Shark Toilet, Shark Totem

SharkToilet

This shark toilet is so grotesque that I feel obligated to balance the horror with a little spirituality.

If you’re obsessed with sharks like I am, you might have wondered why they manifest in your dreams, plague your waking thoughts and perhaps even haunt your toilet.

Check out this fascinating discussion about shark symbolism.

It may inspire you to start a new religion.

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South Africa: Part One

10443549_10203317320326529_6989897334538262958_nThe first thing I saw as I passed through customs in Dulles airport was a story on the news of a 7-foot white shark attacking a guy in Manhattan Beach. As everybody on earth probably knows by now, the young shark  hooked by an angler had reacted in a frenzy of fear and understandable confusion chomped some swimmer on the side. Over and over the clip played of the victim talking about how close he’d been to the shark, how he’d “looked him right in the eye.” I felt bad for the man’s wounds, but I sensed yet another summer of Fox-style news stories of shark attacks and jellyfish hysteria, and all I wanted to do was go back to South Africa.

Let me begin by saying no photographs do that country justice which is another way of saying my camera battery died and the photos I did manage to get are pretty much shit—gill slits, a broad back retreating under a wave, although my lovely travel companions have promised to share their stills and footage. While I lament my lack of images, in all fairness, I don’t think anyone got satisfactory footage of the resurrection either, and seeing the sharks was seeing God in action.

*****

As we rode out to sea from Simonstown on the Fallows’ boat, I sat with my fellow shark traveler Janet Sullivan, from Quincy, Mass. and we watched the water, I asked, “Do you ever have shark dreams?” Janet like many of the other amazing women I befriended on this trip, is no casual shark enthusiast. She sports a tattoo of a great white (In fact, it’s the well-fed one on the FREE HUGS sticker I sold at February’s Jaws benefit).

Janet said she did dream of sharks sometimes.

“What do they do in the dreams?”

She considered this for a moment.

“They’re just there.”   I understood. That’s how the sharks often appeared in my dreams and that’s how they appeared underwater.  Gliding. Silent. Complete. And pretty much indifferent to the people in the cage.

Feeling profound, I asked, “Do you believe in reincarnation?” Janet said she did.

Haven’t we all been fish at some stage? Was it far-fetched to imagine that some of us had been large, predatory fish?

How else to explain this strange affinity?

As we sped toward Seal Island, the calls of all the Cape fur pinnipeds sounded like sheep from some windy seaside pasture. Janet kept noticing that all the clouds in the early morning sky looked like sharks: dorsal fins dissolving into the morning light, arched wisps like failed breaches.

When we anchored, no extreme adrenaline junkie chum-fest ensued. The Apex crew “called” the sharks by throwing out simple baited lines, seal decoys and with the thrumming vibrations of hands drummed on the side of the boat. Three people in the cage at a time. Snorkels. Wetsuits. No scuba bubbles, as they tend to drive  away the sharks. When someone on board called “To your left!” or “To your right!” or somewhat eerily, “Behind you!” we descended beneath the water and breathed and looked.

I remember a strange, but very real sensation in the cage that my legs were gone.

I remember thinking how lonely the long line with the fish head on the end looked as it spun in the silent green water.

But I didn’t really feel afraid.

The first day, the sharks materialized in a green  mist, only appearing gray when they came closer to the cage–the great papery slits of the gills puffing slightly, the dark intelligent eye, looking without much interest to the frantic figures in the cage. After so many dreams, movies, documentaries, pictures, after the weight of expectation, of epiphany, here was the animal I’d known only in dreams for forty some odd years. And they had silently appeared as they had in Janet’s dreams and so many times in mine–beautiful, silent, slow. They were simply there.

Of course long before I descended in the cage , I’d already screamed like a teenage girl at her first rock show, when the sharks breaching. It’s not easy to tell a swimming seal from a dark wave, but Chris and Monique Fallows are such expert naturalists that they can easily separate a young seal from a bobbing swell, or an explosion of water from an errant wave breaking over distant rocks. “Two o’clock! 150 meters!” The call goes out, the boat turns. If the birds have descended to the ring of white turbulent water, it means a kill, if not, the seal has usually gotten away and the shark has likely disappeared too. We often arrived just in time to see a sharp flash of tail and fin in a wake, or if we were lucky a blinding white belly as the shark breached, often with the snap of red jaws–all over in an instant.

