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I Must Go Down to the Sea Again

by Deborah Streeter

“I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide, is a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied.” That’s the call, from John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever,” that I try to follow as a longtime ocean volunteer and an ordained minister on behalf of ocean conservation.

I already write a short weekly devotional piece, “Blue Theology Tide-ings,” linking ocean and spirituality. In this new column I will try longer ocean essays, with more detailed science as well as personal reflections.

Having achieved ocean literacy (hah!) my next series in this marine column could be called “They Had to Go Down to the Sea Again…”  I’ll look at various people through history who have loved the sea, studied it, aided it, spent lots of time in and on it – ocean people.  I’ll start with a portrait I did a few years ago, on Veterans Day, of Jacques Cousteau, ocean explorer and, surprisingly to me, war hero.

 

Tuesday
Dec052017

“If Life Gets Too Hard, There’s Always the Ocean”

US and UK army vets, wounded physically and mentally on the dry, sandy battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have found deep healing by getting wet, specifically surfing. This week’s “Ocean People” are the wet healers and healed.

Returning veterans, one third of whom suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, are finding healing on a surfboard.  In a recent article in Psychology Today, “Surf Therapy and Being in the Ocean Can Alleviate PTSD,”  surfer and filmmaker Josh Izenberg talks about his new film “Resurface” (available on Netflix) and how various organizations (Operation Surf, Amazing Surf Adventures, Warrior Surf and others) are using surfing and the healing power of the ocean to bring some relief to wounded warriors.

I first learned about these projects from the book Blue Mind by Wallace J Nichols, a celebration of “your brain on water.”  He recounts the many studies from neuroscience, psychology and sociology about how living near the ocean, spending time in any kind of water, and just painting your room blue not only improves happiness, creativity and reduces stress, but actually can heal. Nichols has listed all the peer reviewed research studies, therapy programs and medical endorsers in a project called “Blue Mind Rx.” 

One example is a program called Warrior Surf, started by a veteran who was having a lot of trouble coming back from Iraq and learning to live again.  He had been a surfer and he found when he went back to the sea, he could calm down, trust, breath.  His therapist had already suggested a support group with other vets, and when he told his group about surfing they wanted to do it too.  They found surfing teachers who were vets and could understand their challenges.  Soon their families wanted to join in.  A new healing community was born.

One vet in the film, double amputee Bobby Lane, says, “When I came back from Iraq, I started drinking a lot to help me with those issues, memories, pain.  Then I was just drinking to get to sleep but sometimes you don’t want to close your eyes.  After that first wave I have such an overwhelming respect for the ocean, it is so gentle and so fierce.  When I caught that wave, I felt like a part of me died and I felt like I was reborn.  Now I see it, if life gets too hard, there’s always the ocean.”

Filmmaker Izenburg says there are at least five reasons why surfing heals trauma and stress. I’ll just quote from the Psychology Today article:

“First, the ocean itself has the cathartic ability to wash away negative emotions by putting them in a context of something much bigger and more powerful than someone's individual life existence.

“The second reason was that learning to surf puts you in the flow channel where you get into "the zone." When you're in the zone, the stress or trauma of your daily life seems to dissolve.

“The third reason Josh gave for the power of surfing to alleviate symptoms of PTSD is that surfing requires a singularity of focus that literally takes your mind off everything else going on in your life. Surfing forces you to focus on the task at hand and stay in the present tense.

“Fourthly, the adrenaline rush of surfing can recreate the novelty that many veterans may have grown accustomed to in combat but gets squelched by the ho-hum aspects of daily civilian life.

“Lastly, the physical exertion from a day of surfing is exhausting and literally wipes you out so that you sleep better at night. Insomnia is one of the most insidious aspects of PTSD. Surfing is an excellent drug-free sleep aid.”

