Returning to the sea


If there is magic to be found on this planet, it is contained in water.

7+ -- Loren Eiseley, "The Immense Journey"

BY THE time the screen door swings back to make its thud, already I have bounded down the wooden steps. A moment later, on the path leading over the dune line, I pass stubborn tufts of saw grass hedged in by battered snow fences.

I cover the hundred yards of sand between dune line and ocean like a weary man finishing a desert crossing. Then, an awkward dive, the shock of cold water, a few strokes to move me beyond the breakers, and I am over taken, consumed, returned to the sea.

I hear the ocean's surfy, slow, deep mellow voice. It is full of mystery and awe, mourning over the dead it holds in its bosom. Yet it promises new life.

I float along on my back for several minutes, my mind emptied of everything but water. In Egyptian hieroglyphics the symbol for water is a wavy line with small, sharp crests. Three wavy lines stands for the primeval mother ocean, Nu, from which we all have come.

In the cosmology of the ancient Mesopotamians the great sea was regarded as a symbol of the unfathomable. The name for the ancient Celtic god Domnu meant "deep water." The writers of the biblical book of Job believed the answers to the mystery of human suffering and the meaning of life are to be found at the bottom of the ocean. In the Hindu sacred writings, the Vedas, water is referred to as Matritachmah, "the most maternal," for in the beginning everything was like a sea without light.

In a few moments my mind turns to another ocean, or perhaps it is the same one, growing inside my wife. Hers is a salt sea in which there floats a tiny voyager. We know the small swimmer is a boy. Ultra-sound has opened a window to the womb. And with it has come new exhilaration -- and new worry. The proportion of salt in the boy's amniotic ocean is precisely the same as in the greater sea to which I have come to lose myself -- and to worry, for a while.

I float along thinking about the boy -- about the world into which he will come, about the love he must already feel, about how that love alone will not be enough to make him safe. I float along wondering if he will love the sea as much as I do.

From the smaller sea and the greater sea we all have come. Five hundred years before Christ, the Greek philosopher Anaximander, a man who lived by the sea, suggested we all began as fish. Among the ancient Babylonians, Oannes, the mythical creature who brought culture to humankind, was portrayed as half man and half fish.

The pregnancy picture books and Darwin's "Descent of Man" tell the same tale: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny -- each individual in its development tells the story of the entire race. Nature has sent us forth from the watery womb into a region of light, like sailors miraculously cast ashore from a dark and mysterious mother sea.

Before the boy existed, before he began floating inside my wife, trading his nothingness for the possibility of everything, there was only an egg smaller than the punctuation mark at the end of this sentence. Then millions of tiny swimmers, like persistent salmon, searched for that single grain of ovarian sand. A solitary swimmer, with tail flashing, found the shore. Now the boy floats inside my wife.

The boy floats along and I float along thinking of the boy floating along. We are both waiting for new life. I begin to understand, as if for the first time, that the very commonplaces of life are precisely what constitutes its greatest mystery. That there is something rather than nothing is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His most recent collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," was published by Wakefield Editions. The baby is due in late January.

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