There’s nothing like a morning spent watching seal predations to make one appreciate the particularly weird human position in the animal kingdom.

Watching the breaches, it’s hard not to call out as if it’s a sporting match, although we all feel bad for the young seals, it’s also terribly primal and exciting and it’s hard to not want the chase to continue, to see the lightning quick desperate acrobatics of the sharks. In one particularly gory breach, the shark surfaced sideways, blood pouring from its jaws, then promptly disappeared the turbulent surface. Two seabirds descended, each taking the end of some sort of long thin entrails in their beaks and flying away, as if engaged in some sort of morbid taffy pull.

When we cruised next to the rushing water of Seal island and saw the pups playing in the water that cascaded off the rocks, diving and surfacing, safe from “the ring of death” where the sharks cruise, it was impossible not to feel as if we were passing by some harsh, but enchanted isle of frolicking whimsical sea-children. We were stunned into a magical silence punctuated by “Awwws.”

I can’t yet properly describe what happened to me in South Africa, but I felt different when I stood on the Cape of Good Hope. Even more than the wild zebra browsing through the verdant scrub along the beach, was the new feeling I had looking at the water.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked at the ocean in this sort of trance. I remember standing once at San Simeon near Hearst Castle, looking past the hauled out bodies of the seals to the craggy rocks and thinking, “They’re out there.” In dreams I’d pull over to the side of the road and stare at the dark water through binoculars. Somehow in the dark I could still see and I could tell the fins from the swells.

I took many a real-life drive up the California coast, stopping at infamous beaches with NO SWIMMING signs, or hoping that if I looked long enough at the horizon, something would rise up. Always with longing and gnawing and a bit of metaphysical tension.

Yet as Janet and I stood at Cape Point, after the first day of breaching and the diving, as our lovely guide Alistair took our photograph at that intersection of oceans, I felt different. There had been no obvious communion between the sharks and me, no shattering tribal epiphany. I had come half way around the world to see them, and the sharks barely noticed I was there.

But something inside me had shifted just the same.

Day 342 6/2/14: Riffing on David Foster Wallace

Every so often I have to re-experience David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Address. It’s been a while since I’ve taught it, so I pulled it out of the mothballs today and read it to my late afternoon English 101. They really loved it. I even heard a few exclamations of  “Aww, that was good!” or “I feel like crying.”

I wish that someone had taught me early on (at age 15 or so), what David Foster Wallace tried to tell the students of Kenyon College in 2005: in order to stay sane in the face of all the heartbreak and misery that life brings, we must exercise control over “how and what we think.” We must cultivate discipline and awareness, so as not to be a slave to our thoughts.  The class talked about the forces in the world that prevent us from keeping this truth “upfront in daily consciousness.” We talked about advertisements, movies, social media, cell phones that all increase our self-obsession, isolation and craving.

(A few hours later, when I sat down to write this, I thought of putting some sort of music or radio news report or something on in the background. For “company” which is how my mother once described how  television.  But I’m glad I didn’t. The light is nearly gone The traffic sounds like some ocean hum.  I am easing into the night. I can feel my hands typing these words. I’m aware of the lengthening shadows.)

After class I gathered all of my messy papers and binders and walked out of the building. I saw an older man in a nice shirt and tie with a backpack. I knew he was a teacher, not a returning student. He looked at me and I smiled. I didn’t think my smile was particularly serious or constipated. But he said with a kind of empathetic resignation, “Another day, huh?”

I don’t know why it made me happy and reflective. I wanted to laugh. Like we were those two dogs in the Warner Brothers cartoon punching the factory time clock. And I thought it was so poignant and sort of tragic that each day of our lives no matter how dull or difficult is still “a day” and I thought how many of them I have wanted simply to end. It seems like something of a sin–not the depression so much as the mindlessness.

