precious, the raindrop

©slgckgc, “Raindrop,” Flicker Creative Commons

a meditation on water

I

The local paper informs me our water comes to us by way of two lakes. Knowing where our water comes from — that water comes to us at all — increases with urgency each passing year. The newsroom prophets tell us this will be our next great war: the unquenchable thirst for violence inherent to the sons of Adam metamorphosed into the literal, a return to the primordial fight for life waged by our ancestors of millennia past.

The article in the local paper was accompanied by a cartoonish raindrop bearing the moniker Precious. According to the caption, Precious the raindrop is “a happy soul,” sent to remind us that water is — to not put too fine a point on it — precious. In the photo, several real children are pictured around Precious, each wearing teeshirts sporting the pronouncement ‘I Heart Tap Water,’ each drinking from a full glass of precious water.

The article was intended as preventative, anticipating the usual central Texas summer of endless heat and brown lawns, water restrictions and drought. When I staffed at a local paper in another part of the state, this piece was the kind that was written on Thursday late afternoon to fill in for another human interest story — usually on page fourteen, opposite advertisements for gun sales — that hadn’t panned out. Ms. Whiskers the cat wasn’t interested in having her photo taken with her owner that day, but deadline was within the hour. The solution was three hundred words about something inoffensive, like where our water comes from, typed with haste but enough accuracy to pass in a Friday publication.

Precious, the inoffensive raindrop, reminding us all to care about water the way we care about most things: only when it becomes inconvenient.

Within a month’s time, on the front page of the paper, headlines ran for weeks about the record rains across Texas, raising water levels at alarming rates, flooding whole towns, some city districts, overflowing natural dams, and destroying acres of property. An intersection in the museum district in Houston, where I had once seen a woman collapse from heat exhaustion, was flooded under eight feet of water, the tops of traffic lights peeking out as second floors of surrounding buildings looked like lobby entrances opening onto a placid sea.

Water was not called Precious in these reports and no cartoon raindrop with happy children made an appearance. Water was threatening, the word most frequently used, and always moments away from causing further damage. These reports arrived archaically, being of only cursory interest to national news outlets and the twenty-four hour news cycle. Like telegraphs from the front each morning, the paper kept an updated account of the battles lost and won to water.

Eventually, the interest, along with the earth, dried out. Headlines of other focus, like ravens and doves sent forth from the ark, tested the readiness to ignore Precious once again.

II

In his Metamorphoses, the ancient Roman poet Ovid follows his creation account and flood narrative with the story of Daphne and Apollo. In a moment of hubris, Apollo accuses Cupid of being a weaker god for lending his bow only to the cause of love, while Apollo uses his to rid the world of monsters and to hunt wild beasts. Offended, Cupid decides to teach the god of light and truth a lesson by shooting Apollo with an arrow of unquenched desire. Then, Cupid shoots an arrow of unrelenting chastity into Daphne, the nearby daughter of a river god.

Some time passes, in which we learn Daphne renounces all affections and marriage, preferring to hunt, commune with nature, and keep chaste. We are told, also, her beauty and grace betray her in this, for Apollo’s desire burns all the more for her, so much so that the god of prophecy deceives himself through his own oracles to believe she will be his. Eventually, overcome with want for Daphne, Apollo begins to chase her, begging to lie with her and wed her. Daphne, frightened, tries to outrun him.

So ran the god and girl, he sped by hope and she by fear.

He is about to overtake her when Daphne sees the river and calls out to her father for help. She prays to be rid of her beauty if it will keep her from Apollo’s hands, rather desiring to be cursed than to be raped by the god, who continues to assure her in his pursuit that fate has ordained their union. The river hears and Daphne is changed, metamorphosed, into a laurel tree.

all that remained of Daphne was her shining loveliness

Still, Apollo was consumed with desire for her, and this, according to Ovid, is why the god wears laurels upon his head: not enjoying the ends of his desire, he wears her as trophy and conquest.

yet from his kisses still the wood recoiled

It’s curious that Ovid follows the telling of the flood that wiped out all humankind with a story about water as salvation. Water is once again precious, a source of life and purity of desire. Whatever critiques we could rightly visit on the ancient views of women, autonomy, and virginity, the almost-rape of Daphne and the subsequent conquest of her transformed body by Apollo is an evocative, critical image. Daphne’s desire to remain chaste is not shamed, even though her father begs her to marry and even though this culturally represents a woman opposed to her assumed function. Moreover, the river god grants the fundamental desire of his daughter, spiting one of the most powerful gods in the process.