I am neither a vet nor a surfer, but I am moved by these accounts and ideas. With humility and deep respect for the sacrifices vets make to their bodies and soul, I offer a few reflections:

  • Surfing and combat seem extremely different and strangely similar. Surely there is nothing farther from macho destroy the enemy combat than the groovy “play hooky” life style of the surfer. But both pit one small person against a massive force.
  • And while both start with one soldier or surfer facing danger alone, quickly evolves a “band of brothers/sisters” culture, where they rely on each other, teach each other, support each other, risk to rescue each other. Both lifestyles demand long periods of waiting in solitude, pierced by dramatic and dangerous rushes.
  • Surfers and soldiers I have known seem to prefer the company of others like them; they have a shared language and project a sense of being outsiders. We know how hard it is for returning vets to readjust to civilian life, but I’ve gotten the same vibe from surfers, like the ones I’ve met in the ocean conservation world. They will clean up and play the role of citizen activist with all their heart, but they’d much rather be out on the water.
  • Soldiers and surfers also project an image of being tough guys and gals, but they are so very vulnerable on battlefield or ocean. In these comparisons I intend no disrespect to the danger or nobility of military service. I simply stand in awe at the healing power of the ocean. In my own much easier life, I too benefit from that Blue Ocean Rx. When life gets hard, there’s always the ocean.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter

Tuesday
Nov282017

Sandcastle Theologian

This week’s “Ocean Person” is Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, a man I think of as urban and urbane.  Turns out he was a beach rat!

Paul Tillich built sandcastles all his life.  First on the sands of the Baltic Sea as a child and as an adult.  Then in the US, from his 40’s long into retirement, on the Atlantic beaches at his beloved home on the eastern tip of Long Island. 

I have always pictured Tillich as a man of cities, this profound Protestant theologian.  He taught in urban, industrial Berlin, Dresden, and Frankfort until the Nazis forced him to flee Germany.  In 1933 the faculty of Union Theological Seminary all agreed to take a cut in pay to fund Tillich’s escape and new life in the bustle and business of New York City, where he lived the rest of his life.

But Tillich credited time spent on the coast and by the sea with inspiring many of his radical new ideas and new language of theology. 

In his late career reflection On the Boundaries: An Autobiographical Sketch, he frames his whole life as a series of paradoxes, boundaries he straddled, one of which is “The Boundary of City and Country.”  He writes:

“The weeks and later months that I spent by the sea every year from the time I was eight were even more important [than his family background] for my life and work.  The experience of the infinite bordering on the finite suited my inclination toward the boundary situation and supplied my imagination with a symbol that gave substance to my emotions and creativity to my thought.  Without this experience it is likely that my theory of the human boundary situation, as expressed in Religious Work, might not have developed as it did.

“There is another development to be found in the contemplation of the sea; its dynamic assault on the serene firmness of the land and the ecstasy of its gales and waves.  My theory of the “dynamic mass” in the essay “Mass and Spirit” was conceived under the immediate influence of the turbulent sea.  The sea also supplied the imaginative element necessary for the doctrines of the Absolute as both ground and abyss of dynamic truth, and of the substance of religion as the thrust of the eternal into finitude. 

"Nietzsche said that no idea can be true unless it was thought in the open air.  Many of my ideas were conceived in the open and much of my writing done among trees or by the sea.  Alternating regularly between the elements of town and country always has been and still is part of what I consider indispensable and inviolable in my life.”

Tillich can be a bit dense and abstract.  Let me unpack the above quotation for its “marine theology.” 

  • Coast and ocean give Tillich an imaginative symbol for the human experience of “the infinite bordering on the finite” and of religion as “the thrust of the eternal into finitude.” Ocean is the eternal, the infinite, while we land mammals, are dependent on the land, the finite, but drawn to the depths, to the infinite.  We are boundary, coastal people, longing for the infinite. 
  • The infinite he also calls “the depths” and “the abyss” (which in Greek means ocean depths) and writes in a sermon, “The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth is God.  That depth is what the word God means.”
  • Tillich likes the word “dynamic” – the dynamics of faith, and here, “the dynamic, ecstatic ocean” and “the Absolute (God) as ground and abyss of dynamic truth.”
  • True ideas come from the open air, and open sea.  Tillich loved cities, but he had studied German Romanticism, that we experience God in nature.  In several sermons he condemns our utilitarian view of nature and how we must hear nature itself longing and crying for salvation.

But Tillich not only thought “deep” thoughts at the sea.  He played there.  I’m reading a biography of Tillich in which this grainy snapshot of a Long Island Tillich sand castle appears.  There are also all kinds of stories about his extensive travels, long walks, mountain climbing, and rambles by the sea. 

