Flat light and shadows make it hard to see on this late January afternoon. A layer of slush coats the pavement. I’m about to drive home, though I’m not sure where I’ve been.
It’s a new year, a new wave. I barely notice the vocabulary of the pandemic anymore: coronavirus, Covid-19, mask, social distance, quarantine, Zoom, Fauci, bubble, distance learning, ventilator, vaccination, booster, variant, Delta, Omicron, wave. You can keep all the words, but leave me that last one; leave me wave. The term has been so much in the news in recent weeks that it suffers from semantic satiation. I had to stop and look it up to be sure I still had a grip on its meaning. “Wave,” I read, comes from the Old English wagian, “to fluctuate, undulate.” As a noun, it goes back to the Old Norse vagr, meaning a “moving billow of water.” Thanks to my search for etymology, I stumbled upon these lines from the English poet Stevie Smith: “I was much farther out than you thought / And not waving but drowning.”
That’s a bit how it feels. A hand raised toward a stranger and a wan smile under the mask as I walk across a parking lot, key in hand, unable to find the car. Things have blurred. So I look for landmarks and hope to remember the meaning of the word wave as it was when I first learned it and it stood for something distinct.
Wandering the blacktop and trying to pin the word, the world, into place, I return to my first memories of waves. As a child, my parents would pile my sister, my brother, and me into our car every summer for a one-week trip to Cape Cod. I remember the cottage on Sylvan Lane, the smell of pine and rosehips, the damp porch I shared with my sister. But mostly I remember the days we spent in the waves at Nauset Light Beach in Eastham. We would wake at dawn and pack the car full of beach supplies. You could hear the surf as soon as you opened the car door. Massive, white-tipped waves crashed mercilessly onto the shore. We’d race over the sand, throw our things in a heap, and tumble into the water.
I recall those days as exhilarating, exhausting, and terrifying. My dad could outlast anyone in the ocean, but I was determined to be a close second. We would swim out beyond the break and wait for the huge walls of water to crest before launching our bodies forward and paddling like crazy, hoping to catch the surge and be driven all the way up the beach. Most of the time the waves came too close together, and just as you thought you had escaped one, another arrived to pummel you into the sand or tumble you under the water.
I learned early to dive into the biggest waves, popping up on the other side only to see another one right behind. It was a race for your life, or at least that’s how it felt when I was eight or nine years old. “Come out of the water!” my mom would yell. “You’re turning into a prune.” But I’d stay in until I was shaking with cold.
The car is exactly where I left it. Fumbling with the door, I can only think of a beached whale. A booster seat in the back is covered with the crumbs of the last snack. The floor mats are caked with salt and sand from the recently plowed roads, tiny seascapes etched in the undulating grooves of black rubber like the ribbons of sandy flats where my dad would dig for clams at low tide.
My seatbelt feels stiff as I pull it across my coat. The waves of my childhood seem benign and concrete compared to the swells of the pandemic and the ambiguity of the present moment. I know (because I am told) that we are in the midst of the third wave of virus, but it feels like the same wave forever mounting and failing to crest. I remember once seeing the Hudson River off the west side of Manhattan frozen solid on a frigid morning, the waves caught splashing the piers like crystal sculptures. It made me feel slightly sick and stuck, as I do now. Nothing is moving; nothing has changed. Though I read and hear a familiar word, wave, none of the lessons I learned in the water apply. The deadening repetition leaves me with the sense that language itself is going adrift, along with the slippage of so many seemingly ordinary things (hugs, smiles) into the riptide of Covid. Except a riptide moves fast. Things caught in the pandemic just drift farther and farther out until you can barely make out their outlines anymore.
I am driving now along a section of road I know with my eyes closed. In a moment, the lanes will divide and I will be passed by someone in a hurry. To the left and right, fields are covered in a thin film of snow, and if I scrunch up my eyes and stare at the horizon it almost looks like a pane of glassy ocean.
Let’s not call this thing a wave. It has been up and down, unrelenting. But leave me the word for the billowing water, and find something else for the undulations of Covid. I can’t let this word be relegated to the sick ward of speech—commingling with language that has been infected, perhaps fatally. Bubble no longer conjures a soapy film floating in midair. Years from now, I can imagine hearing the word mask and being brought back to the damp fabric against my mouth, the smell of neoprene. No. I’m keeping wave. Because we will need it again someday for other things, for a trip to the beach and the frothy tipped sheets of blue racing to catch our feet.
