Living the sea; writing Virginia
The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.
Virginia Woolf's The Waves begins with this description of the sea, of waves.
As they neared the shore each bar rose, heaped itself, broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand. The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously.
The waves of each of her previous novels, beginning so particularly with the dark ocean-bottom currents that rock Rachel Vinrace of The Voyage Out, finally break on this novel.
Now, living on the sea, I begin to understand. The sea affects me; I begin to believe I hear it even in my dreams, though my window does not face it. I eat breakfast in the morning facing it. And every morning, its face is different. Every morning, I think more and more about how spending summers on the sea at St. Ives must have affected Woolf (or may I call her Virginia?).
She does not simply write about the sea: the sea is in her writing. It permeates her words - her writing, even the books themselves, rise and fall like waves. It is almost as if she were living the lives of waves. Within the books, there is a pushing, and a retreat...and the books themselves, there is To the Lighthouse, and then Orlando, as what Virginia called "a joke"; there is The Waves, followed by Flush, the biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog. There is a surge of creative power, followed by a hush of headache, voices, illness - until finally, she herself drowns, or, drowns herself, in the river Ouse. Just as so many have drowned before her - Rachel and Rhoda, the woman of Between the Acts, Woolf's own last act.
This is a pattern I had certainly noted previously, but never, until, even after a couple of weeks, actually living on the sea began to understand. I remember the first time I saw it - an hour outside of Portland, OR, Cannon Beach, my cousin Ann's wedding. I took pictures of it - picture after picture - the waves, cold and grey, kept changing, and I wanted to catch them all. The next time, Hawaii, at a conference. I went swimming in it, the day after the conference finished. Swimming against the waves, out to sea, out against the long-dead coral reef, a calcium-deposit like a bank of broken bones, like jagged teeth tearing at my feet and hands and knees as I scrambled over it. Then, to plunge into the deep unknown water on the other side to swim further still, swim until my arms and legs had gone numb, until I couldn't breathe, and had to let myself be carried back, floating, over the reef again, and then to where it was shallow enough to stand, to stand neck-deep, anyway, in the bath-warm water.
These earlier times, I glimpsed the effect of the sea, its ability to pull me out - out? - out of what? - rather, it pulled me in. It is an In.
And I stop. What is this inviting force?
Is this what she was pulled into? This is something I understand as well. Did the sea become discourse for her spells of depression, exhaustion?
This is the first time I have actually thought about what it might have been to make me keep swimming - this is the first time since then that I have remembered that sense of bordering on danger: "what would happen if I don't stop?" But there is the desire to continue -
And this is something I am too familiar with, that desire to push further, to succumb to that force, to follow the pull... I am not about to make a claim that I suffer from any sort of the depression that Virginia did. Of course not. But in the seizures, there is a similar pull. In the seizures during which I remain slightly coherent, but immobilized, except for the movement to grasp hold of someone or something. In the seizures during which I am aware of what is happening, what it feels like, but can do nothing about it. These are the seizures that act like riddles on my body, and I feel as if I only followed them a little further, a little deeper into myself, I would somehow solve it, there would be some answer there. And so I cease to fight it. I give myself up to it. And it feels like I imagine death will someday feel like. First, the yearning for it. Then, however, the pain sets in - hot and spreading from my tongue to my face across my scalp, making me believe I feel it in my brain itself, and down the entire left side of my body, a hot tingling sensation. Then, terror. But it is too late to fight. Then, I can only wait.
And I wonder: is this what it was for her? This desire? It is not weakness; it is willed. And she writes it, lives it, in the pull of the sea.
How lucky, I think to myself, that I live on the sea while I write her.