In Sydney, the summer I am twelve years old is extremely hot, over 35°C on many days. There are two girls, younger than I, living around the corner — and they have a swimming pool. To prompt an invitation, I reveal my ability to become a mermaid. I imagine a painless and spectacular shift: my legs fusing together to create an incandescent tail; my fingers growing more webbed (they have always been part-sea); my hair floating seaweed-like around me; but, most of all, the cool, clear embrace of the water. Later, I have to explain that chlorine impedes my powers …
I yearn for the fluidity of the mermaid — that floating signifier — the freedom of water, the limitless, liminal possibilities of being beyond borders, boundaries and fixed definitions. I am seeking ways to negotiate what Tamsin Lorraine calls the slippery aspects of embodied existence. I wear a Ken Done patterned bikini of brightly coloured triangles and string. A family friend tells me not to wear it near her thirteen-year-old son. On New Year’s Eve, he and I are floating together in the shadows of the pool while the adults prepare fireworks and food. He slips his chlorine-scented arms around me and presses his wet lips against mine.
I captured a little bit of that dream last week when I took a day off work and tried a floatation tank for the first time. (This hour of sensory deprivation was a Christmas gift from my partner. I was a bit nervous because years ago I watched this BBC documentary on sensory deprivation. Spoiler: my favourite part is the mother who sleeps for most of the experiment while everyone else is going mad).
The brochure promises that, without distraction, I will be free to mull things over, reflect on my life and have creative insights. “People have developed complex scientific theories and drafted whole portions of books while floating” it breathlessly reads.
I spent most of my floating time thinking about (20th century European) philosophy, words and water. My flow of ideas went something like this (yes, of course my thinking has citations).
Oceanic feeling. In Civilisation and Its Discontents (1973), Sigmund Freud describes it is “a sensation of “eternity”, a feeling of something limitless, unbounded” (p 8). He has never felt it. To my knowledge, he never does.
“Is there any greater rapture than the sea?” Luce Irigaray asks in Marine Lover (1991). She understands oceanic feeling. The heavily salted water is smooth. It is difficult to know where I end and the water begins. Water and Dreams (1983). Gaston Bachelard writes from a “water mind-set”. Liquidity is “the very desire of language” (p 187). No desire for language here (or to start drafting a book).
I let my thoughts drift. Roland Barthes (1975) writes of the pleasure of drifting, which occurs when one is “driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves” but chooses to “remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world)” (p 18). What binds me to the world? The objects of text and language seem out of place here. I think of being pregnant with my children.
My four year old borrowed You Are Stardust from the library. “Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born … Like fish deep in the ocean, you called salt water home. You swam inside the salty sea of your mother’s womb… The water swirling in your glass once filled the puddles where dinosaurs drank…”
The experience of floating is both intimate and alone. It’s a bit like reading. In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, pregnant and suicidal Laura Brown reads Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway:
One more page, she decides; just one more … She is taken by a wave of feeling, a sea-swell, that rises from under her breast and buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature thrown back from the sand where it had beached itself—as if she had been returned from a realm of crushing gravity to her true medium, the suck and swell of saltwater, that weightless brilliance (1998, p 40).
Stephen Daldry’s film captured this beautifully:
The pleasures of words and associations are deep. Hélène Cixous (1991): “Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst.”
Sadly, I can’t say any portions of books, whole or part, were written as I floated. I enjoyed it, will do it again, and imagine I will get better at relaxing. But it’s not for everyone or for every stage of life. If you need a healthy distraction from being ‘in your head’, walking a labyrinth might be better.