“A Meditation on the Wave” by Sarah Hahn Campbell
I was 19 the first time I glimpsed the ocean, and I didn’t see it from the shore of my own country. An Iowa farm girl at an Iowa college, I’d applied to do my junior year abroad in Nottingham, England. My first view of the ocean, then, was from a United Airlines plane at 35,000 feet, in the middle of the night. I woke, peered out the window, and couldn’t understand why the full moon floated both above and below the airplane wing, and then I remembered the Atlantic Ocean from maps.
It wasn’t until a month after I arrived in England, when I took a train with a few new friends west to Wales, that I actually stood at the ocean’s shore. I don’t remember the name of the village we visited. We hiked up a narrow winding road lined with waxy green holly and found a clear lake, where we swam and then lay on the soft heather in the late afternoon light. Later, after dinner at a pub in the village, the four of us walked down to the ocean’s shore.
I expected the ocean to look like an Iowa field. As we rounded the corner of the last building before the shore, I know I was imagining my family’s acres of green corn and soybean plants rolling toward the horizon, the way the wind rippled silver in the tender leaves. How could I have been prepared for what the ocean actually is?
There was the sand beneath my feet, the smooth driftwood logs, the round gray stones. Above me, there was the gray sky and the clouds edged with pink. But ahead of me, there was: expanse. An openness so vast I forgot to breathe, dizzy with the being of the sea. I looked and looked and looked.
The rhythm of the waves was my heartbeat. The shush of each white crest coming in, the inhale of each curve going out. Shush. [inhale] Shush. [inhale] Shush.
I stood on the shore straining to understand what the ocean meant. At 19, a religion/philosophy and English double major, I was always asking about the significance of things. What did the unknowable depths of the sea say about me, about our failing farm, about my father sinking into a gambling addiction that summer, about my unwritten life? I asked to understand, but the waves insisted I listen. Shush. [inhale] Shush. [inhale] Shush.
The waves. Carrying newness forward, scouring the old away. The artist Cecilia Vicuna built her sculptures out of driftwood and stone below the tideline of the ocean, so that nothing she created was permanent, so that change itself became the point, not the interpretation of a sculpture’s meaning. The wave didn’t allow time for interpretation.
I want to write like that. I want to write the way I encountered the ocean twenty years ago. I want to slip around the corner of a new page and find that all my expectations for my words cannot describe their silvery presence in the sea of other women bravely writing. And of course, that is what I learned at AROHO: I do not write alone, though I thought for so long that I did.
Away from Ghost Ranch and the AROHO Retreat, I’m again the only one awake in my house, in my orange room of my own, writing. But listen: Shush. [inhale] Shush. [inhale] Shush. I fling these words to a world that needs them, and they’ll glitter in the sunlight before they burst, brilliant! — to rejoin the waves.
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Sarah Hahn Campbell Artist Statement:
Sarah Hahn Campbell lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches high school English and parents her daughter Mitike with her wife Meredith. Campbell has published work in a variety of publications, including The English Journal, Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, Curve, Room Magazine, Sinister Wisdom, Iris Brown Lit Mag, and Adoptive Families Magazine. Her novella-essay, The Beginning of Us, came out in January 2014 from Riptide, and her collection of essays, Grief Map, came out in June 2017 from Brain Mill Press. Originally from a farm in eastern Iowa, Campbell holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University. She is currently working on her doctorate in education research from University of Northern Colorado (expected graduation 2025). Like her page on Facebook.