My Autobiography In Water

by Ron Riekki

      The Sámi for water is cháhci. Liquid is golggus.
      The Finn for water is vesi. Liquid is neste.
      I’m Sámi and Karelian and Finn. Balkan too. I like to ask people sometimes to name their favorite Karelian writers. Their favorite Finnish movies. Their favorite Sámi poets and Balkan TV shows. And then I listen to the silence.
      I’m thirsty to tell you who I am.
      We had a pool when I was a kid. It was a nice one. For an above-ground pool. It broke—its side exploding—and flooded everything, but we got a lot out of it before then. I remember laughing and being cold as hell, and laughing and trying to stand on my hands with only my skinny legs visible, kicking at the world. And mostly I remember laughing. Even with how little we could use it. We were in northern Michigan. Northern, northern Michigan. Any farther north and you’d be outside the US. You’d be in water. In the lake. Lake Superior. But that lake is so cold it almost killed me.
      Cold and killed almost sound like the same word.
      I dove into Lake Superior one day in early May. Way too early to swim. My body went into shock. I could hardly swim, my body convulsing. I got back to the cliff, but I couldn’t pull myself up. I was too cold. It was too far to swim to the shore. I tried to pull myself up, but the problem was I couldn’t feel my legs. I didn’t know when I was putting them down on the rocks. My legs were completely numb. I just hung onto the side of the rocks, realizing I’d die if I didn’t do something. My cousin was at the top of the small cliff, looking down at me.
      “You all right?” 
      I swung my leg up, not knowing when it came down on the rocks. Later, I read that the most dangerous sense to lose is touch. People who lose the sense of touch can put their hand on a stove and not know, can cut themselves open and not realize they’re losing blood. I never swam in Lake Superior again, even after the numbness in my legs went away.
      Every year, someone’ll die on Presque Isle, where I jumped in without testing the water.
      A cousin of mine drowned in the lake. He was walking out on a breakwater during a storm. A huge wave took him into the water. Someone on shore saw and rushed out. He said he caught a glimpse of my cousin—his body floating upside down—and then another wave and my cousin was gone.
      My mother told me if she ever committed suicide, she’d do it by walking into a lake, never returning, not until she reached the bottom. I told her to never tell me anything like that ever again.
      In the military, right when I got out of boot camp, I got sent to Pensacola. As soon as I arrived, a new recruit drowned during rescue swimming training. His instructors forced him under water, and the other recruits were required to turn their backs and sing the national anthem. I didn’t know it at the time, but nine more people on the base would die before I got out: by the Guardia Civil, suicide, drinking, a helicopter crash, and a plane crash.
      Once I was honorably discharged, I got diagnosed with PTSD. The V.A. sent paperwork with details about the plane crash that happened when I was on Diego Garcia. I read it. I didn’t realize three people lived in that crash—two captains and a gunner. I’d been focusing for years on who died. I felt a rush of joy that three people lived. I needed to start focusing on who was alive. I was alive. I respect and pay homage and think about the three who died—a captain and two first lieutenants—daily. But three people lived.
      I’ve pretty much always lived near water—the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Montréal, Chicoutimi, Boston, Fort Myers, Berkeley, LA, Shanghai, and, of course, everywhere I was stationed in the military. There’s always been an ocean or lake or river by my apartment. Or at least close enough that a short drive would get me there. I could take off my shoes and walk along the edge of the shore, kicking my way along. I loved to try to find remote areas in Massachusetts and Florida so that I could be alone with an entire ocean.
      In Shanghai, the river was closed off like it didn’t exist or, even worse, was imprisoned. I said there was no river until someone insisted that of course, there was.
      “Don’t you see the wall?”
      “What wall?”
      “The long wall. The wall that’s everywhere. It blocks the river.”
      “Blocks it?”
      “Blocks it.”
      “Go look. You’ll see.”
      I went to look.
      I couldn’t climb the wall. I don’t do parkour. I followed along the edge until I got to a street lamp and a spot on the wall where there was a slight ledge. I climbed up to the top of the wall. I could see the river, the water. It didn’t look like water. It was too thick to be water. It definitely wasn’t the color of water. Not any water that I knew. It was the type of water where—and I actually thought this at the time—it looked like you could find something as disgusting as a body part floating. Later I’d find out that in March 2013 more than sixteen thousand pig corpses were thrown into the river.