That Ovid is taking a great risk here is worth consideration. The emperor of the time, Augustus, had built a temple to Apollo as a laurel-crowning achievement of his reign. Moreover, Augustus was frequently associated with the god, at times called the son of Apollo. Augustus also passed sweeping marital reform in Rome, particularly around adultery. Fearing low birth rates as a threat to maintaining his political capital, among Augustus’s reforms was the definition of adultery as a married woman — married men could do as they wished — sleeping with any man not her husband. Under such circumstances the husband had the right to kill the other man and, if by chance his wife died in the processes, the husband would be punished less severely than had he killed someone else. More importantly, a father could kill the man who slept with his daughter if they were not married to one another. Being the law, it should apply to everyone, including emperors who would take women to his bed he was not married to.

Ovid’s not-so-subtle parable of a god ruled by uncontrollable passion to possess that which was not his to own, coupled with the insult of the river god not bothering to kill Apollo but instead keeping his daughter as far from him as he could, was certainly a contributing factor to the emperor’s order of exile that sent Ovid to Tomis, on the Black Sea, in 8 AD.

Knowing this, the placement of the story is all the more curious. Ovid situates a myth of water’s intervening power, salvation of the oppressed from the powerful, immediately after that of a global flood. Perhaps the poet does not see water differently between the two, but is warning, reminding, that something as simple as a river can snatch our desirers from us, can topple the proud, can indiscriminately withhold and destroy. Gods can be thwarted by nature, emperors can be thwarted by a little fall of rain, a little fall of Precious.

III

Ovid wasn’t the first weaver of myth to recognize the power of water. Near East creation accounts are full of water. Perhaps the only convincing proof of the pseudoscience of body and cell memory is how often water appears in conjunction with stories of our coming into being. As if we remembered emerging from the primordial depths in the early cycle of our evolution, myth after myth speaks of the oceans depths gods divided and shaped, battled and warred.

Water is most often seen as chaos, such as in the Enuma Elis of Babylon, a violent and uncontrollable force that in spite of itself produces generative creation. The myth is angry, overwhelming, the gods petulant and unbridled, humans an accident born to live in misery and suffering. Water gives life only to make us long for death.

The contemporary creation account of the Hebrews, found in Genesis, stands against this.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God orders the waters with intention. God is before the water was and surveys their depths with purpose.

And the earth was without form and void and darkness on the face of the deep was, and the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters … And said God, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, let it divide a space between the waters from the waters.’

The water separates above and below. According to the account, the first humans beheld a sky of ocean above and below. It was this sky God would open in the great flood of Noah, which God had never done before, explaining the ridicule of Noah in building the ark. There had never before been water falling from the sky, let alone a return to the chaos of the undivided waters before God had created.

Hearers of the story would not miss the imagery’s anticipation of what was to come. When the Israelites had been enslaved for nearly four hundred years, when they did not know any longer who the God was who claimed to be saving them from Egypt, this God once again divided waters in the parting of the Red Sea.

In our safe communities, a word I use here to mean nothing more than homes where we do not hunt or gather, do not fear famine, do not spend years at sea in search of trade or crop, we tend to forget the threat of water. Too-high a wave, mere inches too-high, and the boat carrying the father of seven capsizes and swallows him to the grave. Fittingly, ancient myth thinks of death as the crossing of a body of water, a transversing across the chaos.

That the God of the Hebrews divides waters, orders them, gives them direction is a form of protest against the petulant gods of the Babylonians. Where their gods were the product of the chaos, God was the harmonizer of the dissonant. Implicitly, if the Hebrew God was just one of many gods, in the very least, the gods of the Babylonians owed their being to him.

Something of this significance would have been echoing in the collective memory of hearers of the Gospels, in which Jesus, fully God and fully man, walks upon the surface of water as in the creation story. Critically, however, he calls the disciple Peter out to walk with him, to literally participate in a work previously only the property of God. Peter, as we often remember, succeeds only so long before doubting and falling into the water. A good deal of text has been accumulated in analyzing this moment, but little takes the time to consider the illuminating counter-event.

