Friday, December 24, 2010

Water, Ablutions, and Rebirth

Water has talismanic power. Surely ancient men marveled at its benign effects on the earth. They observed the Spring rains wash away Winter’s debris and nourish the seedlings buried in the soil. They concluded that water cleanses and contributes to rebirth.

No wonder, then, that water symbolizes physical and spiritual renewal in most of the world’s major religions. Christian sects spritz, pour, or dunk when they christen and baptize novices into a new life within the church. Followers of the Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, Zoroastrian, and Jewish faiths practice ritual cleansing before spiritual devotions, and several of these religions believe that flowing waters are holy places. Buddhists also celebrate the life cycle with water. At funerals, Buddhists often fill a vessel with water that overflows its rim to signify that all things flow from separate beings into one larger whole as rivers flow into the sea.

Secular texts, including books, poems, and plays, are full of symbolic references to water, and water signifies the same things it does in nature and religion: water cleanses and renews the physical world and the spirit. A few of my favorite literary works featuring water as a symbol appear below.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

By John Keats

In Keats’ sonnet, appearing above, the speaker longs to be constant, like a star that oversees the Earth, including the “moving waters” as they cleanse and purify. The speaker takes exception to being alone as a star is; he does not admire the star’s singular circumstance. Keats’ speaker wishes to be constant with his beloved. If he must be alone, he’d rather “swoon to death.”

Barbara Kingsolver plays against reader expectations for water as a purifying, sustaining, or renewing element in Kingsolver’s epic story, The Poisonwood Bible, a novel that recounts the story of the Price family in Africa in the late 1950s and 60s when Mrs. Price, Orleanna, washes “up … on the riptide of … [her] husband's confidence and the undertow of … [her] children's needs.” With these water references, Orleanna introduces ominous tones for her move to Africa. Riptides and undertows are dangerous; they carry people far from shore and may even overpower the swimmer. Water, for Orleanna, signifies a mighty foe just as it does for her guilt-ridden husband, Nathan, who hopes to be reborn by proselytizing to and saving the Kilangans. He preaches an urgent message to them, trying to persuade them that they are evil, born in and of sin, living in sin. He offers salvation and invites them to join him at the river’s edge so that they may be forgiven and reborn through baptism, but the Africans ignore his condemnation and his version of salvation. They know that the river is fraught with danger, foremost among them the alligator. The Kilangans refuse the rebirth that Nathan offers; they do not believe that they need to be washed down the gullet of a huge reptile in order to the washed clean. They simply continue their labor, accepting their fate and living meekly.

More often, water signifies a clean, fertile force in nature. W. H. Auden’s poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” opens and closes with a reference to a “brimming river” that continues even after humans have passed away. His use of the river suggests a life force that persists and continues well beyond the life span of men and women.

For both Stephen Daedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, water is dirty or polluted in the early chapters of the novels, when fear and doubt governs both characters. In the first book of Stephen’s story, school mates shove him into a dirty puddle of water, and he struggles to be free of the filth that seems to penetrate his spirit. Similarly, Raskolnikov exists in a filthy city, St. Petersburg, Russia, where the river’s stench invades his soul. By the closing chapters of both novels, the water runs clean and reflects the sun, mirroring the transformation in the characters from lost to found. Stephen accepts himself as an artist while standing on the shore, gazing upon a woman wading in the sea, a brilliant sky above. Raskolnikov relents his alienation and disease as he looks across a clean, fast-running stream where Sonya waits for him.

Water then, like archetypal characters, ripples with symbolic possibilities. A writer relies upon your understanding of water’s natural properties to purge old, dead growth and renew. Spiritual men have transferred the natural properties of water and endowed them with religious significance. Writers make use of both and may even contrast our expectations for water with new, challenging ideas in order to add irony or advance our understanding of a character’s growth.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all of the work listed in this post. These include: John Keats’ “Bright Star,” Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Writing Challenge:

Write a poem, tell a story, or create a “fabulous reality” that makes use of water, an archetypal symbol.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Pesky Apostrophes

I often receive mail incorrectly addressed because, somehow, apostrophes have wiggled their way into the plural form of family names. For example: A letter to everyone in the family might begin “Dear Smith’s” or the outside envelope might read “To All the Jones’s.”

Why? Plural forms do not need apostrophes! Only possessive forms of words need apostrophes. Allow me to illustrate.

• All dogs go to heaven.
• All dogs wear collars.
• Where are the dogs’ collars?
• A dog’s heaven is surely paved with rawhide.

We need no apostrophe to transform one dog into several. We simply add an “S.” On the other hand, when we wish to communicate that something belongs to or with a dog, we must add the apostrophe to signal a possessive form.

Proper surnames are not different. John Doe is one man in a family correctly written as “Does” (not to be confused with female deer or action verbs). Mary Smith is one woman in a family correctly written as “Smiths.” So when you address an invitation to all the “Does” or all the “Smiths,” tell the apostrophe to stay home alone.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach