There is a magnetic pull between a body of water and the human soul. Whether a physical need or a spiritual symbol, water floods the imagination in a wildness that becomes both pure and sensual. Chemist and theologian alike celebrate the simplicity of the substance. Water is the scarce resource that lies over seven-tenths of earth’s surface – it is not that we do not have enough of it, but that we always thirst to embrace that which cannot be grasped. And so we have beach houses and baptisms and baths and bottles of Evian.
One of the earliest dreams I can remember (I couldn’t have been any older than four) was of an impossibly vertical water-park attraction that used the force of water-jets to propel anyone willing into an experience that could best be described as an upside-down water slide. Lodged in my mind with all the colorful vividness that only the early nineties could provide, the images of seeing child and adult alike being shot out of the end of the ride, overwhelmed with laughter and awe, have remained intimate illustrations of the thrilling power of water.
Yet, somewhere in my childhood, there developed in myself a hesitation towards getting wet. I would be the kid who could spend an entire day at the pool and never get more than a toe in the water. At camp, the one time I would get in the water would be for the mandatory swim test, to get the wristband that proved I could swim but would never do anything with the privilege. This hesitation is something I am only recently beginning to understand, and therefore only recently beginning to get over.
Like just about any Willamette Valley youth growing up in a decently-funded public school system, I would take field trips with my class to the Oregon coast. Unlike our Californian cousins, we would wear fleeces instead of swimsuits. At guaranteed temps of between 50-60ºF, the “educational fun” of the coast was usually walking over the tidepools and looking for sea anemones and starfish. The true game would be about trying to avoid getting wet by either a slippery rock and an incoming wave. If we failed, our cotton socks or pant legs would be chillingly damp for the rest of the day.
Wet is wild, wet is awkward. We have specialized clothing for getting wet which solves part of the problem, but we still have to get into our swimsuits (and self-image issues can make this additional step awkward for some people). Sometime after we get wet, we usually have to dry off quickly. Sometimes it is about our own personal comfort, often it is before rejoining the normal patterns of civilization (think of your own example here). Even when we have dried off, our wet clothes and towels are still causing puddles for everything they come in contact with. The same problem with leaving the beach essentially goes with a day in the snow or even a walk in the rain.
Dry is safe, dry does not have consequences. And while the clear-headed among us do not see what the big deal with changing into swimsuits before getting wet and drying off after getting wet is, I think our instant-gratification over-protection prone culture is clouding our courage. Because I know I am not the only one like myself, trying to figure out why I long for the water but am hesitant to jump straight in.
Imagine a person you know, any person. Got an image in your mind? Good. Now imagine that person with a bucket of water dumped over their head. How does the person change? Their posture, their attitude, their sense of adventure?
There is perhaps nothing more uncivilized than splashing water, droplets spraying every which way and forceful waves knocking us off our feet. It is raw, unreasonable fun. The human manifestation of this was the biblical John the Baptist, whose camel-hair clothes and caveman diet was a protest against the constrictions of tradition. It was only after John’s ritual of water that Jesus went from being a talented youngster praised by everyone in the temple to a dangerous revolutionary in the eyes of the synagogue, worthy of being tossed off the cliff.
Take none of this to mean that I believe we are meant to be mermaids / mermen, or that mas aqua will be the solution to all of civilized society’s problems. The water can destroy and expose like a hurricane. But even the desert needs a little bit of moisture, lest the ground become cracked and barren. That even the most civilized amongst us need to splash around a bit to keep the basic human element in us alive and growing. That sometime the best defense against the rain is not a roof or an umbrella but simply not caring.
And, so, if there is a secret to experiencing the thrill of getting wet, it is this: leave the need to impress, the need to conform and the need to walk around the dirt without turning it into mud, leave all those needs behind and wash them off in the waves and rain. Turn joy inside out, from a goal into a commitment. Celebrate the gift that water is, and then only later be thankful that someone invented the towel.
This is the second of three essays I drafted during a spring break trip to Florida. The first one was The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost.