"To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice." ~ Confucius
"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it . . . I am haunted by water." -- Norman Maclean
I make my living on water. Water of life, water of death. The same water that provides a living for thousands, gathers strength and brings death to thousands more. The same wind that blew ashore here in Pompano Beach, Florida, for surfers to enjoy, blew a storm surge ashore in Mississippi wrecking thousands of lives and livelihoods. The same warm wind and water that usually provides pleasure in Florida, flexes its strength a thousand miles later, and smashes a pleasure coast.
I make my living on water bringing death. I work in America's deadliest occupation, as an Alaska fisherman. I spend my summers looking down with less than a god-like dispassion at gasping fish suffocating for lack of liquid oxygen and realize they are me and I am them. We are all afloat in waters that bring us life, and wash us all away whenever they care.
How beautiful hurricanes look from space. How ethereal and terrible, both frightening and exalted, as we see in this image of Mitch. The powerful storms that smash our homes--and casinos, pleasure domes, amusement rides, and roads--arrive without malice, like a fisherman casting a wide net. Indeed, the smashed fishing boats pushed ashore in Mississippi resemble dead fish, carcasses drying in the sun at the tide line.
The drowned bodies in New Orleans will tell no tales, but their remains will speak volumes. Some will be featureless and grotesque, but each of them once had dreams. They loved and were loved. They laughed and cried. They lived humdrum, petty little lives, yet exalted lives, filled with fears and quiet bravery and pathetic desires. They lived large, at times, when filled with some animated spirit, some exuberant, liquid spirit that departed in a brief moment of terror.
And their bodies drifted away. Drowned. The dead bodies became mere carcasses without that animated spirit.
When we find them, in the attics and closets and crawl spaces of New Orleans, they'll become human again, briefly. We'll pity them far more than we pitied the exhausted, insistently pleading, rescued folks left homeless in New Orleans. As the corpse of William Holden noted in Sunset Boulevard, "Then they . . . fished me out ever so gently. Funny how gentle people get with you once you're dead."
Imagine all the haunted structures, all the haunted houses, that New Orleans will have in the years to come. Ghosts everywhere. That sound in the attic of ten thousand water-soaked houses will be the restless spirits of people suddenly trapped and drowned. New Orleans will become the most haunted city in the world, surrounded by water, itself haunted.
I am delighted yet afraid of water. Rivulets and creeks and quiet lakes intoxicate me; storms at sea and flooded rivers fill me with dread. I find myself hypnotized by water--I cannot look away for long. I suspect most humans feel the same. We find ourselves drawn to water, without realizing that tide--the Moon's gravity--pulls ourselves and oceans in the same direction. Then we realize we're a body of water, a saltwater sea, an inland sea, 70 percent water, haunted by a spirit. A spirit terrified and mesmerized by the ocean, indeed all water. We're haunted by water.
I believe that when a person dies, their spirit dissolves, escapes and becomes a gentle mist through evaporation. Whenever rainfall moistens the earth, the dissolved spirits of everyone who ever lived falls upon us. They flow into our rivers to the sea and begin the process again. Evaporating into clouds, becoming ice crystals, each spirit becomes continually transformed, sometimes as individual snowflakes, each with its own distinct design.
Absurd? Why then did this enigmatic man, Jesus, describe "living water" throughout the four accounts of his life? Why did he spend so much of his time concerned with the mysterious powers of water? Why so many cryptic references to water? What did He know that we don't?
A widow of a New York fireman--a man killed when the South Tower collapsed--watched her young son describe seeing his father in the clouds, from 30,000 feet. "I see daddy on the clouds!" Marian and Aidan Fontana were on their way to Hawaii, three months after the attack.
Dave Fontana, the fireman, spent ten years of his life weaving life-saving patterns in water for the NYPD, before suddenly departing life in an instant. Months later, on that flight to Hawaii, his five-year old son, Aidan cried out, "Look mommy, I can see him!" I do not doubt Aidan "saw" his father. Dave Fontana was there, where only a child could see him clearly.
Later that week, Marian Fontana described feeling the spirit of her husband all around her, although she was half a world away. She watched her son Aidan frolic in the surf, much as Dave loved to do. "I feel my heart racing with excitement . . . It seems like every possible emotion is filling my heart, stretching like an overblown balloon. I can feel Dave everywhere. The warm beach air is his breath, his voice whispering on the surf. For the first time I listen to him, my ears poised to hear his reedy voice when he says, 'I am right here with you'."
That same afternoon, firefighters found his body.
We are haunted by water. And that water is within us, flowing through us, the source of much longing, of loneliness, pain and redemption. I do not know anything more than this: That water is an exalted power that refreshes and pleases us--and often kills us without malice--but may one day welcome us too.