      After the military, I went to college for my bachelor’s degree on the GI Bill.  The only thing I could think to study was religion. I wanted to understand death and life and as much of existence as I could because it felt like I knew nothing. As cliché as it was, I wanted to know the meaning of life. The big revelation I had during those four years studying theology was that “the meaning of life is to have meaning in life.”  It was one of the few individual ideas I thought were brilliant. At least at the time. Now I look back on that ten-word sentence and think maybe I needed to get a PhD in theology to really come up with something good. My appropriately named BS degree just wasn’t enough. But my studies did introduce me to the writings of a lot of genius minds—Martin Luther King Jr. in particular. I really got into his writings. I thought he was the most brilliant person ever. When he spoke, it made me want to change everything about myself. I was having rages in my body from intrusive memories where I just wanted to tear off my skin. And sometimes I’d actually try. But when Dr. King said words like “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” I could feel this intense wave through my body. I loved Martin Luther King Jr. at the time.
      Now that I’m older, I’m worried I don’t love as much anymore.
      I loved water as a kid. I’d walk down to Teal Lake in Negaunee to feel sane. I’d go to Little Presque Isle before people knew Little Presque Isle, before there were any markings showing how to get there, before any people were there. I remember the thrill of discovering a large island (that looked deceptively small from the shore) that you could walk to when the tide was low. You’d have to go up to your waist in the cold, cold water, but it was worth it. The island seemed to transform into different worlds as you walked around it, starting off as a quiet forest, then turning into a sandy, mountainous cliff, then into an extremely rocky shoreline that was dangerous in spots, and then back into forest again, each time seeming like it couldn’t be the same island.
      I remember in the course “New Testament and Its Age,” when we learned about Jesus turning water into wine, I wished he’d turned it back into water again. I come from a family of alcoholics—their doctor has told them that if they didn’t stop drinking, they were going to die, and they went ahead and stuck with the drinking. I remember wishing that Jesus could turn all the wine into water. And that he’d turn heroin into fish.
      My mother said one of the happiest moments in her life was when my little cousin visited her. My mother was in her late sixties, diagnosed with MS, not walking as much as she used to. She was largely immobile. It began to rain. My cousin said she wanted to go out in it. My mom said, “Go ahead.” And my little cousin said, “No, with you,” and tugged at her. My mother said “No, no, no, no,” and then said “Yes.” Something clicked. It was the joy of youth—how much she could feel my cousin wanted her to come along. So she did. So they went out into the rain and kicked puddles and danced and laughed as loud as tigers roar.
      “Knock, knock.”
      “Who’s there?”
      “Water who?” 
      “Water you doing still telling knock knock jokes?”
      I kissed a girl named Julie at Little Presque Isle and we were on a log with the water at our feet and it was the happiest moment of my life.
      Our dogs used to run along the beach and get as dirty as they possibly could, just hyperactive with excitement. Ebby would run up to us all innocent and then she would begin shaking so that she threw sand and dog water and what the hell else all over our clothes and skin and that little dog looked like she was having the best time in the world.
      I remember the fireworks in Negaunee, how they’d have them over Teal Lake, how sometimes the wind would change and blow the fireworks into the crowd below. This was forty years ago, back before all the safety precautions they supposedly have now. I remember little pieces of light, of flame, falling down near people’s blankets. Kids running. Some screams. Overreacting, probably. Nobody got hurt. But I remember laughing so hard. At how intense people can get. As if their lives were at stake.

Ron Riekki’s books include U.P. (Ghost Road Press), Posttraumatic (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle), and My Ancestors are Reindeer Herders and I Am Melting in Extinction (Loyola University Maryland’s Apprentice House Press). Riekki co-edited Undocumented (Michigan State University Press) and The Many Lives of The Evil Dead (McFarland), and edited And Here (MSU Press), Here (MSU Press, Independent Publisher Book Award), and The Way North (Wayne State University Press, Michigan Notable Book).