By Charlotte Johnson Willian
Charlotte Johnson Willian is a child/family advocate who resides in the southern hills of Indiana, where she is surrounded by the trees she loves. This essay received first place in the 2017 Eugene England Memorial Personal Essay Contest.
A drop of water, if it could write out its own history, could explain the universe to us.
Each week, I listen intently as my son or fellow priests articulate prescribed prayers over bread and water—a moment of simple reverence overcoming teenage defiance.
Fingers that work a keyboard, thumbs that relay text messages, hands that save Earth from planetary aliens by video game now solemnly tear bread—break the body of the Savior—and pour tap water, splashing the freely-offered life blood.
Some of the most familiar words of scripture for Mormons, the invocation begins as one of the family of faith—“we ask thee”—then veers away from the body of saints. “That they may eat . . . and witness . . . and are willing . . .” The mouthpiece must capture God’s attention and plead the cause of those gathered—they will eat and remember and obey if they may always have his Spirit; words on behalf of the congregation that my daughters will never voice. Grant the mouthpiece a portion of Spirit too, despite him drinking orange juice straight from the jug, belching at dinner, and—on the drive to church—beseeching others in the car to Walk this way / Walk this way along with Aerosmith.
Upon the arrival of a gleaming tray, I bypass the bits of rice cake and lift a morsel of bread, pledging faith and obedience for renewal. I bring a portion of clear liquid to my mouth and picture Christ on the path to Golgotha, catch the last drop of the tiny offering on my tongue, close my lips to doubt and replace the empty cup. The priests receive the final trays and serve the token bearers, then solemnly smooth the table covering free of wrinkles. At a signal, the young men turn from the place of offering and find spots with their families, sitting near the ends of pews or politely squeezing past sets of knees; these same boys who play hard on activity night—driving to the basket with legs askew, springing wildly from the path of the dodgeball, or leaping to grab a flying disc. Bless and sanctify our fibrils of connection.
The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.
In a small coastal town of Denmark, my mother, Grete, and her five siblings grew up in a series of tiny apartments, occasionally with an additional attic sleeping room. Understandably, the children spent much of their time outdoors playing, biking, or swimming in Horsens Fjord, a small inlet off the Baltic Sea. This was not the swimming of my childhood, nor that of my children, in monitored public pools surrounded by brightly colored beach towels on adjustable lounge chairs. My mother and her siblings biked to narrow, grassy beaches and raced down roped wooden piers. They swam and reveled in often-frigid water. My adventurous mother, a “tomboy,” was the apple of her father’s eye and the first in her family to own a bike with gears, a 3-speed beauty.
My mother discovered an American religion, Mormonism, and, several years later, romance with a former missionary farm boy from Utah. She crossed an overwhelmingly wide Atlantic Ocean to the United States in 1954—long before text messaging, the Internet, or even cheap international telephone calls. My grandfather, unable to face a shipside farewell, refused to accompany his favorite daughter for her embarkation from Copenhagen aboard the ship Stavangerfjord. She and my grandmother faced that moment alone.
Despite her Viking ancestry and hardy constitution, my mother endured the crossing seasick, contemplating her immeasurable losses and only promised gains. Seven years later, she re-crossed that same ocean with three young children and a spouse for his one-year post-doctoral astrophysics fellowship in Paris. Too ill to even leave her bed on that voyage, my mother mused over the decision to hold the family at five until their return to the United States. Eventually, she recognized its failure and I joined the family the following spring.
All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.
When and where my mother learned to type was lost to her faded memory long before her death but it is family legend that she was self-taught in her accurate, speedy hunt-and-peck method. While raising six children, she saved to buy a state-of-the-art IBM Selectric typewriter and then exhausted her mental and physical reserves typing term papers and dissertations through the night as the children slept. Her income helped fund a summer spent in a small cottage outside of her hometown of Horsens.
My dad joined us for a few weeks; otherwise my mother corralled and cajoled six children, ranging from three to fifteen years old. We hugged relatives with strange names; scoured rural roadways for bottlecaps; heard George Romney speak at Denmark’s July Fourth USA Independence Day celebration (the only one outside of the United States); downed new and exotic foods—open-face sandwiches, red footlongs, and saltpastiler (potent black licorice); and giggled as young Danes proudly practiced their schoolhouse English on us and as we floundered through “rødgrød med fløde” (red berry pudding with cream).
At the beaches around Horsens Fjord, we frolicked in and out of the water, imagining that Viking boats had once launched in search of land, wealth, and adventure from the very spots where we played, bolstering our already substantial cultural pride. Our courage turned foolish when we refused to believe that brandmænd (or firefighter) jellyfish stung the progeny of Vikings. While other swimmers stayed closer to shore and despite our mother’s admonitions, we dared each other to touch the red blobs trailing translucent strands. We swam with them, our outstretched hands as close to the cold-water creatures as the fingers of God and Adam, completion of purpose (for us, bragging rights) without actual contact. We escaped serious consequences either through random luck or the nature of the particular jellyfish we encountered.
Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
After my father’s retirement from teaching at a large Midwestern university, he and my mother spent the best part of a decade on international church missions working with local non-profits. In remote areas of China, my parents managed the distribution of relief goods—blankets, school kits and emergency food—to rural populations which had survived years of flooding so severe that starvation resulted. In outlying areas of Ghana, where people emerged from their homes at the sound of a motor to stare at the rare sight of a car, my parents met with women—wives, mothers, daughters—who spent the greatest parts of their days fetching water for family use. These firsthand accounts served as wake-up calls for our family.
I donated regularly to a non-profit sponsoring girls in school in Kenya; eventually I attended the dedication of the agency’s newly-built high school there. As a volunteer teacher for two weeks, I worked with the students (many from Maasai pastoralist families) on personal narratives. These young women had already experienced at least one “once-a-century” drought and wrote about beloved pet goats killed for family survival, long and often fruitless treks for emergency food from international relief agencies, livelihood cattle reduced to skeletons, and their early training to carry water long distances from source to home. I wanted nothing so much as to hand them baby goats and drill wells everywhere in Kenya.
Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.
When my husband and I announced the news of a surprise fifth pregnancy to our four daughters, ages nine through fourteen, on Thanksgiving Day many years ago, plans were already well underway for an exciting spring break trip to Orlando, Florida. The initial reaction to the news was sparked by our springtime plans. “This ruins everything. Theme park rides are for two people and now we’ll always have an uneven number in our family. Who will have to ride alone?” This future challenge had not occurred to us yet, but we met all responses respectfully, and by the end of a lengthy conversation, the girls were resigned to the fact that nothing could be done at this point but prepare for a summer baby.
Spring break brought the anticipated warm temperatures of Florida and the thrills of its theme parks which our children managed to enjoy immensely, despite our already uneven number of riders. I was mostly marooned at designated gathering spots at that point in my pregnancy. Near the end of the vacation, we drove to Cocoa Beach for a day. We claimed a spot in one of the only open areas, farther from the water than we liked, and oversaw the application of high-SPF sunscreen. Dave inflated our two small rafts and escorted the kids to the water, playing with them for a couple of hours while I rested swollen feet and ankles. After a break for drinks, snacks, and additional sunscreen, the girls returned to the water on their own with strict reminders about the buddy system and water safety.
A short time later, I roused myself from the double inertia of pregnancy and heat to check on the kids. Scanning the water as I strolled, I spotted them much farther down the shore than I expected and much farther out in the water than was safe. I ran—well, lumbered—as fast as I could. As I neared the water, Lissi, our second-oldest, was just dragging herself from it, shivering and chattering that the water was pulling them down and away from the shoreline, which they had not noticed until it was too late to return. Rachel and Bethie, the two youngest, were on the slowly-leaking rafts, while Charla, the oldest, held tightly to the raft ropes, the current preventing her from getting everyone back to shore. Our swim team competitors had been overcome by the nearly imperceptible, but deadly, movement of a rip current.
I embraced my frightened daughter briefly, urging her to sprint through her exhaustion to alert Dave, who even at his distant spot was closer than any of the few lifeguards along the beach. I raced into the water, my protruding belly, my protective fluid-filled sac, barely impeding my progress as adrenalin pumped ever faster the more I felt the powerful, uncertain currents envelop me. My daughters screamed encouragement to me, their panic ebbing as I neared. Charla told me that when they realized their calls for help could not be heard over the sounds of the water, she had sent Lissi for help.
I took the ropes, urging Charla to hold tightly to a raft. My adrenalin flagged and we fought our way back slowly and unsteadily. Dave reached us near the shore, distanced from the out-of-sight underwater struggle, and I could hardly convey to him the size of the opponent, the shadow under a seemingly peaceful stretch of Atlantic Ocean. Only a short time earlier I had roused myself, but physical and emotional exhaustion overcame us all and we relaxed on beach towels for the remainder of the day. Charla haltingly told me of her moment of realization that she could get herself and one raft to safety, but not both; sick with terror, she had vowed to grip both ropes no matter what, simultaneously unsure if she could stay that course. For weeks afterwards, the particular nausea that is induced by near-misses struck me as I imagined the unimaginable.
All the water that will ever be,
is right now.
Several years later, I spent a weekend in southern Utah with my then eight-year-old son, Davy, and my brother, Wayne. We hiked and gawked in Arches National Park the first day. The fierce July desert heat prompted us to assess our supplies carefully the next morning before driving to Canyonlands Park. Even though we deemed them adequate, I inwardly panicked at signs stating “last water ahead” and at the disappearance in the rearview mirror of the one tiny gas station with water and snacks for sale. The size and seclusion of Canyonlands grew apparent as we neared.
Inside its over 500 square miles, Canyonlands contains three spots to obtain water, only one of which is open year-round. From most of the park, it is at least fifty miles to any basic services. We drove through stark beauty, occasionally stopping to view and exclaim over the mystical landscapes. We had not passed a car yet when we pulled into a small trailhead parking area. On our hike of a few miles, even Davy drank water, despite his aversion to it. Eventually he expressed discomfort at the sun and heat. I cajoled him along until I realized that he was not merely whining. We found one scrubby pine bush casting just enough shade for two people and hunkered under it to wait while Wayne hiked to the trail’s end and returned to our location. An older couple wearing motorcycle gear walked by, stopping just long enough to check on our well-being.
Time was difficult to gauge in the extreme heat and silence. My mind played with potential misgivings—Wayne’s return; Davy’s wellbeing; unknown creatures of Canyonlands; the mysterious older couple; my rental car’s reliability; cellphone service paucity; water, water, water. Eventually Wayne returned, we made our way back, the car started, the couple waved to us from their Harley, and Davy’s color and breathing improved in air conditioning.
Water is the driving force of all nature.
—Leonardo da Vinci
At about sixty percent water by weight, an adult human requires frequent water consumption for optimal health; amount depends on a person’s size and activity level, as well as the local climate. When I leave the humid Midwest for arid desert states, my body demands extra water. Because much of the large quantity of water I consume each day evacuates, often inconveniently at 2:00 a.m. and again at 4:30 a.m., I mentally direct water as I drink. Two-thirds of my body’s water is intracellular and I image the water speeding to dehydrating cells, replenishing and energizing them. Some water is sent to my plasma, tissues, and organs. My interior water focus is a work in progress but still a valuable awareness.
When we moved outside of the city limits, necessitating a change in water companies, I imagined that our water now emerged from an underground spring or a clear-running stream. When I called the small rural company to determine the pH measure of the water, I was surprised and disappointed to hear that all their water runs straight from the water treatment facilities of the city. The company’s monthly fees cover maintenance for the current system of pipes, future expansion of pipelines and for city water to be carried through them.
Water is often an afterthought. What runs out of our faucets for drinking, cooking, or washing is generally clean and conveniently ready to use. It is easy to forget those in the United States who must haul all their water and are the consummate flush-only-as-needed friends to the environment. In addition, there are 700 million people worldwide without access to safe water who spend much of their time and energy securing usable water every single day. Then there are the billions who lack access to sanitation. Water consumes their thoughts—a necessary obsession, a mental and physical thirst.
To have faith is to trust yourself to the water.
For many years, my mother-in-law insisted that she and my father-in-law would retire by the ocean. That move came later than planned, after some stalling by him. Their coastal retirement home sits directly above a private beach in southern Oregon; the sight and sound of the waves soothe my mother-in-law. Southern Oregon is an activity area for sneaker waves, the name denoting their sudden and stealthy appearance, but their occasional sightings, as reported to visiting family, sounded like folklore and did not deter their water activities. Over the years, my mother-in-law’s frequent warnings about the dangers of sneaker waves became family legend. We laughed over a photo of our young son playing in the surf with a hefty rope around his waist, the other end tied to a large stone outcropping, my mother-in-law grasping the rope firmly between the beach and Davy. The day we finally saw a sneaker wave in action, awesome to behold, we gained enduring respect for its power.
When family visits Oregon, everyone hopes to claim the ocean-facing guest bedroom. Through its open window, the sounds of the surf induce restful sleep through their lullaby of reassurance. The other guest bedroom became my father-in-law’s domain for the last several months of his life when he could no longer manage stairs. On a mild June day, covered by a single bed sheet, he exhaled a final shallow breath, ending a long companionship, including several years of emotionally and physically taxing round-the-clock care. An Alpine rose bush flowered in its peach-hued glory near my mother-in-law’s neglected greenhouse. Still clutching a frail, cooling hand between her palms, she heard only the pounding of the Pacific Ocean’s rising tide, three hours short of its high-water mark.
If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.
Baptism by immersion, the first saving covenant of my Mormon faith, occurs at age eight, usually in a font built for that purpose. I have heard of baptisms in bathtubs, swimming pools, water tanks, and ponds; occasionally in frigid conditions, requiring the breaking of ice, a sign of exceptional devotion. Anywhere deep enough to immerse will do, as the baptizer’s goal is a low plunge, ensuring that all of the person and their white clothing is underwater at once. Two male witnesses stand at water’s edge to certify complete immersion.
Beyond occasional words of encouragement to someone afraid of being dunked, no spontaneous inspirations are spoken. The prayer is a scripted twenty-five words which follow the name of the person being baptized. A new person arises from the water, cleansed from sin and ready to witness the name of Jesus, ideas mostly incomprehensible to eight-year-olds.
There is nothing special about baptismal water, usually tapped from the same source as the water that will be consumed in the punch following the service. The water itself does not produce spiritual cleansing nor forgiveness no matter how many ordained men attend a baptism nor how many generations of faithful Mormons celebrate the event. Many Mormons believe that the power of remission is from Jesus Christ through the conduit of the priesthood holder performing the ordinance.
I remember flashes from my own April baptismal day—the shiver of holiness as I emerged from the below-floor font, the personal devastation when I shed that same holiness shortly afterwards in a moment of thoughtless petulance, like many moments that would follow in my life. (The exact offense is lost to time but it involved poking or name-calling a sibling, the breaking of a very lesser commandment.) I remember my father’s strong arm and his approbation; my mother’s teary eyes and her goodwill; my tightly-squeezed nose, my obedience.
At age eight, I yearned for this ordinance for which my ancestors had suffered ridicule, estrangement, and hardship; a natural step to follow older siblings, please parents, and satisfy God. In front of gathered family and church members, each self-conscious step downward into the filled font slowly immersed my own aqueous being into the surrounding water, releasing every desire, shadow, intention, weakness, motivation, and mask. Perhaps the potency is in the thirst, the acquiescence, the release of self into the font. Perhaps I was bathed in the shame, despair and hope of self-knowledge.
The knowing followed much later. My religious affiliation remains the same but my faith practices barely resemble those of my parents. My own children, all baptized in various fonts following their eighth birthdays, pursue self and spiritual discovery on diverse paths—adjacent, parallel, perpendicular, interconnected, and separate. I drink from the cup of bitterness and joy at their losses, their gains, their submissions and risings.