Above the sofa in my living room is a painting that once belonged to my grandfather. A picture of the sea: everywhere water. Peaks and troughs fill more than two-thirds of the frame, all done in deep greenish blues with paler blues for foam and spray. Whitecaps curl and spread on a crest far off and again nearby on the right; they trace the line of a wave’s summit. Their collapsed foam fans across the troughs, dissipating slowly into the green.
A full two thirds of the painting is water, and then the waves give way to a mottled sky. Pale blue appears here and there, but this sky is mostly clouds. They might be piled, light-filled cumulus, but here we mostly see their underbellies: marbled and heavy, the gray presiding over the restless water beneath.
My grandmother didn’t like the painting–and as an artist herself, my grandmother would know. She worked in pastels, charcoal and oils. I have several of her pieces hanging in my house; one of my favorites, a still-life of a pitcher, orange and paring knife, hangs in my kitchen.
She didn’t like the sea painting. It needs a boat, she said. A ship. It needs something.
Certainly, this painting couldn’t be called a landscape. There is no land in sight. If one were studying it, making any kind of analysis, it would clearly be called a seascape, void of object. The only focal points, I suppose, would be the two aforementioned crests, those patches of greatest whiteness where the water’s own action has overcome itself and reached its foaming crescendo.
If ever you’ve played in the ocean on anything like a rough day, you’ve known or feared that violence. There’s nothing on earth like it to make you feel your body is someone’s plaything. Caught by a wave, both pushed and pulled by the tremendous strength of the water, you can lose everything, including any sense you once had of gravity, of control, of the powers required for so normal a gesture as standing upright.
There is not a calm space in all of this painting, except perhaps in those very small places where pale blue sky breaks through the clouds. Otherwise, the sky is low and moody, full of terrible wind. The whole of the water’s surface, where it isn’t pulled into lines of waves, is sculpted by the wind; and the sky, which sports three distant seagulls, is rushing. The gulls, small white divots far-spread against the clouds, are each in a different attitude of flight. They aren’t so much flying as being flown, carried along by the wind.
My mother also doesn’t care for this painting. It needs a boat, she says, laughing and recalling my grandparents’ argument. But she isn’t so critical, my mother. She remembers, as I do, that my grandfather loved this painting.
My blue-eyed grandfather who was raised on salt-water, who loved the sea, and boats. She knows, and I know, too, why my grandfather loved this painting: there is a boat in this picture, and you–in this picture–are on it. This is a painting of what it’s like to be out on the water–far out, and trusting your skills as a sailor. Trusting the mast and the hull and your knowledge of sails and the wind. Knowing the sea itself isn’t so much the enemy. Knowing you can find your way home and that it will be a good time getting there.
My grandfather tried to teach me to sail, and I suppose I was somewhat compliant. I know how to rig the Sunfish, how to get her out and back again. But if the wind or waves play any tricks on me, I will be useless. I think I grew up too quickly–moving on to other, land-based things–to get anything like good at sailing.
I told my mother why I keep the painting, why it has a place of dominance in my living room. For starters, it fits there, so that’s something. And also, my grandfather loved it, so that’s something more.
But for me it’s also the water’s violence and, bereft of boat, the painting’s sense of isolation.
What would it be like to be out there? To be, beside the gulls, the sole living thing with a head above that plashing, wind-torn surface? To know there was not a chance at standing upright, at finding firm ground under my feet. That the only hope I had was the breath in my lungs and keeping it there, a skilled compliance with the water’s whims, the strength in my legs and arms and, when I knew this was spent, rest that came with trusting my back and my body to the invisible, merciful buoyancy of salt.
C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra imagines a world of water, an entire planet without solid ground. A single woman lives on this planet and is necessarily a swimmer. She finds rest on the floating mats of land, but these are not “fixed.” Even the land rides the surface of the water, undulating with the sea beneath it.
I keep this painting because of that novel, because the woman of Perelandra knows something I have known, am knowing, will know: that sometimes we don’t get from God what we think we want–which is security in this life, the ease that comes with our material needs being neatly met, the confidence that all is well and established and safe.
No. Sometimes God does not give us these things but offers us, instead, a better gift: to trust Him.
Some days, most days, I would just as soon not trust Him, thank you very much. I would have my bland securities, my safety nets, my tidy little banalities of self-confidence and self-provision.
But given these small idolatries, I would know nothing of the courage it takes to step out of the boat–and swim.
“‘Courageous. What is that?'”
“‘It is what makes you swim on a day when the waves are so great and so swift that something inside you bids you to stay on land.'”
“‘I know. And those are the best days of all for swimming.'”
We can know Him on the boat, but I think we learn Him so much better in the water.
We cannot walk out of God’s will: but He has given us a way to walk out of our will. And there could be no way except a command like this. Out of our own will. It is like passing out through the world’s roof into Deep Heaven. All beyond is Love Himself. I knew there was joy in looking upon the Fixed Land and laying down all thought of ever living there, but I did not till now understand.
— C.S. Lewis, Perelandra