Going Under

Second of our watery posts for this month and part of the Outbreak series on the effects of the pandemic: Sharon English encounters a 'radiant spirit of the New Year' en route to the Humber River in Canada and contemplates the dark and existential places we go to in times of descent.
is a writer and teacher whose work emerges from a deep interest in how place and placelessness shape us, and how writing matters in a time of ecological and cultural unravelling. She’s the author of the story collections Uncomfortably Numb and Zero Gravity. Her novel Night in the World is forthcoming in 2022.   
It was a mild winter morning in early 2020. A layer of damp, trackless snow had fallen overnight. Snow on car windows slumped into odd shapes and crept down the glass, lost its hold on wires and fell in strings. I gazed out at the dim blue light, where the day was still assembling. Because I’d woken earlier than usual, I’d have time for the walk to the subway station. It would be a relief to avoid the crowded bus I usually took and enjoy the outdoors for a while. By the time I was ready to leave, however, the temperature was dropping, so I layered myself well under my warmest coat and added a wool scarf and toque. 

From neighbourhood streets I descended into a great meadow, eyes down, legs working, boots printing a soft trail. My route to Old Mill Station would take me through the Humber River ravine in west Toronto, between the river’s reedy bank and ridgelines of scruffy willows, maples and oaks. I’d got talking with my husband about the news before I left, and a swirl of emotions now pulled at me. Although January usually brings a post-holiday optimism, a sense of freshness and possibility, this new year already felt freighted with gloom. Bushfires still raged in Australia, while incendiary events had erupted again in the Persian Gulf. I felt angry, fearful, heavy with world-woe.

And then, she appeared. 

I was approaching the north end of the meadow, with its entrance to a small marina. From the direction of the river, a female figure was emerging. She walked slowly and steadily in my direction up the centre of the narrow road. 

She was naked. 

Bright snow, black branches. Flushed skin. Step by step she came towards me. 

Her hair: fully wet, dark, hanging in loose ringlets, some of it frozen. Her breasts, full and moving. Hips and legs, purposeful. Arms, relaxed. Bright red scrapes marked her shins, and smears of mud. Not another thing on her. 

Venus-Aphrodite. Spirit of Water. Goddess. 

And, a human woman: fortyish, familiar, with life’s experience in her lightly etched face. 

My mind lurched for an explanation even as my bones urged me to drop to my knees. I looked about for a car (was this a polar bear swim thing?), or possibly a camera crew, but no. 

She drew near. Though her skin looked achingly raw, her expression was focused and calm. There was something else too, in her makeup-smudged eyes: I want to call it a blaze, yet that wasn’t it. Perhaps shock. 

‘Are you OK? Do you need help? Where are you going?’

She didn’t respond. Up ahead on the path another pedestrian had stopped, goggle-eyed. I repeated my questions. We were only feet apart when, with the slightest of glances, she acknowledged me. ‘I’m going now,’ she said. 

And that was it. She went on past me, crossing the snow-covered meadow at the same stately pace, heading toward the rough asphalt beyond  – where, I desperately hoped, some hearth in the community awaited her. 

‘Was she injured?’

‘Did she seem to be on drugs?’

‘Was there a mental health issue?’

‘Did she have a weapon?’

All questions that the 911 emergency operator asked. I contacted them, of course, when the woman was still within sight. 

Questions, and also, stubborn assumptions. 

Madwoman. Derelict. Addict. Exhibitionist … 

Yet when a naked, solitary, river-dunked female passes you on the snow as you’re heading to the office, you pull out your phone and make that call. To the authorities. So they can intervene, determine the trouble, and hopefully resolve it. If I hadn’t dialled, one of the half dozen other people who witnessed her would have. Several of them spoke to me. For some minutes I was the centre of a social flutter, with a dogwalker and a Parks employee and others I can’t recall. We babbled. We stared. We were little slumbering creatures shaken up by a sudden, wild gust.  

Kohl-eyed wonder. Spooky bedazzler. Winter’s queen.  

‘No,’ I said. ‘She was simply walking.’ 

The Humber is not a fast-flowing river. In the 1950s, after a Category 4 hurricane slammed into Toronto and swept away riverside homes, the Humber was brought under human management by a series of concrete weirs. In winter it freezes over for weeks at a time; during thaws it becomes a slurry of ice. A clear passage might open mid-stream or along the shore, even as ice remains rubbled on the banks. 

The water ranges from sickly brown in summer to a wintry grey-blue. It is never clear. It smells.

On its journey south towards Lake Ontario, the river passes through farmland and suburbs, picking up agricultural and roadside run-off. By the time it reaches our neighbourhood it’s also picked up the garbage that tumbles about our streets. Plastics, paper, tin cans.  

Atlantic salmon used to spawn in the river, swimming up from the lake on an ancient migration route deep inland, bringing the gift of themselves to countless animals and people as they seeded the next generation. I’ve seen historic photos of summer bathing parties on the Humber. No one, of course, swims in it now. A few times, on hot days, desperate to be cool and close to the calming flow, I’ve waded in up to my knees. Because of the weirs it’s no deeper. You can’t swim, even if you wanted to. 

Winter, however, is different. The river rises significantly because of the snow. In January its turbid water could cover a person completely. 

 I come to a still, dark, and solitary place, where I stay for a long time. There’s nothing around me. I can’t feel my body nor am I sure I even have one. I simply wait, not knowing, for something to happen. 

