New Yorkers like to brag about how good our drinking water is, straight from the tap. And, okay, New Yorkers like to brag about a lot of things—but the drinking water really is excellent. When I left the city for Maine, though, I went straight to the salt water.
The closest thing I’ve ever had to a spiritual experience was my sophomore year when I jumped naked off the banks of Merritt Island and my body was illuminated by a brightness more radiant than any starlight or sunlight or moonlight. As I scissor-kicked and then dove underwater to watch ribbons of tiny bioluminescent organisms dance in my trail, I found myself connected to the wholeness of the natural world.
My mom and dad both love to swim, which is one of the few things they have in common. My mother has a strong sidestroke and never gets into the water without shrieking joy. My father is impervious to cold and is always determined to be the last one out. I inherited all of these traits, to the combined chagrin and amusement of my friends waiting in the Merritt Island shallows.
There is something special about water—especially salt water, which has the added bonus of tasting and smelling delicious—because it holds you and supports you. I wrote my college essay about swimming, the bone-deep value it has for bodies like mine, which can’t run any distances or play contact sports but find lightness when submerged.
When I left the waters of New York for the waters of Maine, I was thinking (worrying) a lot about my parents, my health and all the things I would have to learn to deal with at college. But I was eager for the ways in which moving to Maine felt like coming home. When I was small, I watched the ashes of my beloved great-grandparents—and their siblings, and my great-uncle—fall into the choppy waves of the Merepoint Bay. My roots are in the water.
One other thing my parents have in common is that they both went to Bowdoin. As I prepared my collegiate life and they planned their lives post-impending divorce, I was unconsciously, but desperately, searching for ways to reconcile that which was breaking and that which was beginning—the end of a family unit and the creation of new adult lives. Somewhere between Smith Union, the beauty of Reid State Park and the comfort of that Merepoint Bay, I found the lines of family that stretch far beyond the four walls of one single house.
My friendships solidified through bike rides to Simpsons’ Point, sunrises at Morse Mountain and the rope swing at Sewell Pond. Old relationships are revitalized, energized with laughter and whispered confessions during skinny-dips at so many places we shouldn’t have been skinny-dipping. And I look at my friends now—we can talk about anything, they have given me everything and all the while the tide rolls in and the tide rolls out.
As for spiritual experiences—that was a type of learning I wasn’t so worried I’d face at college (the concern leant more towards drinking game rules and talking to strangers). But ever since Merritt Island, I see the vastness of the ocean in a new, complexly joyful, light. (Everyone should swim in the bioluminescence. If you don’t like swimming, just go wave your hand in the water.)
As I prepare to graduate, I objectively have nothing figured out. I’m not one of the seniors who has landed their dream job, despite the Career Planning Center’s valiant efforts. I don’t know where I want to be in four weeks (yes, graduation is only four weeks away), much less four years. My parents are still divorced and I still struggle with chronic illness and I’m gripped by a terror my best friends will immediately forget me after graduation.
But also, they probably won’t. I’ll probably find something to do with my time and I’ll probably move home, where the drinking water really is delicious. In the end, I’m maybe more afraid of leaving the coastal pockets that have been my havens than I am of anything else. But they’ve been there, and they’ll be there—and if the ocean has taught me anything, it’s that you can always rely on the tide.
Penelope Lusk is a member of the Class of 2017.