“Soaked, splattered, stuck together; washed-out, faded, mildewed and bleached by its improbable survival since leaving the poet’s hand .. , these pages are more pattern than writing, more kelp than literature. .. they turn as rags in my hands, their fine laid paper made of pulp and cloth, layered with meaning and unmeaning.”
I flung my iPhone in the river.
It broke the smooth skin of the water with a short splash, shined for one last time in the noon sun and was gone forever. Or so it felt. The phone is still lying there in the deep, I suppose. On the orange riverbed for three years already. Among empty bottles with rolled unread letters. I was freed from my unread e-mails.
I flung my iPhone in the river to get rid of the whole world in my pocket.
I desired to find my own world, not the whole world. I desired to find something else at my fingertips, not the cold skin of the screen and heard a primal scream. To discover the world that is right here, not out there. Grass between my toes.
I had never acted so crudely against nature. What if my iPhone is in the tummy of a giant catfish? I felt like a mess and I made a mess. Not the smartest way to dispose a smart device, I know. Ancient Greeks believed that throwing unwanted things in the sea was an acceptable action. The sea was an ideal place for no return, the water made things disappear. I remember a story of a friend who was once so drunk he couldn’t get over a bridge on a bicycle, so he threw his bike in the river and staggered home on feet. I saw pictures of a drained Seine in Paris. The suddenly exposed riverbed was filled with bicycles like crushed beer cans in a giant trash bin.
I flung an unwanted thing in water for a symbolic salvation. I have no alibi.
Back at home I deleted my Facebook account, three summers before artist Jeremy Deller distributed posters in London and Liverpool of how to do it. I was left face to face with myself and metaphorically felt like moving from a buzzing and sleek metropolis to a lonely village. I had also done it literally. A few years before throwing my phone in the river, I moved with my family from Riga, a capital city of Latvia (Baltic country by the Baltic Sea), to Jurmala – a small seaside resort town, thriving in summers under pine umbrellas. I started to live in a tiny village in the suburbs of Jurmala, in a two minute walk from river Lielupe. I continued to commute by train to work in Riga for a couple of years, until slowly the nature sucked me in like a sponge.
I deleted Facebook and opened a book. How does my world look like? I wondered. Maternity leave became a secret door to leave my job and all I was left with was a tingling sense that I am something else, not an editor-in-chief in a fast spinning world. But who? No idea. I jumped off the train to walk instead. To heal the never-ending, nerve-racking jet lag of my soul. I had started a journey without a map, just a dim compass that I trusted and made steps ahead where there was no ladder anymore.
In a dream I am swimming in the river, and some strange force grabs my legs, I feel like inside a mad whirlpool. I am turning around and around as when you empty a bathtub and a tiny water tornado appears above the unplugged hole. I am in that tornado.
For almost a year I still didn’t know what should I do with my life, but I didn’t force it, not to jump on another train too soon. I was overwhelmed by nature. I sent handwritten letters to friends, cut a finger with paper, licked the blood, licked the glue on the back of the stamps. I was feeding my senses. In my own wonder Walden.
In the garden and meadows and by the woods I watched magpies, ringdoves, crows, blackbirds, jays and wagtails. A pair of swans enchanted me, floating on water mute and crispy white. I spied from a distance on their big, beautiful nest, built between rustling reeds. I collected bird feathers and herbs. Took care of giant sunflowers with both my sons, learned new names every day and read books each night.
I even tried out a meditation for a couple of months where you can hope to access some scenes from previous lives buried in deep past. I approached it as a way to clear the clutter in my head, but honestly I was curious as a child, forbidden door ajar, trying to push my head through it to peek. At one sitting I really did get somewhere I hadn’t been before, haven’t even thought about it, but here I was. Standing among orange cliffs, everything so dry, wearing beige moccasins. Like in a dream, but I was not asleep, I was somewhere far away behind closed eyelids. I laughed afterwards like in disbelief, while at the same time secretly googling the landscape. Closest I could find was the Grand Canyon, the billion year old orange seabed with Colorado river flowing through it, making curves like a green snake.
I was used to go to the river, it was right there, by my house. But slowly I discovered that I can also reach the sea on foot. At first a two hour walk to the beach and back felt a bit too far. I even packed some food and tea as if on a two days hike. But soon I was going there every second day.
The sea became a magnet.
I drew it in the middle of my blank new map.
In a dream I am standing on a terrace of my house and looking at the black silhouette line of woods in the west. Trees sleeping there like a dark beast with blue-green coat of teeny-tiny pine needles, breathing wind. The sea is right behind the woods. I can’t hear her, she is too far. Sea level suddenly rises, water starts to flow through the woods and slowly gets closer and closer to the terrace, where I’m standing, like a honey soup in the color of gleaming gold.