Through the years, I’ve had a number of dreams about going under. The dreams are stark, bracing, haunting. In them, I’m pulled deep into the earth or underwater. And always I come to a still, dark, and solitary place, where I stay for a long time. There’s nothing around me. I can’t feel my body nor am I sure I even have one. I simply wait, not knowing, for something to happen. 

Is this death? I don’t think so. It’s more that, for people like me  – schooled to strive and acquire and produce, and to consider that activity their purpose and their value  – being brought to such a place, and surrendering to it, can only be felt as death. 

That’s how I imagine it felt for her. The river’s first icy touch seems to burn: senses scream, blood recoils. In all the most sensitive places – groin, eyes, breasts  – the cold is a knife. Quickly she succumbs to the agony and sinks. Whether she thought to slip in and retain a hold on the bank or whether she heedlessly plunged no longer matters; the water’s taken her. Its murky subaqueous depths whisper  – oh, so close  –that she will die here. 

Then something happens. Not rescue, not death, but a flicker of possibility, a moment when the pain isn’t so bad, feels almost bearable. Followed by another. 

Her body adjusts to the cold  – not by fighting it, but by opening itself even more. Accepting it. Yielding. It’s like a skin coming loose, or a seed case, with a different being pushing out from within.

She starts to move through the depths. 

July 2020, the height of Toronto’s hot and humid season. Cloudless days stretch timelessly and cicada song fills the air, the tune to mercury rising. Wasps circle the barbeque, determined to nest under the hood. Day lilies splash orange along fences and weedy lanes, and at night in the garden, a plump hare hunkers down in the dirt. In a half-year life has quickened and blossomed and unfurled  –  except for us. In the human world, we’ve withdrawn into a perpetual collective huddle. It’s like we never emerged from winter at all. 

The huddle felt a bit like an extended holiday at first, like the eerie yet welcome stillness after winter storms in my youth: school shutdowns, quiet skies, empty streets. Minor wreckage, soon cleared away. Yet it’s clear now that the Covid-19 pandemic, which began its global sweep in late January, has taken us to a completely new place: a liminal place, a place of dusky in-betweenness. There is an attempt to keep normal life patterns on track, even while planning and scheduling have become hypothetical. Information keeps shifting; the crisis has no discernible end. We are asked to hold very difficult, painful contradictions, to give up much. It is frightening to do so, and frightening not to. 

It is a lot like being underwater, moving amid vague shapes and distorted sounds. We have gone under. The question is, what are we to learn and become from this plunge?

Many cultures tell stories about travellers to the Underworld. Persephone, Inanna, Corn Woman. The journey can be forced or willingly volunteered for, accepted as necessary; either way, descending is always an end, a giving up of the old life. You’re stripped bare. It’s terrifying, harsh, even ugly. What happens next in the cold and lonely darkness depends on coming to understand what’s at stake, what the death of that old life makes possible. And letting it go. 

Nakedness is not something we talk about much. Nor is it something we see much with each other. Perhaps because of this, nakedness is mostly fetishised. In Canada, as in many Western countries, it’s a crime for an adult to be naked in public. This is very strange. We seem to understand such a desire only as an act of madness, or rebellion, or both. ‘Nude beaches’ require special designation and location, tucked out of sight. I felt naked is usually understood to express a negative state. 

But what, really, is nakedness? 

I’d say that nakedness is how things are. All things live ‘naked’; humans alone invented another way. 

Perhaps the better question is, what comes of nakedness? Intimacy. Authenticity. Openness. Touch. Nakedness means contact without barriers, touching and being touched. Everything on Earth is naked, and touching everything else. Everything except for us.

Paved pathways run along the Humber River. People cycle and walk past the water, look out at the water, talk beside the water, at times even boat on the water – all as if from behind glass. Our current practices of physical distancing and gloving and masking only highlight what is already the case: that this culture profoundly limits how we touch the world, and allow it to touch us. 

A culture contra nakedness, contra authenticity, contra intimacy.

Padding brings comfort, yet also dulls the senses. Padding keeps things apart. We forget that the rest of the world lives naked. That the atmosphere doesn’t close its windows to rain or to jets rumbling through it, that water can’t sheath itself when poisons are released. We even forget that we, too, are ultimately naked. We forget, and so our touch upon the world and each another grows thoughtless, rough, fatal. We grow distant from our most personal feelings, they are so bruised and buried by the barriers put in place. 

Sometimes we realise that our way of living has cut us off from life. We don’t need more comforts, layers. What’s needed is removal.  

The fires of neglect, violence and imbalance have been burning up our world for a long while, and the flames keep climbing. This liminal space we’ve been brought to by the pandemic can be a cage we think only of escaping, or a crucible in which our old cultural self  – the patterns of habit and priorities  – finally yields. 

Was the naked woman drawn to the water as a desperate kind of baptism? Radiant spirit of the New Year, I wonder if she’d reached a point in her life where enough was enough, and the only way through was down: the stripping of an old identity, so completely and committedly that when she emerged, she needed to walk without raiment or shield—  – to wear only the truth of what she’d found  –so that her body would know, and never forget.

Or perhaps that wasn’t it at all. 

Perhaps she simply heard the river, muttering in its fevered, shackled course. And she went, as sincerely as to a loved one tossing in their sick bed, or a cradled babe crying out for care, and she took it in her arms. 

 

IMAGE: Breath One: Atmosphere by Kate Williamson
Acrylic on canvas
A depiction of the unseen life-force, the global breath essential for a functional life support system. This painting explores the theme of climate change and how as a species human beings are now on thin ice – how our isolated actions, when seen as a whole, could be upsetting the very balance of life on Earth.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

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