And just like that, Mark and I are back in Spain. As many times as I’ve flown over the years, it never ceases to amaze me that you can start the day on one continent and end it on another.
In addition to unpacking our suitcases over the last few days, we’re also been unpacking several boxes and bins that have been in our storage room since our departure in March. We rented out our apartment this summer, which generated a nice bit of cash. But of course we couldn’t leave our personal things in a rental, so away it all had to go. I still haven’t found the bath mats, but life is full of little mysteries like that. Anyway, we’re mostly done now, but it’s been a long few days. So today we knocked off for a while and went swimming – floating, mostly – in the Mediterranean.
We didn’t have to go far; a little beach lies just about 150 yards from our building. We strolled there after the sun had begun to lower in the sky, which was the prettiest shade of blue and adorned with fluffy, white clouds. We had a grand time and felt refreshed in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s like being rehydrated inside and out. One of my favorite parts is when the salt water settles on your lips and you lick it off. It’s like something in your body recognizes that taste, that tang. I don’t know. Maybe that happens because our kind began its journey in such water, with the first amino acids making funny, insignificant chains in the vast seas of a younger Earth. And later, each of us floated in our mothers’ wombs before being born. Maybe our body remembers and rejoices in the gentle roll of the waves; maybe our cells cry out in delight at the familiar feel.
But as lovely as contemplating water at the beginning of life may be, the water today made me think about its end. This wasn’t a morbid concern about drowning; where we were, the water only comes up to your waist if you stand up in it. No, I was thinking about the fact that the water we were in has existed across space and time, endlessly recycling by way of evapotranspiration. Today a certain drop of water was in the Mediterranean, but two weeks ago it might have been in China. Two hundred years ago, it might have been part of a rainstorm that watered my ancestors’ crops in Connecticut. Two thousand years ago it may have been in a goblet of wine that Cleopatra drank while toasting Julius Caesar. Two million years ago a Homo erectus may have stared at its face in a pool containing my water drop. Two hundred million years ago that drop may have been in one of the ponds appearing between the chunks of Pangea that were slowly moving apart. And perhaps in twenty years, but certainly in two hundred, the drop of water that entered me when I licked my lips will have to be somewhere else than in me, be I won’t exist any more. The water will, though.
And that led me to wonder about how we talk about the end of life. In church, when we contemplate our mortality, we talk about “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.” This makes sense on some level, because ashes and dust are about all that’s left after a body deteriorates. But we’ve skipped a step here! When a plant or an animal dies, its body, its physical being, dries out (witness what may be in your refrigerator right now!). The water leaves – and then it moves back into circulation. It goes down a drain or into a pipe or into the ground. And then it joins another body, or a rain cloud, or a lake. Maybe it seeps into an aquifer and hides underground in a slow-moving journey through porous rock laid down millions of years ago. And maybe, just maybe, it finds its way to the Mediterranean, where it lands on the lips of a happy woman floating under blue skies and puffy white clouds on a Sunday afternoon.
So what I’m saying is this: maybe instead of thinking about ashes to ashes, we could think of our lives and our deaths as water to water. We are not ultimately dry and brittle bits to be blown away by the first puff of wind to come along. No, we’re water to water, endlessly moving and nourishing and giving life. And I’m grateful for that.