My new path was paved with books. First one was about a man who was built out of books. Thomas Wright’s “Oscar’s Books” portrays Oscar Wilde as a reader. A wild reader, who chewed off page corners. Orange maple leaves, pressed between the pages, lie right next to Wilde’s portraits in the book. Dried flat time machines straight from the Autumn when I underlined whole paragraphs with a chewed up pencil. I was hooked on reading.
“[Celtic] Fairyland serves as the perfect metaphor for the marvelous worlds of burnished gold he sought to inhabit in his daily existence as well as to create in his books,” says Thomas Wright about the impact of Celtic mythology on Oscar Wilde’s worldview. What is my mythology? I have written on a page margin.
I fell in love with the sea more and more with each day. I kept returning, not knowing why. Alive and young in its movements, yet old and full of secrets as the planet itself. When I stand by the sea, my shoulders are relaxed, burdens fall off like an invisible cloak. I am also fucking scared of the sea, of her sublime magnitude. On storms she becomes a brutal force. Adrenaline running in my blood like on a caffeine overdose. Yet no one calms me as this mysterious place, the edge of the land. Sea is my adrenaline and my marine morphine.
I knew the sea on my map is drawn for a reason. It was my mythology. I even imagined, as I was washing the dishes one day, warm water pouring on my arms, white foams like manes of Manannán mac Lir’s horses, that I would love to write a book called “Enseaclopedia”. I would sail in my mind with a wooden ship over a gigantic map, and stop by islands and coasts to write down stories inhabitants tell me about the blue sea, the grey sea, the green sea. I should let the writers tell me the stories of the sea, I thought. Books would be the islands, I anchor by. I would arrange the stories in the sea related themes, creating a gigantic jig-saw puzzle, a compendium that would reveal the soul of the sea like a gestalt whole.
Over the time the ambitious idea of the “Enseaclopedia” washed away. All I really wanted was to take care of the salty books, gathering on my shelves, not just to squeeze the oil out of their pages. I wanted to take care of the books, as someone takes care of wildlife.
On a warm summer day I am walking to the sea, pushing stroller with my youngest asleep, and reading “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses”. After finishing Homer’s epics, I had boarded on a ship steered by James Joyce. There is a strange pleasure and freedom in reading masterpieces for the first time when you are 30. Kevin Birmingham’s take on the history of the scandalous Greek blue book striving for daylight, was a good companion. I was reading a chapter on Sylvia Beach, the amazing American woman who opened “Shakespeare & Company” in Paris in 1919, and here goes a line out of her early letters “I must have a bookstore, I must.”
Let’s slide a palm over the map where there is the sea drawn in the middle of it, a house by the river, the river itself, and a road from my house to the sea. Let’s draw a cross on the seaside as on a pirate treasure map. Here, an epiphany. There will be a bookstore by the sea with books about the sea. “Enseaclopedia” with shelves, not chapters, with walls, not covers. Like opening a pop-up fairy-tale book, suddenly a three dimensional world pops up on land. Gold earring dangling, a parrot on my shoulder. I scratch my wooden leg and issue a license to dream.
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia, is not even worth glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde. The bookstore by the sea is utopia on my map. Maybe it is a phantom bookstore, a mirage on my mind’s horizon. But I would rather call it a Northern star. You can’t reach it, but you can be guided by it as an ancient mariner.
Utopic ideas are not a waste of time. I collect and read books about the sea. I peel the many dimensions of it, searching for the secret of its lure. Sea is a place, not an empty space, writes Jonathan Raban. I explore it as a map of stories, woven on its waves.
It is dangerous for utopias to turn into hermetic cocoons. The urgency of our planet and its troubles, the mess we have made, the urgency of the oceans is my cord with the whole world, not just my own world, the ecological dimension of the poetic sea. Would I ever throw an iPhone in the river again? Never. Sea soaks the ego, blurs it like lines written on a drowned notebook.
Just a few days ago I saw a dream. I am in an indoor sea. I am standing in it, belly deep. Although the sea is enormous, there are walls all around and a tiny hole in arched ceiling like in Pantheon so you can see black sky and stars through it. The swimmers in the fake sea are silent and sad. Their movements lethargic. A white tennis net keeps us away from the deepest parts of the gigantic pool. I can’t bear the atmosphere, so I go outside. The planet is dried and orange, like a billions year old seabed. I find my land, like on a giant map, changed its face a lot, with deep pockets were there were deep seas. I return to Latvia with huge leaps, sit down and look around. The seabed is the only real wildness left.
Since the day I jumped off the train it has become a journey in my ancestral roots as well. I read about a large lake Dieviņezers (from the name “God” in deminutive) in Western part of Latvia, the Kurland. The lake was 7,5 km long and 1,6 km wide. Until a local baron decided to drain it off in the sea, to get fish, a fertile land and a straight road. It was done in 1837. Lake bed turned into lush meadows, called the lake-meadows still today. My great-grandfather was guarding them. He guarded the lake bed. Bloodline flows like an inner sea.
I will guard the books that guard the sea.
Photo: Anna Iltnere, Beach Books