Column: Sweat, Tears or the Sea

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Welcome to the other side of the solstice: light is waning but abundant, still at its strongest and letting us stare deep and long into the world and into ourselves. This solstice is the triumph of life to its fullest, heralding the certainty of harvest in a moment of lavish light.

In my family’s traditions, midsummer meant a bonfire: the Bonfires of St. John. But not just a fire anywhere, a bonfire at the beach. Family members would make an ajiaco, a stew of root vegetables, plantains, corn on the cob and pumpkin that is cooked with tasajo, a Latin beef jerky. The ajiaco is a rich dish eaten with rice or bread but always sprinkled with lime juice at the last moment. The dish was reserved for big dinners and it accentuated the confluence of African, European and Indigenous cultures. We were taught that eating ajiaco connected us to the summer — the warmth of the world — and to our ancestors.

While I was growing up in Florida, we only celebrated one afternoon and evening but I was constantly told stories that the festival was supposed to last five days, creating a carnival-like atmosphere. It included costumes, dancing, parades, pageantry, a presentation of bulls, and the usual recounting of stories. Finally, on the fifth day — the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul — everyone would go to the giant straw and wood “doll” that had been built in one of the town plazas and burn it down, ending the festival celebrations With the burning of the doll, went all the negative energy in the town.

By the way, this is all totally not Pagan just, you know, traditions from the “Old Country.”

For us in Florida, though, when celebrating midsummer, there were three things you were supposed to do over the course of the day and into the night besides eat the ajiaco. The first of these was to jump over a small fire at least once. A small burning log was separated from the fires for us to jump over for the kids. The second thing was to bring herbs like basil, rosemary and oregano to wash in the surf. They were then bundled together and hung to dry at home, forming little salt crystals all over them. They were to be used during the next few days for both culinary and spiritual purposes.  The third thing we were supposed to do is to stand with your back to the ocean and fall backwards into it seven times.

Let me just note one more time that this is all totally not Pagan. They’re just fun traditions, you know, from the “Old Country.”

The Blue Hole at Ichetucknee Springs [S. Ciotti].

The last of these tasks has always stuck with me: falling backwards into the ocean. Now, just to be clear, I don’t recommend this without looking first, especially where I live.  Every Floridian knows not to go into any body of water — no matter how small — without a thorough inspection. Florida is constantly trying to kill you. No need to help it along.

But the act of entering water is spiritual, and falling backwards into it is both an act or trust as well as respect. While midsummer often focuses on bonfires, gardens and hikes — the stuff of the fire and earth — this is also the time of the year when many of us immerse ourselves in the waters of the world. We return to ocean, to beaches, to rivers and lakes, and creeks. It is a time when we need water the most. The heat of the summer demands we drink more to stay safe; and bathing in it cools us from heat.  This is a time of year that brings an opportunity to reconnect with the one substance that seems to be required for all life; the essence of the summer solstice.  There is no “us” without water, and in a very real way, we are water; we must return to it. As a shaman told me decades ago, “They like to tell us we are dust, but the truth is, we are water.”  We all go back to the water.

Despite its necessity for our survival and our spirit as a species, we seem to take every opportunity to collectively and consistently abuse  and ignore water. We do not revere it because it is common. In fact, we waste it will little regard. We pollute it specifically because of its abundance; we try to control it because of its utility.

Water exposes our human obsession with control.  We hear the echoes of our controlling nature in how we speak of water. We try to isolate it, keeping it away from us but allowing it to approach only on our terms, to what we choose: energy, art, or tea . We describe it as dangerous and irrepressible, and it is.

Offshore on the Atlantic Ocean [M. Tejeda-Moreno].

Its danger to us is not about its properties; it’s about our abuse of the world around us. Floods are not dangerous if we stop demanding to live where water belongs. The same is true for storm surges, even flash floods. In that sense, it is us prescribing to the planet where and how we will live that causes the damage.

Water floats our human gifts and aspirations. We learn to use water for communication and navigation. We sail for discovery and understanding, and use water to craft the world around us. Our buildings are possible because of water. Harnessing electricity became possible because of water.

Likewise, water drowns us in our human failures. The water crisis of Flint, Michigan exposes the environmental racism that plagues our civilization. It is through water that we witness how power, politics, and money continue to subordinate and even sacrifice communities of color. Our colonization was first made possible because of water. We also witness, in places like Fiji, how some of the purest waters on the planet are commodified to favor a hegemonic class. We see that social privilege in the most egregious wastes of water, lawns and golf courses; two spaces that exist only to mark class status.

As a species, we have been very busy destroying our water resources. We have decimated the Aral Sea, and we’ve been busy pressuring the North American Great Lakes ecosystems with urban and agricultural runoff. There are fewer and fewer unadulterated bodies of freshwater on every continent from streams, to rivers to lakes. It will come with a cost to our collective security and survival.

I’m reminded of a pataki about Orisha Olokun, the Orisha of the abyss. S/he is an androgynous Orisha separate from the better-known Yemaya of Yoruba religion, the Orisha of ocean surfaces and patron of the Ogun River in Nigeria. Orisha Yemaya is the mother of all, and she is present in the calm of the sea. But it is Olokun that is the power of the ocean and the rage of the maelstrom. Olokun is the water of life and the wellspring of all riches. S/he is the place where no one — not even fish — can go. The pataki is about two of his/her servants, one humble and the other arrogant. When Olokun asked the servants what they wished for, the humble servant said, “only to serve,” and so the servant was brought into the depths to learn Olokun’s secret wisdom and live in his/her riches. The other servant said he want only to live away from Olokun, and so Olokun cast him onto the land where he would only witness the famine and suffering of humankind, denied the greatness of waters. That servant cries endlessly to this day.

I think summer reminds us of that bargain. While the solstice brings the blessings of the sun, reentering Earth’s waters gives us a moment to reflect on Olokun’s choice.  Honoring water can offer us security, health and abundance; but disgracing it offers only the fate of the arrogant servant.

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