When I was young, I traveled with my sister for an entire summer, moving steadily south through Europe, seeking the fabled warm countries. At last, we arrived by ferry boats in the Greek Islands. Sea was everywhere, all around. Our southernmost destination was Crete, where I fell in love with the ancient Minoan culture, seemingly a creation of the land and sea around us. In the archeological museum in Heraklion,we saw paintings and pottery covered with octopus and spirals, laughing dolphins and lovely people, queens and dancers, a world of beauty and art. But soon we left the cities behind, and took a bus to the top peak of the central mountain range on the island, taking only small backpacks with a single change of clothes and a bathing suit. From there we hiked the famed Samarian Gorge in our sandals, descending 6000 feet through the ever-narrowing valley, increasingly enchanted. We followed the sweet cold river, resting to dip our aching feet, and as the day waned we began to smell the salt sea. At the end of the ten kilometer walk, passing through walls so close we could touch them as the river trickled through the round stones under our feet, we came out to the ocean waves on the southern shore of the island. From there we rode a ferry to the nearest town, escorted by a school of flying fish, jeweled jumpers that seemed magical emissaries of the sea.
Our lodging for the next few days was a concrete hut near the old Venetian fort, without power and bare except for cots and a basin with a bucket of fresh water. But we were right by the sea. Every day we swam and floated in the buoyant ocean, the waves breaking on a reef further out and the water serenely lapping on the white sand beach. The breeze was soft, the sun drifted in and out of high clouds, and the salty ocean held me. I lay on my back and drifted, the sun warming me just enough. With no clock near, I didn’t know or care how much time passed. I was outside of time in a timeless place. In the knee-deep sea I let myself be mesmerized by the net of light playing over the dancing water. Looking south across the Libyan Sea, I imagined continuing on to Egypt, letting myself stay always near these turquoise waters.
I didn’t stay, but thought I would return to those isles someday. I never have, but I often visit these waters in memory. In dental chairs or on gurneys awaiting a surgery, I travel in my mind to these seas, where the water upholds me, as I float in a web of sunlight under a blue sky, held in the soft saltwater, weightless and free.
Thirty years later, I again found refuge in water. During recovery from a difficult orthopedic surgery, I was directed by my doctor to seek water therapy. I found a physical therapy practice in a fitness center behind a shopping mall which had a warm pool where the therapists exercised their patients. Soon I was invited to use the pool outside of appointments and thus began my early morning devotion. I would rise with the sun, grab my swim bag and head out, driving the opposite way of the morning commute. Once at the gym, I flashed my pass at the desk clerk, made for my favorite locker, quickly changed out of my pajamas into my suit, had a quick shower and steeled myself for the short walk in the cold air. The glass walls of the enclosing gazebo were fogged over and inside it was warm; I had arrived in a magical space and had it all to myself. As I settled my things on the bench, I could hear the slap of hands on the water in the long pool outside, where the morning swimmers were doing their laps, back and forth, back and forth. For years I had been one of them, but now I plugged my ears and fitted myself into the float vest. The vest was designed to assist the therapist in floating a patient, but the vest and a tube under my knees kept me supported on my own. Completely rubberized – cap, vest, swim jacket and shoes, I would float, encased but content, and let go. Here I did use time, for there was a wall clock for the appointments. If I could have 20-30 minutes in the warm water, I was able to reach my blissful state.
Soon, too soon, the door would open and the therapist would bustle in, leaving the door open “to let out all this steam,” or a patient would arrive early. I was careful to keep my eyes down, for the solitude of the soak was what I craved, not chat, which led too often to a litany of woes.
I went to the therapy pool for about a year, but finally tired of the chlorine and interaction which necessarily followed my healing morning drifts. There was too much self-loathing in the women’s changing room, though they only ever changed their clothes, not their hearts and minds. By then I had removed my ear plugs, and in the end, no amount of mental wall-building was keeping out the miasma of body hatred in that place. So I finally let it go.
Another decade passed, bringing more physical challenges – my entrance to midlife was littered with walkers, scars and disabilities – and after the winter holidays, I said to my husband, Let’s go somewhere. We discussed options and I sadly vetoed the beach as being too cold. I wanted water, and I wanted to be warm.
Thus I found Wilbur Hot Springs, in remote Colusa County in northern California, down five miles of a bumpy gravel road, in foothills that bear the corrugated look of land that has been folded under the stress of plate tectonics, creating fissures in the earth that allow these deep mineral waters to come to the surface. Past a sign that says “Time to Slow Down,” I again found the healing power of water. The bathhouse has three long “contemplation” pools, offering increasing degrees of heat, each minimally mixed with cold spring water to make them tolerable, and ever-flowing through the pools. The water is a bright green, and smells of sulphur, which recedes as the nose adjusts to it. Other beneficial minerals, among them calcium, magnesium, sodium chloride, silica, and a trace of lithium, leave yellowish deposits on the walls of the pools and on the rocks in the creek, and all of these absorb through the skin. Here in the silent fluminarium we joined the ancient ritual of “taking the waters.”
Whenever I can, I make a pilgrimage to Wilbur’s thermal paradise, to be held lightly in its mineral waters, in the quiet, free of voices except the ever-flowing burble and song of Sulphur Creek. The last time I was at Wilbur, I held my phone recording app out to the eloquent creek and captured its voice. The water in the creek does not rest in its bed, but plunges over the rocks, burping in little coves, swirling around meanders, flushing along, singing its song. To listen to it is a meditation. Afterward, I dress without rinsing, so soft and alive does my skin feel. Even my hair, crusty at first, brushes out to a fine shine. The blissful state continues on long after I have risen like an aging Aphrodite from the green pools, attended by angels of ease and sleep and visions.
Water has been my refuge all of my life. Entering the water, unencumbered by possessions, clothing, cares, worries and expectations, I have found a portal to another world, the place of healing. Within me, my blood laps the walls of my arteries, pulsing from organ to limb, answering the ever flowing movement of water. Surely these waters are the wombs of earth, recalling the deep memory of being rocked in the wombs of our mothers, our first homes to which we wish always to return.
The prompt was to present how the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and the fifth sacred element, spirit, play out in our lives.