And there is this beach story about Tillich that Frederick Buechner relates.

“They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

“The beauty and power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows?

“In his theology Tillich avoided using the word God because it seemed to him too small, denoting only another being among beings. He preferred to speak instead of the Ground of Being, of God as that which makes being itself possible, as that because of which existence itself exists. His critics complain that he is being too metaphysical. They say they can't imagine praying to anything so abstract and remote.

“Maybe Tillich himself shared their difficulty. Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”

Why is it so sweet to picture Tillich doing the childlike playful act of making a sand castle?  Why are we surprised to hear of him sitting on a pile of sand and weeping?  Maybe because we believe the stereotype of German sternness or that theologians repress their feelings?  Do we assume that academics stay inside all day?  Can one have such “deep” profound ideas and then spend hours building something that the tide will destroy?  

This ocean person is simply grateful that Tillich followed his countryman Nietzsche’s idea that true ideas must be thought in the open air.  I was unable to finish this essay until I took a walk after the rain.  Thanks, Paul.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter

Tuesday
Nov142017

Cabin Boy to Poet Laureate

I’m not the only one that likes John Masefield’s 1900 poem “Ship Fever.”  In 2005 it was voted  Britain’s “Favourite Sea Poem” (beating out Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”)   Masefield’s words gave this column its title and they echo for me the wild and clear call I too hear from the sea.  “I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.”  How did John Masefield, this week’s “Ocean Person,” come to hear this call?

For most of John Masefield’s (1878-1967) adult life he was a well-known international writer and lecturer, and for over 35 years he was Britain’s Poet Laureate (he was the surprising choice in 1930 over Rudyard Kipling.) 

But his youth and young adult years read like something out of a Dickens novel.  Orphaned at age 10 after his mother died in childbirth and his father had a mental breakdown, he was shuttled from relative to relative, sent to sea at age 13 against his will by an impatient aunt, suffered years of seasickness, sunstroke, and loneliness, until he finally jumped ship in New York at age 19.  More years of hard work and poverty until he published his first collection of poetry, Salt-Water Ballads, including “Ship Fever” at age 22.  He quickly rose in the art and literary world, wrote poems and novels, lectured widely in the UK and US, promoted public readings and received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale and Oxford.

Being sent to sea was not that uncommon a fate for boys of the 18th and 19th century British Empire.  Growing trade/imperialism and naval war/imperialism demanded more sailors, so a comprehensive system of apprenticing, indenturing and training boys from as young as ten into sailors was established across Britain.  Some boys ran away to sea, others like Masefield were sent/sold by families (in one year, of the 4500 new boy sailors, half were fatherless.)  A whole new field of scholarship about these “boy sailors” describes the promised adventure, travel, and fortune, and the reality of danger, forced indenture and sense of “otherness,” without a home or family or nation.  Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins and Gilbert and Sullivan popularized a happier version of the life of the cabin boy.

Two stories of Masefield’s youth fit this pattern, and seem particularly Dickensian, how a poor boy’s love of words and stories and learning helped him overcome considerable challenges -  poverty, class, isolation.  In a sense, the sea was Masefield’s savior.  Despite how hard his six years at sea were, with sickness, military hierarchy, loneliness, he also experienced there new worlds, possibility, beauty, surprise, sailors and their stories, enough for a lifetime of poetry and novels.

The thirteen year old orphaned John was living with his reluctant aunt, who probably expected him to do his share of work around the place.  But, as Masefield told it, he was “addicted to reading,” which his aunt “thought little of.” Her idea was that a life at sea would break him of this dubious habit and she left him off at the naval training ship, the HMS Conway.  After three years there he was sent around the world on a merchant ship.  Surprisingly he found that ship life only fueled his “addiction,” that there was ample time for reading and writing, and many long nights hearing sailor stories and yarns.  What his aunt had thought would force him to stop doing he did even more and better.

But after six years he despaired of this life and jumped ship in New York.  This bustling city was probably more of a shock than the move from rural Britain to an international merchant ship.  He struggled to find work and slept on the street.  He worked as a laborer and bar keep.  Finally he got a steady job in a carpet factory in Yonkers.  Long hours and tough conditions, but a steady income meant he could buy as many as 20 books a week, and he devoured works by Dumas, Thomas Browne, Hazlitt, Dickens, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Chaucer, Keats, and Shelley.  (One wonders if he saw his own life in Dickens and Stevenson.)  He recalled later that this reading “set my heart on fire” and he vowed to devote his life to writing.  He finally returned to England, published his first poetry collection, and embarked on his literary career.

