Judith Walcutt contemplates cycles and serendipity in ‘Minding the Sky’

Posted in Blogs, Literary

JUDITH WALCUTT, Dec. 21, 2012 

“Ontology: A Poem is a Message in a Bottle”

As a writer and a Buddhist, I have been thinking about turning 60 since last February, when the Tibetan Year of the Water Dragon rolled onto our shores and with it, those of us who were born in 1952, arrived back at the same astrological configurations as in our birth year.
When it began, the Water Dragon caused a huge energetic change for me almost immediately. I felt as though the obstacle course I have traversed for the past number of years was shifting tectonic plates under my feet.  At long last, I understood: there is no time to lose. Every moment of this precious life is gold and escalates in value as the days run away like rabbits into the bush. Now feels like no other time to get on with it—finally become that which I have been becoming for sixty years.  In short: seize the day or carpe diem as my friend, Jim Riley, the Latin scholar would say.

As the year ticks its precious seconds away toward its end in February of 2013 when the Year of the Water Snake slides into place, I feel compelled to consider with care the scope of my work from here on out.   Whatever it is I will have to show for myself at the end this lifetime, I am sure of one thing now: this year will be a defining one for me.
On my actual birthday, I was floating on my back in an aquamarine sea, after four of the most focused days of my artistic life, working on a play with which I’ve been enthralled creatively since 2009.  Drifting about that particular sea of a sparkling, pale blue-green, letting the currents carry me along freely like a heap of sea weed, watching clouds amass and then disperse like so many passing thoughts, and feeling myself lifted up and toward the sky by the salty brine of the Gulf of Mexico, I remembered a poem I had written some years back, while mentoring creative writing in my youngest son’s fifth grade class.
The assignment I gave us all that day was to imagine ourselves as some part of the natural world — an element we felt ourselves akin to — and write something from that point of view. Some writers became rocks, some became the forest floor, some became hard ice or light snow, and one, I remember, became a long, soft, grey day of rain.
As for me, I became my most essential watery self and wrote a poem with the surprising and perhaps slightly imposing title, “Ontology, the Sea, and Me” which, in fairly simple words, defines me utterly and haunts every swim I take, in every natural body of water I enter.
Floating as I was that day on my 60th birthday, like a clump of feathery algae tangled on a log of weathered driftwood, the poem’s refrain came to me again, while I was pulled out past the second row of breakers following a siren’s nursery song in the roar and swirl of waves and riptide:
I am the sky,
I am the sea,
I am the waves of washing waters, washing  me—
So simple, so true, so ontologically correct for the nature of my being.
Ah yes —“Ontology.” Back to that — it is one of those words we hear from time to time.  It is very important sounding, intellectually imposing, on the tips of tongues among philosophers and post-modern critics —a complex word with etymological parts: “ont” is Greek for being and “logy” means “the study of.”  Ontologically speaking, the word’s definition, “the study of the nature of being,” defies definition.
It’s a mystery — which is why it came to me, caught up in the sea as I was, considering what it means to me — being in the water while being of  the water — a defining moment in absorbing the essence of this human life. The fluidity of it, the changing landscape we meet and part with, meet and part with, moment by moment, day by day, different each day, each time the tide comes in and the tide goes out — this changing nature of all reality, compounded and mirrored by the changing sky, reflected in the face of the water. There is no more essential meaning to grasp than this — we are everything and everywhere at once — the sky, the water, and us.
While I thought all these thoughts that twelfth day of September in the year 2012, having lived to tell the tale after 12 cycles had completed their full journey across the skies contained by our galaxy, arriving back at the beginning again — I drifted about the Gulf of Mexico like so much flotsam, and it was then that this idea solidified for me:  to mark the year’s significance, I would put this essential truth about myself in a bottle — this poem, “Ontology, the Sea and Me,” and set it loose in every salty sea I see this year.
It works for me on so many levels — it’s a perfect metaphor for what I feel about “getting my words out there”— and it’s a very personal way to “publish” my poem — simply give the words up to the whole literal ocean of possibilities as a message in a bottle, to be found or not found, read or not read, by an unknown who will find it, open it, read a poem from another unknown, and make a connection, known only to each other.
I have begun collecting blue bottles for this purpose — pale blue, dark blue, any blue I can find, which will contain my scrolled up words and carry them to distant shores and serendipitous readers.

Blue bottle on beach (500x364)

Message from me in a blue bottle.

The day I tossed the first one into the water, it was a beautiful day, all poster-paint blue and gold like summer, though fall had already kissed the ground.  The poem was printed on speckled, sand-colored paper. I rolled it up tightly, tied it with raffia, and sealed it with wax and duct tape in one of the bottles I had collected for this purpose. With a small band of witnesses, I took it down to the beach in front of the old Dog House Tavern in Langley, off the sea wall below First Street, and walked it out as far as I could into the chilling waters of the Saratoga Passage. Making a wish on it, like a coin in a fountain, I tossed the poem out to sea.

Judith and the bottle (500x367)

I stand in Saratoga Passage in Langley and watch my message in a bottle float out to places unknown.

As it drifted up and out into the currents rather swiftly, I felt the solitude of the words and their meaning, so alone in their fragile blue glass vessel, a piece of my soul set free in waters too cold to swim in.  Would they travel safely somewhere else?  Would they find a reader?  Would someone find that message which is a poem in a bottle and turn its meaning inside out, finding the message that is me?
If you find this poem, you will know it is mine by its earnest intention to survive, to float upon the water come rain or shine, and bring its meaning to the unknown.

Ontology, The Sea, and Me

What draws me to the water,    the beach,    the waves
is the sound of the water
washing the sand,
washing the rocks,  the bits of
shell,    the broken
glass,  Listen–how the waves    

 pull back     and then gasp
aloud in a rumbling crowd–
scrubbing the rough edges down,
reshaping                    sharp    to smooth,
the rough and coarse  to  rounded curves

I am the waves,
I am the sand–
I hold my shape
until the wind blows    and the tides turn
while  I turn,
become a sketch left    behind
by the receding hands of the sea,        etched in the sand
ridges and  lines          where the water was
and then wasn’t–

I am the hands of the sea
And the sky                  is my palette;
I paint the sky              and the sky paints me;
we are             everywhere                  at once,
the sky,            the water,                    and me–

On the beach, I cry
Oh handful of sand,
you are what I am:
I grasp you up in a close-clenched fist
And just like me, just like me
You drop
into nothing,            nothing but the spray of the sea;

I am the sky.
I am the sea,
I am the waves of washing waters, washing me,

wash me with your salty hands,
set me loose into your blue green dream,

tumble me                    like the hard shard of glass
worn away,     worn away
to an opalescent jewel
adorning                      the shoulder of your sand,
the white          and pink          and freckle-speckled sand–

I am the sand,
I am the sea–
I am the sky that lies
upon the washing waters, washing me

See me change,
change with the sky’s wide mind,

Watch me now

become           incandescently              free–


Judith Walcutt is a writer who has lived on Whidbey Island for 25 years. An alum of Hedgebrook, her award-winning work has been heard on National Public Radio and Public Radio International  and has been seen in theatrical venues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Kentucky, Florida, New York, and, of course, Whidbey Island. She can be reached at judithwalcutt@whidbey.com.

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