it’s as if someone’s set a buzzer that must go off at asynchronous times–could be twilight, could be the middle of the afternoon, could be on the verge of thunderclap, or the first dappled stitches of starlight–and deep inside me there is some cord that must be yanked. suddenly, i am turning toward the east, propelled to the water’s edge by wagon, bike, or soles. it’s the vast, vast ever-shifting canvas, where lake and sky, earth and heaven, never cease their stagings.
in these weeks and months when what’s bottled up inside–the worldly angst, the brokenness in all its iterations–when all of that feels so compressed, so hungry for release, relief, it’s the expanse, the i-can’t-reach-the-end-of-it of heaven’s vault that offers ablution. that rinses out the muck. and fills me once again with hope, with depth, with the unshakable sense that i am held in the very palm of God. and all that worries me, weighs me down, is drained away.
there’s the play of color, a color wheel of endless turning, from indigo to amethyst, cerulean to aubergine, and at the dawn and dusk, who’s ever behind the curtain hauls out the rosy tray, where the sky ignites in shades of flame. there’s light and shadow, too. the sky roils in charcoaled turbulence, storm churning in the distance. the sun illuminates the lacy edges of a cloud. sun and clouds and sky in eternal choreography, not one scene ever plays on rerun.
it is, by definition, an anointed place, a most holy place. a place where the nearness of God, the encircling of that infinite tenderness, pours out from some unseen vessel. holy unction, indeed.
when i was all of eight, in Mrs. Bishop’s third-grade religion class, learning all the things that make a catholic catholic, i always tripped over the one of the seven sacraments they called extreme unction. it sounded downright scary. i knew that oil was involved. i couldn’t tell you if it was safflower or olive, but it was oil, and it was poured on you in the hour of your direst need. at the cusp of dying, among other times. getting blessed with water was an everyday matter (to this day i lurch toward any holy water basin, splash fitfully and let it rain sloppily down on me), but getting blessed with oil was like calling in the light brigade. it was reserved for Serious Stuff. in my third-grade vernacular that probably meant whatever was worse than falling off your bike, or getting pushed down on the playground, when Mrs. Dolder the school nurse, pulled out that stinging bottle of mercurochrome, its iron bitterness running down your leg.
turns out, oil’s claim to holiness is an ancient one. it’s there in the early pages of the bible, not long after genesis. thought to be the medium through which God’s blessings are conveyed. it’s what makes a king a king, apparently. (well, that and a crown.) jews and egyptians reached for olive oil (poured from a ram’s horn). butter is the anointment of choice in hindu blessings. a newly built house is smeared with it, so too are those thought to be possessed by demonic forces. indigenous australians believed that if they smeared themselves with the intestinal fat of a dead person they would absorb that person’s virtues. (i’ll pass, thank you.) arabs of east africa rubbed themselves with lion’s fat to muster courage. and in greek mythology, the sea nymph thetis anointed her mortal child achilles with ambrosia to make him immortal. (another telling of the myth has thetis dipping achilles in the waters of the river styx, but she failed to dip the heel by which she held him. and we all know what happened to achilles’ heel).
lest i get too far sidetracked by the oily substance of anointments, let us leap back to a consideration of a place that’s anointed, even if not a slick. a place the celts would call a thin place. where the opening to heaven is so thin as to be not there. in other words, it’s where you go when you need to fall into the arms of God, or whomever you think is out there trying to hold us together.
walking along the water’s edge, dodging the tickle of the still-warm undulations, dodging the squawky gulls, it’s all but impossible not to be swept into the game of it, the deep-down child’s joy of it. nearly every time, i hear the sound of someone out-loud laughing; i look around and figure out the sound is me, it’s coming from my bellows. be it a brisk constitutional or a lazy jaunt, those sands, those waves, that sky, soak up what ails me every time.
i’ve not always been a shore girl. more often i’ve found myself tucked inside grassy coves, leaning against the rough bark of oak or cottonwood, or plopped on a log deep in the woods. i’m one for making myself all but hidden, a tiny dot, in the all-engulfing canvas of the never-ending curve of globe. but there is a singular prescriptive that comes where water plays, and where the sky can’t keep from turning. it’s a wide-out-in-the-open sort of place.
