Gifts from the Sea

A few months ago, a friend of mine who had just sold her house gave us a box of books that her teenage son had outgrown. Kalinaw called it “the cool box”, because every book he took out from there piqued his interest, from Cordilleran myths to heroic and historic figures, to other typical children’s book fare. But his absolute favorite book from the pile is TIME Magazine’s Science Almanac for Kids. It explores a wide range of concepts, “from biology to geology to nanotechnology,” but the section we began reading—chosen for its photographs of dinosaurs and other strange creatures—was on the time line of animal evolution.

It tickled me to know this was a topic he would be interested in. As a kid, I was a voracious reader, and one of my favorite books was a Reader’s Digest compilation of essays on pre-history, paleontology and fallen civilizations. But as I read aloud to my five-year-old from this almanac, I was surprised at how much I had forgotten of Earth’s evolutionary history. I had forgotten that animal life began in the sea, that it would take four billion years of Earth’s existence before various phyla (major animal groups) would develop beyond the multi-celled organisms that had until then populated the ocean floor. The Cambrian period witnessed an explosion of development over about 60 million years, until for reasons still unknown to scientists, the ocean suddenly lost much of its oxygen, causing most of these animals to become extinct. (Yoohooo, cautionary tale from 488 million years ago!)

In the subsequent Ordovician period, all animals still lived in the sea, and most were invertebrates. Some resembled animals we know today, like the nautiloids (“Mommy, are they called that because they’re naughty?” asked Kalinaw), which were squid-like with beaks and tentacles. Jawless fish evolved during this time, as well as hard-shelled creatures with segmented bodies like ants and spiders. Again, these animals became extinct, probably because of changes to the Earth’s climate.

This is when the reading started to get interesting for me. The next age was the Silurian age, which began 443 million years ago. This is the period when animals (and plants) finally emerged on land, mostly primitive forms of centipedes and spiders. It gets even more interesting in the following Devonian age, or Age of the Fishes, when 415 million years ago, a creature scientists called the Tiktaalik developed nostrils on its long snout, and strong fins, which it may have used like legs to “walk” in shallow waters, or even on land. Scientists hypothesize that this may have been the moment in Earth’s history when some sea animals decided to migrate above sea level.

That’s when I did a mental double-take, when some memory inside my primeval brain suddenly awoke. I imagined what it must have been like to slither tentatively onto a sandy beach, head above the waves, to peer for the first time at the endless horizon with fish eyes, to breathe in lungfuls of salty air.

“We came from the sea!”, I exclaimed to my son with wonder. And it just made so much sense to me. How we long to return periodically to the seaside, how the rhythm of waves breaking upon the shore calms us down, how in the past the roar of the sea washed my heart of sadness.

Plenty of us believe that sea or salt water heals many ailments, both physical and emotional. Isolation or sensory deprivation tanks have been invented because floating in warm salt water can calm the nervous system and reduce stress. At first, I thought the thinking behind it was based on experiences in utero. But perhaps the soothing memory of floating is from a much older time, before we even had words to process the experience. And today, in a modern world ruled by scientific knowledge and technological advances, we find that we still instinctively run to the sea, our first mother, our original womb. We need to feel we are in the sea, to calm the stormy seas within us.

Every August, another close friend of ours always celebrates her birthday at the beach, together with another August-born sibling (pun intended, for they are the last two children in a brood of ten!). Every time she invites us to join her on this yearly beach trip, she reminds us of the time we all went on a beach trip, not to celebrate, but to heal. Some of us invited on that particular trip had lost something. One had lost a marriage. Another was mourning the death of a friend. And I had suffered a severe disappointment, the inability to conceive because of growths in my uterus. It was my third time to go under the knife for that reason, and I was hoping that the next time I found myself in a hospital recovery room, I would have the cry of a newborn babe to look forward to rather than the painful austerity of four hospital walls. I got the go signal from my doctor to swim in the sea, a week after the operation. And so our motley, grieving crew were off to Nasugbu.

I was still feeling raw from my ordeal, and the space inside me craved solitude. But being at a house by the beach trumped the external noise, and engaging in conversations with people I barely knew pulled me out of my head. I floated on the water’s surface and drank in the sky with a grateful heart, thankful for the chance to start again, for thoughtful and generous friends, for life as it was in that moment.

At one point, our friend returned from a walk on the beach, bearing treasure. The tide in that part of the country unfortunately brings all sorts of trash that are thoughtlessly dumped in the ocean, but she had found something other than plastic food wrappers and used shampoo sachets: two small, sand-covered stuffed toy dolls, one a ballerina with a fairy hat, the other a duck in a sailor suit. She gave both of the dolls to us, believing that they were a heavenly sign that Kidlat and I were meant to be parents, that the duck and ballerina were gifts from the sea.

At the time, it was a moment of whimsy that I chose to embrace because even though I had no idea what my future held, it felt that it could be true. We cleaned up the dolls, dried them, and when we returned to our home in Baguio we placed them on the family altar above the fireplace. Even if nothing happened, the dolls would remind us of the love of a dear friend, and an unshakable faith in goodness and light.

Six weeks later, I found out I was pregnant with my first-born. A year and three months after he was born, I was pregnant again, this time with a girl. My darling sailor duck and fairy ballerina. My heart’s wishes, plucked from the sea.

My existence is but a dot on our planet’s 4.5 billion year history, its ebb and flow, the rise and fall of time and tide. Yet, if I close my eyes in a moment of stillness, I can feel all those layers of beingness converge inside me. And I smile, knowing that I, too, am a gift from the sea.