on deck in the blinding sunlight, by the swimming pool. As hordes of adult strangers crushed close, we kids pressed nervously against our mother. At a sudden juncture, every hitherto sensible grown-up in the place began screaming and bellowing, violently shoving at one another until they plunged, fully clothed, into the pool. I recall ice-cream being hurled about. Impossibly, in the midst of this horrifying pandemonium, was the sound of scornful, frenzied laughter.
Later I learnt of the traditional “crossing the line” celebrations, as ships traversed the equator. But at three years old, cleaving rigid with fear to my mother’s leg, all I knew was the orderly world dissolving. Water – everywhere outside the ship, and now inside it – brought unstoppable chaos, and terror.
I’ve only just now wondered about the connection between that shipboard incident and a nightmare that recurred throughout my childhood. In this dream my small, powerless self was compressed into a tiny silver ball, and then snatched up by two vast, duelling universes for use in a sickening “game”. These shapeless, unending, dark and starry undulations of malevolent power, existing somewhere far outside the known world, would throw me back and forth to each other in a vast, cosmic game of catch. With each toss the distance between them grew, along with the likelihood I’d vanish into the infinite void beneath if they dropped me. It’s important to tell you, though, that I somehow chose this game, every time. I knew what was to come; I dreaded but also desired it. Terror competed with exhilaration in the sensation of flight: an exhilaration so powerful I’d risk annihilation in its pursuit.
The ocean, the dream, this fear of being swept away: Jung said the sea represents the unconscious, after all.
There are more mundane explanations, of course, for my lifelong fear of the deep. Swimming lessons at the local pool, for starters. Again the blinding sunlight, the crowded space filled with violent splashing and shrieking. I hated it all, the smell of chlorine rising as we pushed through the turnstiles. I feared drowning so much I almost willed it, sinking like a stone, taking huge gulping breaths, and never actually exhaling. I was that kid at the primary school swimming carnival who had to be saved by a teacher leaping into the pool. Soon enough, because of my failure, came the even more humiliating individual swimming lessons after school, jeered at by the tough and rough kids who swam like seals, who bombed you from the diving board, who seemed to breathe as easily underwater as in air.
In high school, the pool was abandoned for the river: more private, wilder, more dangerous. The murky brown water held hidden horrors: river weed, sharp sticks, snakes. Beneath the surface was an old sunken bridge, with its invisible iron bolts and jagged edges waiting to gash your thigh open, rip your costume from your shoulders. The river was where cool kids smoked, and drank beer, and wrestled with one another in the water and out of it. Where hotted-up cars revved and threatened. I smoked my first cigarette there in the bushes: a Craven A Filter, stolen from my father’s packet. I had my first drink at the river, too, and my first kiss, in the summer dark. Wet bathers, wet hair and the dark undertow of desire and trespass now joined the other fears awash in my subconscious. To have a body was awful, menacing. And there was water once again; the threat of a different kind of drowning.
Oddly, despite all this I loved our summers at the beach. Barely clothed, brown as berries (sunscreen back then was only for the fair-skinned siblings, whereas I tanned deeply in an instant), hatless and free, we kids roamed the sand and the rockpools day in, day out. But these blissful memories of the beach are always of the shore. Even those times we set off on great adventures to the rock caves that would fill with rushing water as the tide came in, the sand was always visible through the clear water. My feet could always touch the bottom.
Another family camped at the same spot every year. We didn’t really associate with them, those kids who roared into the surf, invincible, conquering. They were big and wild and loud, like the ocean. Proper Australian children, they were absolutely unafraid. Once, three of them were caught in a rip as they clung to the great black inner tube of a tractor tyre, and were swept out to sea. I remember adults going quiet, staring and staring at the horizon as the little black smudge swept further out, and further still. Eventually they were rescued by a fishing boat and brought home again, triumphant.
My husband was once caught in a rip with his brother and sisters, dragged out just like that, minus the flotation device. At one point, knowing they’d soon drown, they all began to laugh. Laughing and laughing, hysteria sweeping them out with the current. Eventually the rip curled, shifted and dumped them, exhausted, back on the shore. Their parents, dozing on the sand, hadn’t even noticed they were gone.
This is the existential dread that has always haunted me: the undertow, the drag, the mighty power of the deep. And it remains shaming, that a grown Australian should be so afraid of the sea.
But slowly, in recent times, something has begun to change. For more than a year now I’ve lived part-time on the Central Coast of NSW, near Killcare. This is the second December I’ve grown used to sea swimming not once or twice in the month, but once or twice a day. For the first time in my life I own more than one swimming costume, the clothes line always draped with wet bathers and a beach towel. It’s silly, but somehow I feel at last a belonging to the place, this country, because of the sea.
The British Medical Journal published a case study of regular sea swimming as a cure for depression. But even its authors had no idea why it worked. Anti-inflammatory effects on neural pathways from the cold water were posited, or the simple exercise, or social connection. I don’t doubt the finding, but maybe the cause is more poetic, less prosaic. Maybe it’s about surrendering to the great unconscious, about each cold submersion gradually reconciling us to our hidden fears, without striving or resistance.
It’s about surrendering to the great unconscious, about each cold submersion gradually reconciling us to our hidden fears.
I know the sea has changed me, too. I still quail at the sight of a giant swell, but I no longer hover
apprehensively on the shore while others charge into the waves. And that old nightmare, with its dread of the unknown deep, seems so distant now it could have been dreamt by someone else.
Early last summer, as I walked alone back home from a swim, a thought arrived like clear cold water: this is the happiest moment of my life. It had been a rough year in many ways; the future was uncertain. Nevertheless, I was happy. And I’m certain it’s to do with the sea, with taking the sound of the ocean into sleep. The great stretch of water, with its endless sweep and drag, now feels like connectedness: this chill water glazing my body is miraculously joined to every other ocean and sea and bay on the planet. And now being a tiny speck, carried and lifted, is restful and consoling. I’ve found in the ocean some deep release, a rinsed acceptance of how things are.
This morning I stepped into the cold waves beneath a smoky bushfire sky. The breath whooshed out of me, reminding me that I’m more than just neuroses and thoughts. Here in the sea I’m at once all body, and no body at all. It’s no surprise that baptism involves such immersion. The salt water is a blissful shock: of luck. I’m alive, I’m free. I’ve exhaled.
Charlotte Wood’s sixth novel, The Weekend (Allen & Unwin, $30), was released in October.
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
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