It starts with an image.
The light coming through the velvet storm like a ripped stage curtain, a jagged line of blinding gold.
It starts with an image.
A child on the kitchen floor, her finger in a groove of grout between blue squares, arm stretched as far as she can reach.
Start with an image.
A teenager, chin down to new cleavage, the seagull wing shaped lace of her mother’s borrowed bra, wondering, does this make her a woman.
Still-life of apricots in a wood bowl against a swath of grey velvet, splattered with dripping green turpentine, the artist’s hurled canvas broken on the floor.
Me, in a red chair, alone in the house, my toes tracing the zig-zags in the rug. You are five thousand miles away. All the lines between us.
I have in front of me a picture of the ocean.
Even on paper, you can sense the depth, the enormity of its heaving churn. How all that weight and incomprehensible thickness hides underneath its surface. Heavier than air, thinner than stone, there is nothing like water. It is an everything and nothing environment. If only I could anchor myself in one particular spot of the deep ocean, and watch—placeless, disoriented by the endless black shush. To be lost in it. To feel the enormity of liquid. A place of nothingness.
From afar, what we see of the ocean is its skin, like the skin of boiled milk on a pudding. If you choose to study the texture of the sea you find a sprawling tapestry, a glinting weave of light and shadow, seemingly still the farther afar you are, endlessly undulating a rhythm you lock into close up and then it’s gone and changed. It is always moving, this body of water, hammocked tight to the arch of the earth, held united by hydrophilia and a bold resistance to the sky. Zoom in closer and you will see the fine mist of attrition, stowaways sneaking off to the air side of the blue division, rising into the sky—but only for a time; they will be back—they cannot resist the pull of their clan, their heaviest magnet.
My own thoughts rising like mist, forming clouds, tumbling over the arc of the sea.
Take an image of the ocean.
Place your finger on a line of the weave.
Try to follow it.
Try to draw it.
I have tried and I cannot do it.
At every other line I get lost. Or else, I just fabricate an irregular regularity, impatiently unfaithful to its delicate realism. I leave it to Vija Celmins, an artist who can distill liquid volume into line: in scratch marks on a etching plate, graphite, ink, and paint. In her Ocean Surfaces, Celmins resurrects the wavering immensity into a two-dimensional art form. She compresses the brine and heave into a window you can see through. There it is. A pinch of the ocean’s skin, like a recipe dog-eared in a cookbook, preserved for your memory, its taste on your tongue. Salt sweat, brine, sea hurl, foam, the tang of sour fish, the grit of metallic sand.
Every time I come to the ocean I lose my breath.
Just for a moment.
What the eye sees it absorbs.
I find it impossible to absorb all of that water.
Seeing the ocean it seeps into you: as memory, as sound, glinting light, blue-green, mist.
At the foot of the ocean: the lines of the sea and the tide lines, the horizon line, and the body’s outline facing sky and water: ridges of toes against the sand, long stroke of the leg against blue, crescent of head ear to ear.
Soft sounds of waves rumbling, sand lines drawing and re-drawing the tides.
How does a body find its way in this world of lines always moving?
Hydrophilia, a desire to be in water, to be of it.
Vija Celmins tames the ocean into a rectangle.
How does she tame herself to watch the ocean so carefully?
Her eyes follow a line wherever it goes, unremitting in the pursuit to show that anything—can be translated into line. Her hand creates the line, obedient, diligent to the eye. A line that runs from eyes to brain to hand together across the page.
Line after line.
Aren’t we always tracing and following lines?
We were in the car, my hand on the gear shift, your hands in your lap, together we were driving a black ribbon of highway through blond fields of wheat, the mountains a ragged scrap of blue silk under bruised clouds. Everything purple and yellow and blue.
Your face brown against the blue ridge. Your green sweater. Your fingers on the dial of the radio. The sky was pregnant with water, holding it, fighting the inevitable gush, a blister pressed to the heat of the sun.
Flash of light!
A jagged line of burning gold.
A rip in the fabric of the sky. Something secret, held back, suddenly showing.
The sky lifts her skirt—to the rain, to the light, to the glory of both at once.
