‘At Last, the Ocean’: On the healing properties of being near the water

The following is an excerpt from “At Last, the Ocean,” a piece from essayist Alie Unson’s chapbook of the same name. You can order her chapbook here.

Twice, I’ve made my way back to the ocean. Both times I hadn’t gone with my mother, and it felt strange, to see the water without her wading quietly into the shallows, or lying prone on the sand in yet another failed attempt at tanning. I’d gone with friends instead, those particular friends in which time is rendered non-existent. The four hours of travel always seemed to pass as if in a dream, as if from my driveway I’d find myself suddenly at the foot of a mountain, wading into the water, being blinded by the sun. It was always to Anilao, where there was no sand to speak of, only rocks that made balance difficult, and required you wade in with slippers or diving boots so as not to give yourself a hard time. I never minded though, the water was clear as glass, and from the East the it stretched as far as the eye could see, marked by a little island shaped like a hat – Sombrero Island, I would learn it was called, and it made me laugh. Everything about the sea delighted me.

The first night I lay my eyes on the water, I felt something in me quiet – and yet, I was restless. How to describe the feeling? I lay on the deck and felt the sea breeze raise goosebumps on my skin, watched the starlight glint off the silver fishes that would jump, unbidden, out of the water. I thought: something is always far away. Here it was again, that yearning for constancy. My friends were sprawled around me, chatting, and I wanted to tell them about my heart, how it was grasping for something tender to hold on to. But instead, I was silent. Later I would realize it was because I knew then that leaving was inevitable, that the water could never be mine.

The second time I visited I thought I would feel less wonder – isn’t that the way it goes? The more you get of something, the more likely you are to tire of it. But I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. One night, drinking out on the deck with two men from Thailand, I had been asking one of them – a master diver – if he had ever felt afraid while diving. He had been wanting to take a picture of the world’s most poisonous octopus, one touch would render an instant and inevitable death, and I had been perplexed. Aren’t you afraid? I asked and he smiled and shook his head, as if my query were ridiculous. Here is earth, he said, and below is heaven. He wouldn’t want to die any other way than in the water.

On the road home afterwards, I dreamt that the world had flooded – I walked out of my house and into an ocean, and the water stretched out for miles and miles and miles. There is a rowboat, in my dream, and I climb into it and row until my shoulders are sore, until the weight of them are too much for my arms to bear, and I drop them. I don’t bother to catch them, only watch as they sink into the water, out of sight. But there, I’m not afraid – instead I lie back and feel the sunlight warm on my face, listen to how the wind ripples the surface of the water. I think of this dream constantly, so much so that it feels more like a memory. All that water. All that infinite blue. I think of love and hear my mother’s laughter. I close my eyes and there it is, at last: the ocean.

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