I know it is futile to resist the pull of the tide. I stood there too in the cool sand and felt the holes hollowing under my heels with each retreat of the water. I built the castles too close to the sea and watched them disappear in the blink of an eye. I left my shovel and my dress where the water could lap them up and carry them away. I once saw a little girl pulled out in a heartbeat beyond the break. And here I am, trying to reel “wave” from the deep just as I tried (and I failed) to dredge my sneaker from the black pit of ocean swirling under the jetty one night, knowing it was already carried beyond reach.
But I’m doing it anyway. I’m holding onto wave as if it were some bit of debris I might use for a raft. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, it feels like we are all much farther out than we thought, caught between waving and drowning. There is no rest in the waves. They pound against the same shore relentlessly, emblems of consistency, indifference, and what Nietzsche called the “eternal return.” Depending on how you look at it, that is one of the most terrifying or consoling ideas in western philosophy.
Pulling into our driveway, I slow the car and let it coast into place over the bumpy ice. When I was small, my parents drove a wheat-colored Volkswagen Rabbit. On long trips, I was relegated to the shelf under the back windshield, lying flat with my face pressed against the cool window. My older sister took the back seat, and my little brother occupied the floor in his sleeping bag. We traveled that way, stacked like a layer cake or a sedimented dune. Outside the back window I would watch the trails of car lights in the dark streaming like jewelry on the highway. Christmas lights always remind me of those car trips, but the line on the stone wall that should be twinkling in the dusk has shorted out again. I cut the engine and head inside.
Was it Orwell who taught us that when we lose our words we lose ourselves? At first it seems unimportant to give up a word here or there. After all, we have so many. But at a certain moment, it begins to feel that we are losing our way, that everything we are saying has been inflected by meaning we never intended. Sense shifts. Then we can find ourselves with piles of meaningless words, those words Orwell worried had lost connection with “any discoverable object.” In The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane wrote, “Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed—fading away like water on a stone.” Orwell and Macfarlane were thinking about different kinds of losses, but both hoped to secure words to the solid things they stand for by sending us back to the sites of our lives, back to the water and the dirt, the snow and the sand. When today’s children hear wave, will they think to run and plunge?
“You’re swimming!” I told my girls when they were tiny and frantically scooping the water to stay afloat. “You’re doing it!” Now I would like to take them to the seashore and let them feel the rhythmic pulse of the water against their bodies, watch them dive into the real waves, the salty ones you can taste on your lips.
My boots are squeaking as I cross the snow. It’s winter in the Northeast, too cold for swimsuits or the beach, but like a cheerleader on the sidelines of a game I don’t understand, I am telling them anyway, “You’re such good swimmers! Keep going!” I haven’t told them about my plan to rescue the word. They don’t know that I am on a quest to keep it safe for them, to keep it afloat and alive for that moment when we emerge, look back, and marvel at everything that remains. “Look, a word,” I’ll say. And they will peer into my hands and hear the sea.
I pause on the step to feel the sharp air and listen to the trees creak. Everything is draped in gray, and I suddenly remember the color of the giant conch shell we once found on the Cape, my dad holding it up to my ear so that I could hear the whoosh and swish of air as if it were the water. My brother hoisted it into his little hands and started to run, only to stumble and drop it on his toe. A bright line of blood spilled onto the sand. “Never mind,” my dad said, “we’ll cook it.” He took the shell back to the cottage and boiled it in a huge pot over a fire outside until, to my horror, a thick black mollusk oozed out—which he sautéed in butter and served to us in wedges like pieces of old tire on a white plate.
Inside, the lights seem too bright. I drop my coat in a pile on the bench. I am not sure where the day went or how the sun dipped so early behind the gaunt trees. We are learning to swim and to speak all over again with each new wave. Except that we are not at the ocean. It’s 11 degrees outside. My girls are standing in their pajamas in the hallway, ready for tooth-brushing and bedtime stories, waving to me.
I hold the word in my mouth. Wave. I can picture my dad bobbing out ahead of me at Nauset Light. I’m little and a wave is rising behind him in a tower of blue. I can feel a slight panic rising as I try to gauge whether to dive or ride. He’s grinning and stretching his arms out to start swimming. We’re on our own together. I can hear him calling out across the water, “It’s a big one! Swim Meg! SWIM!”
The author with her brother chasing waves at the Cape
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