Shutting it Off: Thoughts by Day and by Night

KayakingHere’s how you shut it off.

You leave town with your husband. You rent a place that has kayaks.  You concentrate on figuring out how to pull yours through the sand to the lapping ocean, then on how to get into the plastic shell.  Then you row, or paddle, or whatever it is that you do with that long stick with scooped spatulas on each end.  You worry about scraping on bits of reef that have washed toward land in a storm, especially when a swell passes by and drops you down. But you find you glide above them. You find that you can go anywhere, and quickly, in this kayak, and that your husband, thank goodness, is willing to follow you around.

The water is choppy, and it is hard to see to the bottom which is only two or three feet below you, but when a rash of spray pops up you realize you are seeing those flying fish, the ones that escape predators, or whatever it is they are doing, by jumping up and making use of the lower drag of the air. Or maybe they are jumping up to be invisible to the predator. You aren’t sure, but you think your brother might know, and you wish he were with you.

You never snorkeled with him, did you?  You talked about his snorkeling and your snorkeling, but it was always apart, but you remember the tidepooling you and he did as kids, all the way up until college. You remember the family vacation in Pacific Grove in which he found an octopus. The rest of your life since then–you decide to settle on a story, since you were eleven and he was twelve, so 1967–you have been looking for octopuses yourself so you can tell Charlie you found one. Well, you did find one a year ago and I bet you never told him, but deep down, you knew once you finally saw it, that was why you were looking.

You don’t want to think about that. About the fact that you forgot to tell him. There used to be all the time in the world, just like the horizon of the ocean that you are looking at now. But you do remember something else. Was it two nuns? Or a nun woman and a nun-analog man? It was two nuns in clunky shoes and habits. You see them know. They came up to both of you on that same vacation.  They asked over the wind and surf–remember that? They asked you, and you went to them because they did not come close enough in those oxford-like shoes wet, they asked you if you wouldn’t both mind standing calf-deep in the water, like that, next to each other while they made a movie of your legs. The waves powered in. You were Eve. You were strong, and with Adam at your side, you were invincible.  The waves pulled back toward the sea, and you stayed there, stable, your feet burrowed in the sand by the pushing and pulling currents.  The nuns thanked you but by then, you and your brother didn’t move. The shining path in front of you held your gaze. You turned to your brother, and he turned to you. You both understood. You had just been created. You felt the way you would feel much later in life when you had been caught in the tundra in a thunderstorm. You had had to lie on your stomach, flat, and the lightning struck around you. When you came back to field camp later that day, sounds were trivial. Voices were trivial.  Your brother and you floated back to the family as if you were walking on a different sand.

You have paddled rather far from shore. Waves are breaking not far away. Your husband tells you to stop paddling, to look down. If you shade the surface just right, you can see that the water is clear. Under a latticework of light, you see bulbous corals and fringed forms over sand. No fish, just light that flits over the sand and the masses.

What do you know about corals? Are these healthy? Healthy, what is healthy. You banish the thought of coral and taxonomy and biology, and you banish the thought of health and you try to see what your eyes see. Your raise your vision to the skin that is the top of the ocean, reflective of blue sky, the skin that holds in the lentil-colored water, the skin that is scalloped like fractured obsidian.

A wind picks up. Your eyes see parallel slicks of shine where the water is fleetingly flat, save for the bubbles that accumulate there. Between slicks the water is rough. Rough and dull as rattlesnake skin, as a scab on a skinned knee, as the tape on your bike handlebars where you crashed. Do you remember that crash? You and your brother were riding down Page Mill, near the bottom, pretty fast where it almost flattened out. It was just about where Mr. Molinari squatted, the man with one arm and one leg who was always joyful and drank jugs of wine.  Your brother said, “Look,” at the same time as you saw it:  a cat with a kitten in its mouth, picking its way through the shadows toward Mr. Molinari’s shack. Or was it a trailer.

Shack or trailer, you do not need to know which. You could ask your brother. Your second thought is, “Banish that thought.”

Then you both collapsed. When you saw the cats, you swerved into your brother. Your handlebars tangled. You both fell.  You are on your sides. There are handlebars and peddles and rods that have jabbed you and asphalt. You are both on the road, as one stinging piece and you are on a blind turn. The wind that had been in your ears is silent. You scoot off the road as one mass, untangle yourselves, take inventory.  Nothing is bent, and in shorts, no clothing is ripped. You both drip a little blood from contact points, and you drip some of that clear stuff you called serum, you were never sure where it came from. You continued with your ride.

Now you paddle in the chop, harder, harder, the way you and your brother used to ride or run or hike or whatever you did. You are placing the paddle and pulling and placing the other side of the paddle and pulling and on and on.  You have no goal in mind because you have banished your thoughts.

You are not thinking about Charlie’s illness or life after Charlie is gone, because that is not what you are thinking about now.

You are not thinking about the types of things you used to think about to banish thoughts–work, species names, interactions of species, how systems work. You are not thinking about the fact that the water is mostly just moving up and down in a coordinated way that looks like waves.  You are not thinking about physics and biology because that is not what you are thinking about now.

You are not thinking of that film of you and your brother, wondering if it exists somewhere, if it became a religious blockbuster or if it was for a Sunday school class. That film, if it exists, that actual physical film–you are not thinking about that, or about your bike or your brother’s.

You are looking at lentil colored obsidian that turns to rattlesnake skin with grinning crescents of blue sky and points of diamond light. The wind blows. Your torso rotates and you pull. The kayak slides over waves and swells. Your husband is somewhere nearby.

Your thoughts slip though, and you must force them not to. You try to sense the wind on your skin, to experience the confines of the plastic kayak on your bottom, on the soles of your feet. You try to inhale the smell the brine. You try to note the sounds of lapping water, plunging paddles, and breakers out beyond. You force your senses to see that water, sense that wind, smell that brine, hear that roar because if you are busy enough in your mind’s eye and your mind’s ear and your mind’s nose and your mind’s pressure sensors, then your mind is too busy to have thoughts you do not want to have.  You have not banished your thoughts but you have supplanted the space in your conscience where they would have been.

The thoughts are too hard. You cannot handle them.

At some time it is inevitable, though, that you will return to shore, if not because you want to, then because your husband, quite reasonably, asks you to go back in.  You will have to figure out how to get out of the kayak. You will step into the water. You will remember that time that you and your brother were the models for creation. Every turn, every lap of the waves, every sense, everything, is a chance to be your brother’s sister again. Scraped bodies, serum and blood. Waves pushing. Running or riding as hard as we can.

By day, I can supplant the thoughts, but by night I cannot

It is in the night that I am battered by my grief.

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