We’ve never seen such color, such duality in a single moment. Darkness and brilliance. Large plops of rain spatter the windshield, a syncopation to our silence. So alone on this black stripe of asphalt in the wheat fields. We’ve never been so far from home.
This crack of light—some silhouette revealed, a line—an accident of air and water and sun.
It was only a moment, and then the clouds shifted, softened, and mergede, the light subdued, the line disappeared and for a moment we were lost, everything darker than it was before.
In the shadow of the countertop under the sink, a little girl on the floor, her finger paused at the farthest line she can reach. No one else can see her. The tiny tip of her finger rubbing that long white zig-zagging line between blocks of blue. A prickly feeling creeps up her legs, she’s numb in the hips. If she shifts to a squat she might make some noise and get noticed, but worse—she would betray the laws of her line. Her finger is only allowed to go as long as she can reach without moving. She feels the stretch in her armpit, a thin burn. Every part of the line she has touched so far is brighter. Is it the dirt scrubbed off? or is it her touch? The lines around her illuminate, a geometric web, a city scribbled on a chalkboard, a raft she floats away on.
Lines that bind us and free us. Lines that link us and separate. Lines that define and lines that defend. These lines, they are our edges, the outside that holds us in. They are the rims of the cells of us, the walls that contain us, what makes me me, and makes you you. We are just silhouettes, in a certain light, moving around, shuffling, exploring, and bumping into one another. Navigating a world of lines.
These lines, they hold us within ourselves.
Hydrophilia, a dome unto itself.
Sometimes I just want to scrub away the edges of my body and disappear. See the white wings of this seagull in my blouse, tucked into the new curves of me like a secret. No one knows it’s here. No one knows that flight lies dormant in my chest. My heart beats against a bird’s heart. When I close my eyes all I see is that bird’s eye, one black dot against the white. All I want is the color white. When the sky is one big cloud like a quilt and its isn’t raining and it isn’t sunny and you can hardly feel the air on your skin, when the sky is like that, you can hardly see a white bird wing stretched, going somewhere. It all just blends together. Unfocus your eyes and you can see everything softer than it is. I see myself, my body, my shape. I want it gone. I want all the color blanched from me, sucked from me like liquid. Shine a light on me so hard, blinding white, that I disappear. Give me an eraser. I will rub myself away. Let everything white blur into me and everything else drain from me. Let me be a white shell on white sand. A white rabbit in the snow. A white scribble on a piece of paper.
These lines between us. Theses distances and samenesses and edges and details and shapes. A messy mesh, a tangled network, what’s what?
Lines in my mind. The red trail of a plane falling from sky to sea. Yellow stripes on asphalt crossed by shadow, then crash. Train tracks that pull us farther apart. The sudden scribble of a angry tornado. The telephone lines we do not use. The lines of language that loop in my head, these repetitions I cannot harbor. The lines we give each other: an architecture of thoughts on slips of paper, sliver of envelope licked and sent. It isn’t the same as our touch, the line of my shoulder lit up by your breath.
Give me the ocean. Where a rhythm of lines passes as serenity. The everything and nothing environment. Hydrophilia—the water hugs itself. Give me one drop. A bead of water on the back of my hand. Nudge it toward another bead of water and they merge into a larger droplet, opting for homogeny, braced against other. This is grief.
All the catastrophes I’ve imagined that never occurred. The scenes I’ve watched on the movie screens of my imagination where everyone I’ve ever loved suffer innumerable deaths. I’ve felt intensely with a vicarious incandescence, the desperation and mourning of a thousand unrealized predictions. It’s almost as if I want it. Okay, it is as if I want it. Truly, there is a way in which I crave it—grief. And while I am so afraid to say it aloud, or put it in print, or want it even one kernel on the chance that I might send the idea of it out into the ethers like a flying wish towards some bank of celestial wishes that may or may not be heard or answered by anything or anyone—it’s a desperation, that feeling, that desire to fall apart, to become undone, to be an ocean.
Hydrophilia. Does water love itself?
This grief, an ocean, an undulation of lost lines, a body turned to water, collapse, all bets off, the perspective suddenly askew. To be in it, instead of investigating its skin.