Whereas the Hebrew Bible recounts a God mastering waters, dividing waters, parting waters, the God never enters the waters themselves. Always above, always against, always in opposition. It is in Jesus that God first enters the water, first in the waters of flesh and womb, then in the waters of baptism. Jesus is plunged into the chaos, into the void, into the death, into the doubt, and is then brought back up again.

Hence, Paul’s observance regarding baptism:

all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death

Water, even for its Creator, is the means of the most ancient power, the precious paradoxical salvation through self-sacrifice.

IV

Perhaps to Ovid’s chagrin, it was Augustus’s Rome that would lay the foundation for the empire, in one form or another, for the next fifteen hundred years in the West. A few floods notwithstanding. But it was thanks to this foundation that the poet’s works survived.

Christian monastic communities, motivated by the belief pagan authors were capable of pointing to God through their works, copied and recopied hundreds of ancient manuscripts to preserve them. Without putting too fine a point on it, according to twelfth century monk Conrad of Hirsau, Ovid knew God, he just didn’t serve him.

Included in the margins of the recopied texts were moralizations, or notes on how the work should be interpreted by Christians. (Not unlike, as it happens, notes on Medium.) One anonymous monk, commenting on the myth of Daphne and Apollo, interjects into the myth a prayer for Daphne’s safety. He implores God, the Christian God, to preserve her through the power of the water she flees to. The monk quotes the Apostle Peter:

in the same manner, baptism, being of the like form, now also saves you; not the taking away of dirt on the flesh, but the thorough investigation of a good conscience toward God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What Peter is comparing baptism to is the ark of Noah, which preserved eight people and the assembled animal kingdom through the flood of the whole earth. Peter, who fell into water, who watched God enter the water, too, would not have missed the significance of his observation: whereas before what saved humans was preservation from the natural chaos, from the depths of death, now, through Jesus, chaos and death were entered into, defeated, and emerged from.

The monk, knowing this, prays to the God who entered the water to intervene for Daphne, to produce out of the chaos and death the means to preserve her order and life. Apollo is no match, just as the gods of Babylon, against the God who ordered the waters, enters the waters, and brings forth rescue from them.

The monk does not provide us with the fiery, rightly indignant response we would wish concerning Daphne’s transformation. We would wish him to long for her preservation, her salvation, to come in the form of her remaining fully herself, not an immobile, rooted tree the god of light still plucks for his crown. But the monk does offer us some consolation in his closing moralization, in which he observes the clipping of the laurel about Apollo’s crown is not so unlike the cross. What Rome thought proved supremacy, power, and an end to the menacing of Jesus of Nazareth became the sign of his followers who proclaimed a kingdom that could not be killed, conquered, or destroyed.

Whether by the hand of the god of the water or the God of the waters, the laurel remains a sign of protest: those who pass into the chaos, into the death, do not emerge the same. They are washed by a power beyond even the strongest of men or the boldest of gods.

V

Precious the raindrop exists, it seems, outside of these concerns.

Precious is the product of suburban pleasantry, a concern we administer abstractly and vaguely. We are worried about water the way we are worried about our coffee habit: there’s something of a problem to it, we suppose, and there’s reason to wonder about it, but we haven’t gotten around to doing anything other than voice awareness.

Of course, this is also thanks to our willingness to compartmentalize. When water is not seen as a source of power, mechanism, life, needed for crops and brick and travel, it’s easier to separate our water and our coffee. (Even if one of the most significant impacts on the global water supply is the production of the sacred bean.)

No, Precious and his smiling children are free of any fears or threats of water, secure in houses that do not leak when it rains and do not flood when the river rises. Precious smiles on, reminding us to love water but telling us little of what that means. Precious is its own sort of protest against the gods of Babylon, What’s the big deal? It taunts. It’s just some water. Look how harmless I am!

The happy soul seems completely removed from the waters of creation, the waters of Gospels, the waters of Ovid. The raindrop asks nothing more of us than our love. Its chaos, its death, its impossibility wants nothing more of us than our love, our smiles, our devotional consideration close to the end of a local daily paper with a plummeting circulation. Yes, there were the floods, but we’ve moved on. Yes, there are the droughts, but they aren’t here where we are.

I wonder about the smiling children circling Precious, inadvertent priests in a polite ritual of human interest journalism. When water becomes the thing we kill for, will Precious have the same smile?

Perhaps we are a cult of Apollos. Perhaps that’s what the precious raindrop is counting on.

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