Here’s another of his poems, no doubt from a tale he heard at sea. Masefield’s ashes were placed at his request in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Sea Change

"Goneys an' gullies an' all o' the birds o' the sea They ain't no birds, not really", said Billy the Dane.

"Not mollies, nor gullies, nor goneys at all", said he, "But simply the sperrits of mariners livin' again.

"Them birds goin' fishin' is nothin' but the souls o' the drowned, Souls o' the drowned, an' the kicked as are never no more An' that there haughty old albatross cruisin' around, Belike he's Admiral Nelson or Admiral Noah.

"An' merry's the life they are living. They settle and dip, They fishes, they never stands watches, they waggle their wings; When a ship comes by, they fly to look at the ship To see how the nowaday mariners manages things.

"When freezing aloft in a snorter I tell you I wish -- (Though maybe it ain't like a Christian) -- I wish I could be A haughty old copper-bound albatross dipping for fish And coming the proud over all o' the birds o' the sea."

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter

Tuesday
Nov072017

Monterey Pirates

Are pirates villainous rogues or romantic heroes, desperate drunks or subversive guerrillas?  One thing is for sure, they are good sailors.  Not only do they conquer the high seas, but they conquer other ships on those same high seas, not to mention avoiding Davy’s Locker.  So they definitely qualify to be included in my series on “Ocean People.”

I saw pirates walking down the street in Monterey last week. Two different days and places.

Not unexpectedly I saw lots of small eye-patched pirates on Halloween night, heard many “Aarghs” and “Avasts,” saw little boys and girls bask in a night of being just a little bad.

Then I saw a whole band of pirates, grown-ups, at the Presidio Historic Park, doing their annual reenactment of the 1818 “Burning of Monterey,” when 200 pirates sailed into Monterey Harbor and attacked the Spanish fort, the only time a hostile foreign force has landed on the west coast of the US.  Led by French/Argentinian Hippolyte Bouchard, the pirate band forced the then Spanish governor to retreat and hundreds of residents of Monterey to flee on foot to Salinas, while the pirates looted and guzzled at the fort for a week, then set fire to the town, and sailed off for their next adventure in Santa Barbara.

These big modern pirates reenacting an invasion, an annual event which next year will be the bicentennial, were having as much fun as the trick or treaters, although they tried to keep the smiles off their faces, and used not fake swords but real cannons to make their case.

And while I know that historic pirates and current pirates, like the Somalis in the Indian Ocean, are violent and lawless, I found my heart aflutter at both the little and big pirates I saw.  Maybe it’s a small Johnny Depp crush, but I find something appealing about swashbucklers.

Maybe it’s their rebelliousness; I always root for the rebel.  Turns out many of the Atlantic and Caribbean pirates of the 17th/18th centuries were former British sailors who quit the rigid authoritarian navy and set up comparatively more egalitarian and democratic ships, sharing booty (and booze.) Or they were former crew of captured ships, from victim to victimizer. 

Even the Somalis, some argue, are “victims” of a confused and oppressive government that perpetuates poverty and injustice as rich boats sail by. 

Hippolyte Bouchard is likewise portrayed very differently in the Argentinian and Monterey versions of his exploits.  Here in Monterey he is a lawless and violent invader, remembered with just a small sign in the park.  Some locals object to even this simple reenactment; “We should not honor a criminal.”  But in Buenos Aires he is honored on statues, streets, even a postage stamp.  There he is called a freedom fighter and privateer, rather than pirate, who helped bring down the evil Spanish Empire. 

Pirate or privateer?  It’s a subtle difference – depends on whether you have a “letter of marque,” authorization by a state to go pillage and plunder foreign ships.  That’s what Queen Elizabeth I gave Sir Francis Drake, another famous privateer.  The actual high seas hijinx of pirate and privateer are not so different.  It’s simply who gave you permission, the queen or your own greed or initiative or desire revenge.  (Drake also landed in California, but burned no towns.  I wonder if we would tell the story differently if he hadn’t been English?)

