Water typically symbolizes rebirth and life. It can be cleansing, purifying, and healing. But too much water, as in a flood or being caught off guard by a rising tide, can be deadly. Rough ocean waters can symbolize the uncertainty and drama of life, while a smooth surfaced lake is the symbol of peace and calm. The slow but steady flow of a river can symbolize sleepiness and laziness. Or it can symbolize great power and strength, in that it carves a path through centuries-old rock because, despite its apparent calm, it cannot be stopped from moving forward. The human body is about 60% water, with the lungs being comprised of over 80% water, but take a sip of that same substance and have it go down “the wrong pipe”, and you will quickly learn how even a tiny amount of water can take you out, even if only briefly. You can happily swim for hours in the Pacific Ocean, and you can drown in a 1-inch puddle.
I have had a similar paradoxical relationship with water my whole life. I was born in a small, affluent town on the south shore of Long Island, New York, but I grew up on the north side of town, away from the Great South Bay. Like the appraisal value of the home I grew up in, I felt that the further I got from the water, the less value I had. As a child and into my teen years, I often had stress dreams that involved my town or even just my schoolyard flooding, but to find peace and solace, I would drive to the parking lot down by the small strip of rocky sand you could barely call a beach at that time, and just sit and stare out at the water. I have very mixed emotions about my hometown and my childhood, but sometimes when I feel stressed or I can’t sleep, I close my eyes and think about sitting in my car, listening to The Cure, and watching a thunderstorm over the water, and I find an inner peace that is genuine, if fleeting.
The ebb and flow of tides is a common symbol of life’s “ups and downs” or our joy and pain. I don’t know what I expected life to be when I embarked upon adulthood, but for some reason, I genuinely didn’t expect it to be as hard as it has been. Perhaps that speaks to the tremendous amount of privilege I had growing up, even if I didn’t feel it or know it at the time. I think it certainly speaks to my having been extremely sheltered. I grew up in the 1980’s and early ’90s an hour-and-a-half from Manhattan, but it felt more like the Midwest in the 1950’s, the way my mother raised me. Back then, I attributed her conservativeness to a product of her age, but I know now, with the James Dobson books and the Long Island Catholic Newspaper guiding her every thought and decision that she was just swept up by the ”Moral Majority” like so much of America. It just wasn’t that common amongst my peers, whose parents were college educated and had professional jobs around Long Island and in “The City”.
At some point my flooding stress dreams morphed into dreams where I was being chased or tornado stress dreams. I don’t really have stress dreams anymore, but that’s sort of an unfair analysis since I almost never remember any of my dreams anymore. My once long hours of comfortable sleep full of vivid dreams, stress inducing or not, have given way to on-average six hours of frequently interrupted sleep culminating in an alarm like switch going off in my brain, accompanied by pain in just about every part of my body that says, “despite how exhausted you might feel, you’re awake now!”
I know this all sounds depressing and melancholic, but I’ve actually never been happier in my life than I am right now. The sadness that I feel as I write, and I hope you feel as you read this, is cathartic. It is mourning. It is my love letter to my former self — my homage to the scared, little girl I have always been, but no longer wish to be. It is my memoir, and her eulogy. It is her end and my beginning.