In loss, everything changes. The boiling clatter of life drops to stillness. Senseless, we say, there is no understanding it. And senseless it renders us, loss. Numb. Vicious. May our feelings knock the wind out of us, as painfully horrible and raw and atrocious as they might be. Let there be no explanation for why we should not rage and suffer and howl. There are no rations on our tears or cries, no expectations for our performances in the daily doles of living. The permission exists to do so. In grief one can be a living ghost.
Loss goes beyond what we’ve imagined.
The horizon is a band strapping the ocean to my chest. Water is waiting to spill. It is swelling. A tangle of marks from which I need just one string to pull, one line to follow.
Place me in the studio where I have laid out the apricots and I am waiting for the magic. For the painter in me to step forward, the hand that moves without the influence of the mind. Go at it for a while. Step away. Come back. Away and back. And each time it looks less and less what I want. It does not meet my standard of craftsmanship. Clatter of brushes and jars. Flying canvas. Impact. The tinny rattle of the small steel cup of turpentine spinning on the floor. One apricot rolls to the corner, will rot under the sink. Green drip marks on the white walls. Spill of water. Splash of paint. The palette lays dotted with blobs of color but they are screaming You can’t do it!
Fuck apricots. You are no Cezanne. You are no Gorky. You would have eaten apricots out of Gorky’s hand and unfurled for Cezanne like a spring leaf. Paint me, love me. There is no end to your want to be seen. Turn to the mirror. Turn to the self. Open your eyes.
Can you follow a line?
Line of skin. Line of eyelid. Line of eyelash. The line of collarbone. The sideline of rib to waist. Lines of the rib slats. Lines of the legs, branches. Lines of toes. Crescents of fingernails. Curve of the ear. Cleft of chin. Lip lines. Curved lines of teeth. Lines of filament in the iris, layered like particleboard, spun into ribbon candy, spirals in a tree trunk. Lines of thumbprint. Lines felt from touch, likes lines of echo. The lines of sun spray through the clouds that light your cheekbones. Lines of tears. Lines of hair.
A blob of paint on the palette—a palimpsest of brushstrokes. A flurry that echoes the movement of a wrist, the eye squint calibrations of a mind—the impulse translating shoulder to elbow to hand. Painting is a form of touch. Scrape, scuff, slip. It is also a music. Lines running through arches and layers and thicknesses. And it is a dance. A choreography of line: arm arch, wrist shift, limb lift, over and over and over.
Lines in the eye, the motion inside. Eye lens. Eye window. Eye of camera. Imprint. Follow. Watching, it snakes into us. The movements we observe tumult us, tide lines wash into our shores. Lets say we capture it—bring it ticker and tremble onto film. Black and white, slightly overexposed, so that the shadows show and the light gleams whiter. Arm arch, wrist shift, limb lift. Again and again. Faster, faster. Slower now. Loop it over and over to stop-motion your beauty.
I love to watch the lines of you move over and over again.
Line of celluloid flapping the scroll.
Blanch to white.
A line leans against air, is nothingness, is everything, is the division between us. The line that brings you to me.
Hydrophilia. Love of sameness, love of self.
When I am here and you are there a slew of lines big as an ocean squats between us. They rest heavy, invisible, congealed in the quiver like jell-o, a thickness we feel. When you are thinking of me I feel the lines shimmy. Like drumbeat, like music, like breath. When we are together the lines dissolve to just one line pressed to the shape of us, irregular and wavering—dotted between fingertips, smudged thick at the hip crests, lit up by the friction of skin.
How do we find our way?
These bodies in motion, lines among lines.
I want to release my hold on the ocean. I want to be a body of water that’s separate.
Hydrophilia, water within itself.
If grief is an ocean…
[Picasso said, it’s a miracle we don’t dissolve in the bath]
A tangled ocean we swim.
Remembering a drive through the glimmering last moment of a storm.
A memory held onto like a raft.
In this water, this skin, a mirror to the sky.
How do we —?
Sink the mind to the black depth of ocean.
A place undefined, the everything and nothing environment.
It starts with an image.
Lift a line from yourself to begin.
Photo by Colin