What We Pretend We Know About the Ocean

Nonfiction / Jenny Ferguson

:: What We Pretend We Know About the Ocean ::


At first we make believe this is age­ing, the gen­tle nor­mal­cy of what’s to come for all of us. She’s grumpi­er, a lit­tle mean. At times, though, mean­ness devolves into cru­el­ty. Most­ly this is snap­ping, this is accus­ing my father—her husband—of being unkind in the most gen­er­al of terms. You know what you did. Or, he knows why I say the things I do. Or, why do you always defend him? Like the bit­ing fence that dug into my bare leg when some­one else I was forced to trust let go too soon, we pre­tend we deserve her barbs, at least for a lit­tle while.


When your mind tends toward nar­ra­tive, sto­ries, and their close cousins, untruths, what you find in the cloudy state­ments she makes are rocky shores, sea­side cliffs, thirst and tides too long, too far away to catch. You know, infi­deli­ty, some kind of sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­ease brought home to roost that can’t be for­giv­en, some rup­ture between what once were hap­pi­ly-unhap­py people.


Delu­sion­al dis­or­ders are fas­ci­nat­ing and cru­el, anoth­er ocean entire­ly. When the mind sinks into a real­i­ty so seam­less­ly right, it becomes more than real, every new input into the sys­tem, no mat­ter how incon­gru­ous to the sto­ry being told, weaves its way in a flow­ing until all the plas­tic in the salt­ed body becomes like water too. It joins the tides, the under­wa­ter cur­rents, becomes entan­gled in wildlife-thoughts, becomes digestible even while those micro-plas­tics do their work. DDT and BPA invis­i­ble in water, still, killing us.


Her cru­el­ty arrived after the Face­book Far­mville phase, where she tend­ed to a vir­tu­al gar­den with such sin­gle-mind­ed dri­ve, while out­side, not a minute’s walk from the desk­top com­put­er in our liv­ing room, toma­toes hung on the vine, ripen­ing past good­ness, rot­ting from too much sun, too much good rain. At least for a lit­tle while, we pre­tend­ed this joke was funny.


When a woman reach­es the cusp of six­ty, the odds of her devel­op­ing a delu­sion­al dis­or­der sprouts legs until there are eight, grows suc­tion cups capa­ble of elon­gat­ing to twice their length, this almost-six­ty form capa­ble of chang­ing at col­ors will, like grey hair tak­ing on hen­na, but this crea­ture whose blood is blue, this crea­ture climbs out of the water and walks in alien form among us. This fact is some­thing we should all know, should not find comes at us slant. We’ve learned to call it mother.


Long after we’d stopped pre­tend­ing, and after that night, after I’d begged the RCMP offi­cer to arrest my moth­er so that she could final­ly, hope­ful­ly, be dragged to the hos­pi­tal, admit­ted, forced to get help, be med­icat­ed, an old­er man with a British-ish accent com­mon to Nova Sco­tia told me with delu­sion­al dis­or­ders it’s harm­ful to force this real­i­ty on their real­i­ty. It’s not help­ful to pre­tend. It’s not help­ful to deny. Where that leaves those of us on the out­side, liv­ing here, on a plan­et made of sil­i­con, iron, mag­ne­sium, alu­minum, oxy­gen, and maybe mag­ic, this plan­et, some­thing we can tend to agree is actu­al­ly here, is not flat, where we live in bod­ies com­posed of atoms, and maybe, yes, both we and our plan­et have gone through a process of evo­lu­tion, I’m not sure, I’m real­ly not, of where we are, of what we’re sup­posed to do when a schism opens in the earth’s crust. In 220 mil­lion years, there’s a chance the Atlantic will drain away like a bath­tub fun­nel sucks water from around a body, draw­ing Europe clos­er to Tur­tle Island, chang­ing our geo­gra­phies. Some schisms don’t under­stand time in the mil­lions, some schisms evade our detec­tion until we are sunk. Now, we make our lives in bat­tle­ship graveyards.


Of the vari­eties of delu­sion­al dis­or­ders we cur­rent­ly know by way of sci­ence, women are more like­ly to devel­op the type that tends toward invis­i­ble-but-deeply-felt amorous con­nec­tions, where­as men are more like­ly to find them­selves attacked, per­se­cut­ed from all sides, betrayed by those they love as often as the mail car­ri­er deliv­ers junk mail coat­ed in anthrax—yes, the mes­sen­ger is as guilty, as inter­twined as the some­times face­less threats. Yet always, with new input from our real­i­ty into theirs, this threat must change, devel­op, solid­i­fy as new mas­ter­minds emerge from the depths, their bod­ies suit­ed to impos­si­ble pres­sures. Where a sub­ma­rine can’t go, where humans can’t trav­el encased in skin, the giant and colos­sal squids live easy, free of swim blad­ders, free of our unshake­able need for air.


