True commitment allows for doubt
I walked barefoot along the water’s edge where the sand and the sea and the sky blurred to gray. A slick dark figure bobbed in the breakers.
“Hey,” a stranger on the beach called to me. “Do you know you have a seal following you?”
The seal raised herself from the water then, head, neck, and sloped shoulders bared. Her eyes, wide set and watery black, stared straight into my own in a way that seemed human.
My husband jokes that I am part selkie. In Celtic legend, selkies are fallen angels condemned to live as seals. Or sometimes they are seals cursed to live as people. The mythology is fluid but the recurring theme is of a tortured soul pulled between two worlds, unable to settle in either.
Wherever I am — physically, personally, professionally — I am haunted by ambivalence.
People often disparage the emotion as wishy-washy or weak. But ambivalence is not a bored whatever choice between this or that. It’s the much tricker conjunction and that yanks the heart in an eternal game of tug-o-war. In recent years, I felt no ambivalence about politics. But I went back-and-forth on whether speaking up helped persuade or simply fueled opposition.
Even when not ambivalent, I am ambivalent as a selkie.
I know nothing about ocean mammals. I grew up in the landlocked Midwest. We had lakes, ten thousand of them. I learned to swim in those waters. In winter, we’d skate across them, etching the ice with our blades. One hot and sticky August, the lake turned a sickly shade of green. Pop-eyed carp littered the shore. I waded in. The water left a slimy film on the skin of my legs that smelled of swamp marsh and dead fish.
“Out,” my mother ordered.
She packed the kids back into the Chevy and drove directly to the new municipal swimming pool. The water there looked bluer than any summer sky. Standing waist deep in the shallow end, I could see straight down to my stubby toes. I dunked under and opened my eyes. A garden of bright floral swimsuits bloomed. Bikini ruffles undulated like tropical fish fins. Copper pennies and lost locker keys lay at the bottom of the pool like sunken treasures. It looked beautiful. But the next day my nose burned with a smell like bleached bed sheets.
The man on the beach said he’d heard tales of seals following people but he’d never seen it before.
“It’s supposed to be a sign of good luck,” he said.
“Or maybe it was bad luck,” he said with a laugh.
I laughed, too and suspected it was both.
The first time my boyfriend suggested marriage, I balked. We met while traveling through India. I used to joke that he was the one-night-stand that never left until he asked me to stop saying that. But I continued to think of our relationship as temporary even as the years rolled by. Occasionally, I sought reasons for my ambivalence, explanations, if not excuses.
Maybe I was raised unsettled. I was the fourth of six children. My oldest brother saw our family grow. The youngest brother watched it shrink as siblings moved on and out. I witnessed both gain and loss. My formative years were lived in the in-between, when all eight of us crammed into a tiny one bath house of beauty and bedlam. I loved it even as I longed for the quiet corners of an only child.
Maybe it was in my DNA. Irish travelers with my last name have roamed the island countryside for generations. Maybe I had a specific gene, identifiable through mail-order saliva tests.
At one point, both my husband and I had visa issues that could be resolved with a marriage certificate.
And so I agreed to wed with one condition: We would tell no one.
My reasoning was solid. I left home at age eighteen and hadn’t seen my family in more than three years. I didn't want to show up on their doorstep with a husband in tow. Keeping quiet made sense.
But our secret wedding vows also allowed me to tie the knot and remain unmoored, indefinitely adrift in the unsettled sea of ambivalence.
It sounded perfect!
My parents liked my boyfriend. My mother couldn’t understand why we weren’t married. I expertly evaded her questions during several out-of-state visits. Finally, in the fourth year, I explained to my Catholic parents that my Welsh boyfriend, who was actually my husband, should be allowed to share my bedroom when we visited because we were, you know, married.
It didn’t help the argument that neither my husband or I could definitively name the date of our civil union in England.
What I do remember clearly are the words he whispered to me when I had a brief moment of panic while signing the marriage license.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We can always get a divorce.”
I laughed. Those were the words my ambivalent soul needed to hear.
The entire time the man and I chatted on the beach, the seal remained in the same spot in the surf.
“The surf is pushing her one way and the tide another, “ he said. “She makes it look easy but think of the strength she needs to be where she is.”
It took strength to be with ambivalence.
The man and I parted ways on the beach. The seal moved with me. After a while, I reversed direction. The seal did the same. I reversed a second time, so did the seal. We stared at one another again for a while transfixed. Suddenly, the seal dove and disappeared and I could only imagine her swimming through the layers of life hidden in those waters as I headed inland where my love of almost forty-five years was pouring tea.
About the author
A former daily newspaper journalist, now an independent writer of essays & fiction published in several lit anthologies. The Whole Hole Story children's book was published by Versify Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. More are forthcoming.