A few months ago, I wanted to rescue a few sentences from my diaries and burn them. I stopped keeping diaries because I got sick of all the clutter of old ledgers and notebooks and I just can’t imagine keeping one online. But I went to Skylight Books tonight and bought this blank sketchbook covered with lions that looked like lions from an old 60s kid’s book. I used to feel like I’d redeemed even the most “blah” day if I could write about it in a journal. It felt like I slowed time down a little, rescued something miraculous (and there always is) from the banal progression. Maybe keeping a diary was one way of keeping “the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

About a year ago I had a dream about David Foster Wallace. We were having a wonderfully deep conversation. Like me, DFW was obsessed with shark attacks and loved the humor of P.G.Wodehouse. In the dream we had so much to talk about, at least I thought we did, until he said not unkindly but abruptly, “Well, I’ve got to go take  a shower now.” I stood outside the bathroom door in disbelief. Maybe he just wanted me to leave. But then I heard the water.He really did need to take a shower.

The next day I sort of felt close to DFW–after all we’d shared a dream. So I went to Skylight Books and bought his biography “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.”  D.T. Max writes about howWallace’s high school tennis team traveled around the state for tournaments. Once they were going to a Van Halen concert, but “ditched Wallace who was in the hotel room taking one of the long showers he was famous for” (10).

A couple days later, still high on this synchronicity (if that’s what you’d call it), I walked by the bookstore again. In the corner of the window I saw a little shark–almost like origami, haphazardly leaning against one of the Jeeves books by P.G. Wodehouse. In a window usually organized by theme (fire, Los Angeles, etc.) Jeeves and the shark seemed a bizarre and random pairing. But they made perfect sense to me.

Day 325 5/16/14: The Horror & The Wonder

Day 325 5/16/14: The Horror & The Wonder

Writers aren’t allowed to say things like “words fail,” but I am still struggling to find the language to describe this face. I cannot form a coherent sentence about this image by Andrew Fox of a white shark breaking the surface in pursuit of an albatross. My brain sputters out weird fragments: “bloody clown laugh,” or “sad dream lipstick jaw.” The otherworldly quality of this animal makes me rethink my place in the universe. Maybe that explains my enduring feeling, beyond the wonder and horror, of deep gratitude towards them.

Day 298 4/20/14: Enduring Fragments from Abandoned Poems

When the subconscious offers so much free material, it seems a shame to waste it. But not all dreams make the creative cut and become poems….

***

My mother asked where would you be if you could be anywhere?

 

I felt foolish. I couldn’t conjure a specific place.

 

I could only think: Water.

 

***

My brother was Frankenstein.

 ***

The victim had been found floating, his body contorted into some sort of obscene, folded position like a yogi.

 

The man and the woman claimed to be actors. They visited me at my bedside, in a room with a peaked roof and a large window.

 

“We’re playing Jason and Medea,” the woman explained.

 

“But what attracted you to the Greeks?” I asked.

 

“Well, they’re just so weird,” she said, and began to talk about historic personages and gods as they were interchangeable.

 

“The Gods weren’t always so weird,” she said.

 

Each time I stopped to think about what she’d said, I’d look out the window where water was always rising.  No lawn, no grassy border, no bank separated my house from the water that filled the windowpanes. The water looked wild, full of lines and patterns that formed and disappeared into one another. Instead of feeling scared, I felt comforted as if somehow I was rising and dissolving too. 502px-Medea-Sandys

Day 289 4/11/14: At the Edge of the Dream Lagoon

UnknownMaybe it was all that wine at dinner, but something pierced the veil.

I had my first shark dream in a very long time.

I was standing at the edge of a lagoon. The old feeling returned: I have dreamed this place before.

Although I saw no people, I somehow knew that everyone who lived in the green mountains surrounding the water worshipped  Megalodon, the biggest prehistoric shark that ever lived.

While in the waking world their brethren were hooked and hauled, finned and shot, here the dream sharks ruled the water.

I couldn’t tell the waves from the frantic gray chips that broke the surface then sank again.

Is it true that the most important thing about a dream is how you felt about it upon waking?

I felt elated. Happy to be dreaming again. Happy that the sharks had come back.

Beneath that dazed ecstasy, I also felt the tug of one small mystery–the contrast between the teeming lagoon of small fins and the looming ghost of the disappeared Megalodon.

Maybe in this world there were no people. Maybe the sharks themselves were the acolytes, the worshippers of  Megalodon.

And I had been privy to their sacred world, which wasn’t so much about worship or ritual but a place of pure aliveness, of pure being.