Bouchard was authorized in 1815 by the newly independent Argentina to destabilize other Spanish colonies; as Argentina was now free from Spanish oppression they sought to bring other colonies to freedom.  And destabilize he did; the Monterey “raid,” or “liberation” was near the end of a round the world trip where he “destabilized” from Manila to Peru.  He returned to Buenos Aires for a hero’s welcome.  He was not the only one sowing seeds of rebellion.  Mexico, of which California was then a part, was already fighting against Spain, and in 1821 was granted independence and California became part of Mexico.

Bouchard had briefly raised the Argentinian flag over the Monterey Presidio, but three years later we too were free from Spain.  The Mexican flag flew at the Monterey Presidio for 28 years, until 1849 when the US flag was first raised.

I doubt the young Halloween pirates knew they walked the same Monterey streets as Bouchard and his band.   I hope they don’t grow up to be rapists and pillagers.  But a little rebellious spirit in youth and a little loyal opposition in adults is good for any country.  Avast, ye mateys!

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter

Wednesday
Oct252017

The Big Sur Monks

Our series on Ocean People turns to the monks of the New Camaldoli Monastery on the Big Sur Coast.  For 60 years a small community of religious men in the Benedictine tradition have perched and prayed in a remote cliffside complex overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  They devote themselves to a life of worship and contemplation, practicing a ministry of hospitality by welcoming retreatants, and raising money by selling their killer fruitcake.

Anyone who follows an intense spiritual disciple pays more attention to their interior landscape than the exterior; their devotion is to God not their natural surroundings.  But it’s hard to ignore the ocean from that cliff, and the monks have developed a special relationship to their ocean habitat.

I first got to know the monks of the New Camaldoli Monastery on the Big Sur Coast 15 years ago when a small group of us coast activists came together to challenge the US military.  At our first meeting the monks’ clean long white robes stood in sharp contrast to the dress of us Big Sur aging hippies.  But we shared the same concerns.

The US Navy had, without public notice, started flying bomber jets on daily test runs, very low and loud, from military base Ft. Hunter Ligget, inland neighbor of the monastery, along the coast and out over the ocean.  Not only were these flights a shocking intrusion into the peace of the monks and their many retreatants, but it was crazy to see one federal agency, the Navy, wreaking havoc on the long hard work of another federal program, US Fish and Wildlife’s decades long program, in that same Big Sur wilderness, to bring the giant California condor bird back from the brink of extinction.  Biologists were tiptoeing around nests while jets screamed above.

Talk about David and Goliath.  But we started holding rallies and attending many meetings, and generously the monks left their monastery to join in.  It took months, but we were ultimately successful in stopping the Navy’s flights, with the help of our Member of Congress Sam Farr.  I can only assume that the presence of those peaceful and persistent white robed monks had a huge influence on the various government bureaucrats. 

Later I met the monks again at another meeting.  These monks don’t just spend all day in contemplation, even though their great website is www.contemplation.com.   Like all religious leaders, they have to go to a lot of meetings.  This meeting was the Four Winds Council, a remarkable cooperative effort of four spiritually based groups who all offer hospitality in Big Sur’s vast Ventana Wilderness: The Esalen Institute, the Monastery the Essalen Nation of native people (which offers guided trips into the wilderness), and Tassajara Zen Center.  They each draw from different spiritual traditions, but they come together four times a year to share times of spiritual renewal; they had just been in a sweat lodge together.  They also share challenges; that day it was plumbing problems.  I was invited to share with them my Blue Theology ministry of ocean stewardship, and they enthusiastically endorsed it.

I have also spent explicitly “spiritual” time with the monks.  I love worshipping with them at their noon sung mass in the splendid chapel.  (I did that recently on a business trip down the coast, carefully timing the trip with a stop there.)  Some years ago I spent a restorative three days in their remote hermitage in solitary silent retreat.  My spirit is fed just visiting the great bookstore and taking in the view 1300 feet above the rugged coast.

But I also say a prayer of gratitude to them every day that our coast is silent from fighter jets and when I hear of more condor babies bringing this majestic bird back from extinction. That’s the monks’ ministry as well.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter