The ocean is an unpredictable place and wild. Stand at cliff edge and listen to the water’s liquid shatter, the crackled fizz as waves expend their energy and turn to foam. Sense the momentary quivering before the next wave rises, ready to roll in. To walk by the ocean, to observe it from a cliff is to absorb some of its essence through your breath and pores. There is a rhythm in the ocean, a wild music as it were, that washes over to envelope one in its presence, sweeping us along into the rush and calm of its life. For a few moments, we let go of our sense of obligations, the stories of what we need to be or do, and are absorbed into a presence much greater than ourselves. Time slows down, dissolves into an awareness that we’re held in a vastness of all we do not know or understand. And though the waves crash in explosions, it’s exhilarating. We are alive. We feel it in our bodies and are content.
The ocean is a liquid wilderness, a place of shifting currents without defined paths. One enters the ocean hoping to find something a bit unexpected. It’s never certain what one might experience or see. In addition to the wonders of encountering shoals of shining fish and banks of colorful coral, from stinging rays and jelly fish to fire coral and riptides, venturing into the sea involves some risk, as my poem below from Buoyant, describes.
Only a dozen of the three hundred shark species in the world
attack humans. I didn’t want to risk my ignorance
with one that might wish to test my skin, leaving
prolonged scars or have one shake me to a bloody death.
Mesmerized by clownfish shyly bouncing out and into
bubble coral, a pilot fish traveling with me all day
while snorkeling, a manta shrimp’s pivoting eye,
trigger fish biting at my mask chasing after my fins—
I had twenty-one dives. These were adequate adventures for me.
Others on the boat with possibly a hundred dives
or more couldn’t wait to encounter what I feared.
Questioning the source of my fear, I found myself underwater,
seated back against a rock wall, inhaling quietly,
waiting for sharks to arrive.
An offering of fish flesh fastened to a heavy chain
dropped from the boat above. In they came
with arched spines and fins pulled back, circling the food,
carrying their layers of pointed teeth. White tipped sharks
and silver, bronze whalers and gray, the frenzied pack
closed in on the meat—fifty sharks, maybe more,
their strong jaws instinctually grasping, cutting through flesh,
rocking back and forth, spinning, sawing, tearing meat.
Crunching through bone, eating the carcasses whole.
Their singular focus to feed their hunger, their nature
from ancient origin, blood incidental to their fixed intention.
I was nothing to them, could breathe calmly. The water between us
a space to observe hunger’s ravenous need to be filled,
I inhaled the furious vision of gnashing teeth, unspoken
groaning, and thundering silence.
Come all you tender people year upon year adapting
to nuances of cloudy conditions, strong currents, cold
and storm, and histories of grief, adjusting like the octopus
to every tide, carrying your hunger like a hidden wound.
Come with your strong teeth, piercing starvation,
biting jaws, and famished hearts.
There are dwellers in deep water who see your need,
places you can meet your fears, breathe them out,
and your hunger be fed.
Though the poem is written about an experience as a new diver, no matter one’s level of experience, there are always things in life’s ocean that we’re not fully prepared for, even though we’ve done the work to help us when difficulties arrive. We still feel the challenge. When we dive into the sea, we connect with life, and life simultaneously contains both wonder and experiences of things that wound and threaten to tear us apart. The sea, says Carl Jung, is “the mother of all that lives,” and living, as the poem above describes, can be difficult. Sometimes we are ravenous for things we cannot have or even name. We are starved for what feeds the soul and brings us life. We might find ourselves famished sometimes for places of calm and safety, or ravenous for kindness, hungry for a way to meet basic needs of shelter and food. We thirst for beauty. Natalia Ziniak, 26, the artist whose paintings appear here on this post, was living in Los Angles but visiting her family in western Ukraine when Russia invaded the country in February. She, her mother and younger sister and brother fled the country three days after Putin’s campaign began, their father joining them approximately a half of year later. The family has lived in a variety of temporary homes since that time and has relied on the good will of others, as described in Drew Penner’s Scott’s Valley Press Banner September article. To suddenly lose your home and say goodbye to the earth you know, leave behind its ways of being and speaking, the people and place you love, to move across the world giving up security and familiarity, that is diving into deep water with the sound and sight of hungry sharks swimming through your mind and heart. There might be space between you and the tragedy you touched, but you feel the movement of grief’s biting jaws inside your thoughts. The marrow of your bones groan, longing for comfort and assurance.
It’s incredibly difficult to experience an ongoing state of uncertainty, but the Ziniak family has lived in this stressful state with an openness to daily miracles for many months. Though the waters one might find oneself in are threatening, in the midst of deep difficulty there are places and ways for your hunger to be fed and as the poem above says. There are means to transform sorrow. One of them is painting. Like other artistic endeavors, painting enables one to touch the sun through the rain, as in the title of Ziniak’s painting above. “In my free time I love painting the ocean,” Natalia says in Drew Penner’s article. “It’s the only thing that makes me feel alive, free and peaceful—to go to the ocean and paint.” Besides being threatening, a crisis can alternatively hold the potential to become an opportunity for growth.
Observe the sea, it’s ever changing face, breathe in its air long enough, and know that while it is wild, it is also deeply beautiful and life-giving. People don’t like living with unease and misery. Nevertheless, living with uncertainty has a way of making one aware of the preciousness of all life, the gift it is to inhale a blue sky or to gaze out at the expanse of sea. Natalia Ziniak’s ocean paintings open the heart. Standing in front of her canvases, one can feel a rush of life rising up from the play of light in the colors on her richly textured canvases. Her seascapes are charged with energy–cliff edges and angular rocks divide and cut through water’s fluid motion. There is both firm stability and limitless horizon in these paintings. Water explodes open at its edges, but is healed over and whole in the greater part of its body in the distance. The ocean may hold elements of the ominous, may churn with an aspect of potential danger, but Ziniak’s brush displays that energy as an experience of vibrant sustenance.
Along with everything else in the natural world, we participate in an ongoing cycle of transformation involving simultaneous dissolution and creation, destruction and recreation. Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet writes, “So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.” I love the title of Ziniak’s painting below, “Afterwater Waterfall.” There is simultaneously a softness and firmness in the painting’s lines and forms of rock and shape of water. The painting depicts the residual water that pours off of rock after the experience of a wave collapsing over it. Waves of difficulty can crash against you, but in your art you can turn the experience into an embodied reflection that reveals the beauty of forms enduring in spite of life’s turbulent forces while in the process of being worn away and reformed into something new.
To be tender is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be open, to remain malleable and alive. Every day we stand at a threshold between worlds. To be tender is to stand at the edge of the sea in its many forms and to let it speak to you. We may look out into the abyss and see chaos, but chaos is also the formless matter out of which the universe was shaped. A person may sense being alone, but when painting, one is not alone. You become one, so to speak, with the world you are translating with your brush. You transform and recreate yourself and the world at the same time through your paintbrush. The poet Nicholas Samaras writes, “God lives in the point of my pen. In writing, I interact with the act of creativity, the act of creation.” I believe the same could be said for Natalia Ziniak and her paint brush.
If you’d like to read more of the poems from Buoyant, where “Regarding Tenderness” is from, you can see more details about the book here. I donate half the price of the book to 5 Gyres, an organization working to reduce plastics in the world’s oceans. You can also message me if you’d like to order a copy.