it’s cast a holy spell on me. and i’ve no intention of rubbing it away.
what’s your anointed place?
and should the woods be on your anointed list, i share this meditative walk in the woods from my wonderful friends at orion magazine. (it’s a 20-minute enchantment, sung by the Crossing Choir of philadelphia, sure to lift you to some ethereal plane.) it’s described thusly:
IN THE DEPTHS of the pandemic, when choral groups could not safely gather to sing indoors, The Crossing Choir of Philadelphia took their singing outdoors, into parks and open-air venues. Last October, they premiered a work entitled “The Forest” in Bowman’s Hill, a stand of mature trees, many over 200 years old, in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mt. Airy.
During the performance, the singers, unmasked, stood far apart among the trees, their voices amplified by specially-designed speakers, while audience members walked at safely-distanced intervals along a thousand-foot path through the forest.
Beautiful, just beautiful, your description of water’s edge… I can picture all of it, and you there, drinking it in… I’m so glad to know that you are finding rest and refreshment along the lakeshore. I’m with you in spirit, there in your anointed place… xoxo
ahh, thank you, dear Amy. i know you’ve your own anointed places: the river bank of the mighty mississippi (a word i will always spell in skip-rope rhythm), the meadow, your ancient untouched virgin prairie……your woods, wherever you dwell with your stitchery…..
“a place the celts would call a thin place. where the opening to heaven is so thin as to be not there. in other words, it’s where you go when you need to fall into the arms of God, or whoever you think is out there trying to hold us together.” – Lovely.
thank you, dear P.
First, I’m so happy to find that you are back to the chair! I’ve missed you, but I do know that rejuvenation is required.
I, too, like to be at the water’s edge. The tide seems to take away the negativity of the world and bring forth renewal and hope. The constant movement of the water cleanses my brain and brings me peace! Unfortunately, I’m far from any shoreline, but I do get to those happy places whenever I can. It’s good that you found a place to bring you extra peace.
i never realized, when we found this old house, quite how much the rhythms and rumblings of that lake would speak to me. i get tingles every time i step out the backdoor and hear its not-so-distant roar…..
When I was 19, I got transferred to California. I worked in San Francisco, and lived just south on the coast in Pacifica. It was almost always foggy, being at the base of the foothills. But on sunny days it was as spectacular a place to live as I could imagine, coming from the Midwest. There were stairs down the cliff to the beach. It was too cold and too rough to swim, but I would walk along, my tears absorbed by the sand. There is nothing like being by the water. Your photo is lovely. My soul says, ahhhhhhhh.
those tears — i didn’t miss their presence there — punctuate so very many layers of history. to the sea they would have been so welcomed, sea waters returning to the sea…..
your adventurousness at 19 awes me. i was merely pedaling to stay alive back then, and you’d already crisscrossed the country.
sending love, dear dear dear beautiful blessed seawater-splattered friend….
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” So wrote one of my literary heroes, Loren Eisley. You put me to shame, bam! I live within a five-minute walk of the lake, yet I haven’t been a regular for more than two decades, since my last walkable dog. (A rescued attack-dog-trained akita who outweighed me put an end to that). But at work I was still surrounded by water and the magical creatures who inhabit it. That’s over, and this is one more push to get out of the house and walk to the sustaining, restorative lake. Thank you! And so happy to read your meanderings again!
and dear karen, i am forever grateful to you for urging me to pick up dear loren eisley. my copy of The Star Thrower now deeply inked. i quote him with gusto in my next book, the one about the Book of Nature.
i admit to also being slow and too infrequent to the shoreline. it took my teddy working there this summer, and watching him fall in love with sky and water, watching its effect on a 19/20-year-old. that and my frequent trips down there to bring him lunch or dinner when he worked long shifts, it worked its magic on me, and now is a pull i can’t stop.
if i walk south from my beach, and you walk north on yours, we could meet somewhere in the middle……i can’t wait for the season to get deeper into autumn, when the beach will be even more sparsely populated. sweaters and barefeet in the tickling tide, a blessed combination. see you there. xoxox