Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep Eternity—
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
This is the time of year the monotony of life especially gets to me, a time when the day-to-day routine is all too familiar. Add the stress of the holidays, and I start to want to withdraw, from responsibility, from expectation. I seek something else, something beyond the minutia, some divine intoxication, as Dickinson so aptly coins in the above poem. She likens this feeling to the first leg of a sailor's journey out to sea ("the first league out from land"). The sailor, born of the land ("Bred as we, among the mountains"), detaches from all that bounds him on land to embrace the majestic world of the sea, lolling, unending, unpredictable. It is a feeling of true escape, joyous freedom, divine intoxication. Dickinson, bound to her home, and after the age of thirty, her room, can only surmise if the sailor's divine intoxication exists. It is her wonder, however, I can appreciate.
I know this feeling "divine intoxication." I feel it when I take out my kayak into the Salem Sound. There is first the queerness and uncertainty of buoyancy upon sitting in the boat. As I row away from land and out toward the waves, I feel a release, a flicker of anxiety yes, but a kind release. My desire to know the ocean's secrets is greater than any fear that I have. Also, I have learned to entrust myself to the sea, to the rocking of the boat and the dip of the waves. I have learned to trust my own strength, my own will. There is a glory to open water, a vastness you can embrace. You can forget who you are as a land person, and you can discover new lands. Often, I row past the lighthouse at Hospital Point, north, to small beaches where I dock my boat and swim in the clear water, floating, dangling.
It's nearly winter now and there will be no kayaking. I need to find my divine intoxication somewhere else. I walk along the shore of the Bass River behind my house and spot those small black and white winter ducks that dive in the cold blue. Buffleheads they are called, and they hail from Canada and the arctic, wintering here in "warmer" waters. I wonder what northern seas they know, what they have seen on their journey here. At the edge of a field in J.C. Phillips Nature Preserve, a doe nibbles at something delicious. She is getting her winter coat now and as she bends, her muscles look strong. I am hopeful that she'll make it through the winter. This is what I think as she nibbles away, a mythical creature unfazed by my watching. Her presence, the presence of the ducks is a wildness I find intoxicating.
This past week I tried to capture the serenity and magic of a birch forest. If you've ever been in a birch forest, you know the shift in energy that comes from first stepping inside. It's a lighthearted peace, a hush, a sense of sacredness. I tried to paint this, manufacture my own divine intoxication. For the most part, it was a struggle and often, during the process, I felt like I failed. This brings me to a second Dickinson poem:
I never hear the word “Escape”
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation –
A flying attitude!
I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my barsOnly to fail again!
This poem is about seeking that "divine intoxication" ("A sudden expectation,/A flying attitude"), but not finding it ("I tug childish at my bars,--/Only to fail again"). It could be that expectation is the killer or perhaps fear, and Dickinson makes it quite clear that she wrestles with it. Was she talking about writing the perfect poem or refusing some social event she secretly aspired to attend? Canceling a vacation to the sea? Dickinson was a recluse; she chose to withdraw from society, but that did not mean she did not have aspirations to overcome her own emotional imprisonment.
I think a major part of making art is wrestling with failure, falling short of expectation--that vague idea of greatness we have in our minds and set out to achieve. Many people give up at the first point of failure. It's those of us who push through, however, who find an altered goal, something we never intended, but something somewhat satisfying nonetheless--a reward for our perseverance. I learned this years ago with my writing, but am only now learning it with respect to visual art.