And who can say what real­i­ty this is, what real­i­ty we share above water and below, what oceans are the delu­sion, what land? And if the octo­pus is cos­mic, car­ried to this plan­et on mete­ors, seed­ed here in oceans when a virus infect­ed ear­ly squid already among us, can we deny our own mak­ing up what is real and what is real­i­ty, can we define her but refuse to define our own belief that we can breathe under­wa­ter if enough time pass­es, if the Atlantic one day emp­ties itself into the crust? Some­times these thoughts are as trou­bling as remov­ing salt from the human body to see what might be left, remov­ing salt from the ocean to clean it.


Psy­chosis breaks the bound­aries between pre­tend and real, fus­ing lava released in fis­sures into new ground we must claim. Her para­noid thoughts, of the army, and my father, and even­tu­al­ly me too, try­ing to kill her, have formed new ground. My rela­tion­ship to land has always been com­pli­cat­ed, about give and trust and nev­er own­er­ship, about the waters that feed me run­ning free, but yes, the treaties exist, and yes, they are bro­ken, and yes, each day, this is a betray­al. Now, we pre­tend in new ways: the med­ica­tion helps, the min­utes lin­ger­ing between ques­tion and answer do not exist, the haunt­ing lack of her laugh­ter is nor­mal because we are under­wa­ter, our ears flood­ed so that sound can­not reach us, nev­er­mind, yes, nev­er­mind that laugh­ter lives in the eyes. We know that the tide is far off, and that when we reach it here, the water is mud­dy, that tides are pre­dictable but always come in faster than expect­ed, that here on the mud flats you can get stuck, but also that this water is salty, this water holds life even as life changes.



From the writer

:: Account ::

The book-length CNF project I’m work­ing on now is a col­lec­tion of essays explor­ing my decol­o­niza­tion. That is, I’m try­ing to work out and chronicle—through non­fic­tion fragments—what it means to be a white-cod­ed Indige­nous woman reclaim­ing a cul­ture she was cut off from when her grand­moth­er, fear­ing the res­i­den­tial schools and the gov­ern­ment abduc­tion of Indige­nous chil­dren through adop­tions and fos­ter care, decid­ed to pass as white. It’s tak­en me a long time to under­stand why I didn’t have pride in being Métis as a child.

Of course, my mind was colonized.

And undo­ing that process is messy, reveals the ulti­mate pres­ence of frag­ments, dis­solves the untruth of whole­ness. That leads me to essays where I work in frag­ments, arrange frag­ments into frag­men­tary nar­ra­tives and frag­men­tary truths.

Three Lati­na writ­ers (Anna-Marie McLemore, Anna Meri­ano, and Tehlor Mejia), one white writer who is also a dis­abled writer (Cindy Bald­win), and myself will be pre­sent­ing a pan­el at AWP 2019 where we will dis­cuss “The Cul­tur­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty of Mag­ic Real­ism” and how many of us are turn­ing away from that label. For me, this means carv­ing out what a genre called Indige­nous Realism(s) can mean for art, build­ing off of the work peo­ple like Daniel Heath Jus­tice and oth­ers I have yet to meet or to read, oth­ers who have yet to be pub­lished, are doing to rework genre. I am not aim­ing for this cat­e­go­ry to fit per­fect­ly. That too is why Indige­nous Realism(s) exist in the plur­al, in the mul­ti­ple, in a space that wel­comes the hybrid, the strange­ly-fit­ting, and the frag­men­tary as the work this space can hold, with­out bor­ders, with instead a bound­ary more like skin, a semi-per­me­able mem­brane that has the abil­i­ty to change shape, take on ink, and to nav­i­gate the con­nec­tions between the worlds and the body of work in expan­sive ways.

This mod­u­lar flash essay begins—possibly? hope­ful­ly?— with ten­ta­tive, messy steps, to engage with Indige­nous Realism(s) in non­fic­tion by using the land as bridge between mag­ic and real­ism until nei­ther can be seen as inde­pen­dent of the oth­er. In par­tic­u­lar, this means read­ing in a way we were should not sim­ply mean to treat what may be read as metaphor, as only metaphorical.


Jen­ny Fer­gu­son is Métis, an activist, a fem­i­nist, an aun­tie, and an accom­plice with a PhD. She believes writ­ing and teach­ing are polit­i­cal acts. Bor­der Mark­ers, her col­lec­tion of linked flash fic­tion nar­ra­tives, is avail­able from NeWest Press. She teach­es at Mis­souri South­ern State Uni­ver­si­ty and in the Opt-Res MFA Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Columbia.