Swimming in the Dark

I always wanted to write a book. As a sophomore journalism student I decided and declared I would not write my first book until it flowed unstoppably out of me. I foolishly thought the words would come like a force of nature, begging me to write them down in perfect form and order, practically arresting me from the rest of my obligations and consuming me day and night. I imagined of course, that it would be brilliant and perfect and sought after and widely praised.

As most writers and artists know, creativity doesn't work quite like that. The structure and discipline of the practice does need regular cultivation. But I did have the bit about flow right. I wrote The Other Side of the River in pieces over a three year period that spanned two master’s degrees. I had no idea it was a book or even that the sections went together at first; I just kept wanting to write about rivers and using water as a metaphor for psychological inquiry. I discovered I had a book in me when I found myself unexpectedly pregnant (best surprise of my life, btw) at the age of twenty-nine. And that’s when the rushing currents stirred within me. I finally had the mother of all deadlines, and a very concrete due date. And so I began the practice of swimming in the dark.

Life gifts us each with at least one moment when resistance is pointless. We spend years in comfort on the shore, fooling ourselves with elaborate illusions of control and consistency. We find routine and false security in jobs, sidewalks, air conditioning, bills, and bank accounts, and this life feels more real (and more convenient) than the wild of the rich green forest full of biting insects, rolling thunderstorms that ruin our picnics, bitter cold nights, and prowling panthers.

When the monotony of predictability penetrates all the way into our bones, we hear the wild calling, and we drive down to the ocean, but we sit in the car and watch the sun set through the windshield. We flock to the lake, but we sunbathe on a chair and cover our bodies with sunscreen. We walk to the river, but we stay affixed to our smartphones to capture the memories. We are called by the wild, but we resist full engagement.

We have an innate sense that the place where land meets water is a liminal space, a space with a personality and an agenda of her own. She acts as a gatekeeper between the surface layers of awareness and the less traversed depths of our individual psyches. It is she who chooses when and how and why to open that carefully guarded threshold. If we spend enough time at the edge of the water, she will consider this an invitation to splay open our souls, and we will eventually have to confront the unseen depths of our watery past.

There may be any number of strange, alien looking creatures down there in our subconscious, but how can we know what is there if we’ve never left the safety of the shore? We fool ourselves into believing the sand, the surface, and the sunshine is all there is, while hidden beliefs, lies we keep from ourselves, ancient memories of churning oceans, lightless caves and moonless skies are suppressed and pushed deeper and deeper into the subconscious.

But life promises this: that moment when resistance is futile will come. The fluid parts of our souls pull us into chaos, pushing us to look at all we’ve avoided, tossing us unwilling into waves of uncertainty and currents of dramatic change. Life keeps her promises. And when she calls you, you must learn to swim in the dark mystery of possibility.

Today, with this pen in my hand, it is as if the emotions can flow easily downhill from my chest along the veins in my shoulders and past my wrists into my fingertips. The result is visible, the words appear between the lines on a piece of paper I can hold. The ink creates something tangible and lasting out of the ineffable experiences of my body. Those same emotions often refuse to flow upstream into the narrow channel of my throat to become spoken words, and even then sound vibrations dissolve in the air much more quickly than ink on the page. The lines on this page act as the banks for a river, providing structure so the words can flow.

I peek around the other side of a mass of faceless fear to find curiosity. This is the current of possibility. The intersections of inner and outer landscapes merge. I am the river, I am the sand. Articulating these grooves, these patterns of memory that criss-cross across my body and overflow through my fingers is how I learn to put down roots, to leave marks in the sand, to feel my way across a river in the dark.

(This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Other Side of the River, to be published byWomancraft Publishing in January 2016. Follow me on Facebook (Eila Kundrie Carrico) or sign up for their newsletter here to get a reminder and discounts on purchasing the book.)

Erin Chalfant