where rivers run between the clouds
September 2, 2013
I’m looking at a picture of my father at a beach in Florida, in 1957. He’s wearing short white swimming trunks, and the wind is whipping his dark brown hair to one side of his face. He’s looking at the sand, walking in the waves, and giving the best smile any young boy can offer the world.
There’s something about water. Something about its soothing, cleansing elements that always revitalizes us. It’s also something I keep coming back to in my writing: in a post I wrote last year, I described what it felt like executing a perfect dive, how “if the movements are perfect and crisp and tasting of that thing we call grace, then the water takes you and your grace in, tumbles and wraps you in a gentle embrace, and nudges you back to the surface as it whispers, Again, again.”
But water isn’t always so kind. I’ll never forget the first time I attempted to swim my first fifty meter race, two whole laps across the pool and back. I think I was eight. Almost to the end, water filling up my goggles, I could barely catch my breath. Had I already done a flip-turn? Could I make it? I think I DQued, but I’ll never forget that struggle. It was my first lesson in not being good at something I thought I was a natural at; my first failure in the water. The next six years of swimming and diving would grace me with many more challenges, but that first one was humbling, even if I didn’t know it then. We can’t be great at anything until we know how to fail at it.
64-year-old Diana Nyad knows something about failing before succeeding. She made history today by swimming from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark cage (or flippers or a wet suit, for that matter). It was her fifth try to complete the 110-mile swim, and when she walked on to the shore, she said, “Never give up. You’re never too old to chase your dream.”
Fast-forward 56 years from that picture of my father. It’s the summer of 2013, and I’m about to have some pretty spectacular water experiences. First, it’s Pamukkale, a natural site of hot springs and travertines in the Denizli Province of southwestern Turkey. It’s appropriate that the word ‘pamukkale’ means ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish: the travertines — terraces of carbonate minerals left by flowing water — are an incredible sight, and they give an idea of what the Swiss Alps might look like if snow didn’t melt in 95-degree temperatures. I was visiting Pamukkale with my very good friends Rachel and Maggie, and spending a day playing in the natural pools at this UNESCO World Heritage site was a definite highlight of our two-week trip through Turkey.
My absolute favorite places to visit while traveling are natural wonders — from structures to cities, from staggering peaks to ecological phenomenons, I’m always struck by the resolve of what has always been to always be. Wading in the aqua-tinted water near the top of Pamukkale’s terraced travertines, feeling the thick white clay underneath me ooze through my fists when I scooped it up, looking at my toes peeping out of the water against a backdrop of what looked like the edge of the world… this was the most incredible place I’d ever seen. And, until I set my eyes on the Northern Lights, I’m betting it’ll stay that way.
On one of our last days in Turkey, Rachel and I experienced our first Turkish bath. Turkish baths, or ‘hammams,’ are a variant of the Roman steam-bath, distinguished by a focus on water. There are many different kinds of Turkish baths, and Rach and I knew we wanted to bathe as the locals did and forego the typical touristy, pricey hammam experience. And what better way to go local than to follow the locals? It was fun being given so much advice from the staff at a lovely cafe down the street from our Istanbul hostel – these Turkish men were very passionate about what a proper hammam experience should be. One of the young waiters had spent a decade working in New Jersey, and he told us a great story of how the first thing he did when he landed at JFK was hail a cab and ask to be taken straight to a hammam. (His Pakistani cab driver took him to a Russian bath room in Chinatown.) Wanting to make sure we got the authentic Turkish bath experience we were looking for, one of the young men walked us through back alleys and side streets to get to a hole-in-the-wall building that had a single sign reading, “Men today.” Oops! Rach and I returned the next day, happy to see the “Women today” sign, and excited to finally see what all the hammam hubbub was about.
If Pamukkale takes the cake for being the most unique natural wonder I’ve ever seen, then my first Turkish bath experience wins for the best ‘treatment’ I’ve ever had. First of all, the building had been a hammam for hundreds of years — historical significance never fails to get me in the door. The woman who attended to Rachel and me spoke no English, meaning we communicated with her through gestures and smiles during the two hours we were in the hammam, which worked out just fine. We began by laying on slabs of warm, white marble, looking up at an ornate ceiling with a large, circular window that daylight streamed in through. The attendant smiled at us, gesturing at us to relax, relax, lay back and relax…
I could write pages on the hammam experience and every glorious minute I spent there, but I’ll spare you the jealousy. I was exfoliated, sponge-bathed, and massaged; I was doused with warm water and cold water and soapy water and fresh water. I was moved from laying down in the bathing room to sitting up in a steam room, and I even had my hair washed. Never before had I been so pampered — all I had to was lift and stand and sit when told. I left the hammam with pink, glowing skin, muscles that felt like Jell-O, and the biggest smile on my face. There is something to be said for cultures in which utter relaxation and pampering is deemed important on a regular basis. Sometimes, we all need to let ourselves be taken care of for a little while.
When I wasn’t admiring or being pampered with water this summer, I was swimming in it. While in Berlin visiting my sister, I spent time with some of my best high school friends from Stuttgart — we had all planned to visit Berlin around the same time. I loved being back in Germany with them, and we spent one afternoon at one of the city’s “sees” (pronounced “zaye” but translates to lake/sea). It’s pretty much a rule that, come summer, Berliners head outside. For such a metropolitan city, there are so many fun outdoor activities to be enjoyed in Berlin, and spending a day hanging in the water and on the sand with old friends is one of them.
“The water understands civilization well,” Emerson wrote. I love that he called it THE water – a singular, restorative force. Here’s my something for you to wonder about today: what restores you? What gives you back your strength, what pulls your physical or emotional muscles, what takes your breath away with surprise and gratitude? When I’m handling the current, cutting the water with my arms, it reminds me I’m here, I’m moving – on and forward. I’m relishing a natural element that energizes me as much as it does challenge me. I’m wrapped up in something I know and trust.
And on that note – what makes you brave? While out in the choppy Indian Ocean waves of the rough eastern Sri Lanka current earlier this year, I didn’t feel so brave. I may have grown up embracing water, but sometimes, waves really unnerve me. It’s difficult to make the plunge sometimes. But you know how this ends – once you do, once you make the plunge and wade out and dive headfirst and come up laughing in the sunlight, salty water breaking over your grinning face, you know it was the right thing. You know that’s where you belong. Nothing – not failure, not disappointment, not anger – can take that feeling away from you. It’s just you and the water, you and the thing that gets you. That’s all there is.