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Katarina Poliačiková: Skipping School, Learning The Fire of Things

Drawn Magazine, Volume Press Shanghai 



Avencas, said my friend Carolina as she was writing down the name of a beach on a little scrap of paper, which I kept until today. Praia das Avencas. Off the train in Parede, I walked down an alley of platans passing flickering spots of light rendered through the trees on the hot road. Take the second right turn and continue going straight until the end of the street. The L-shaped trajectory soon became familiar. L like: Luminous, Lucky, Learn.

Entering the underpass, I’d always enter a state of joyous expectation before a square of distilled light sends a blast right in my face. Inside the square, a blue horizon: the Ocean. Above the beach there was a café with a spacious terrace where the locals used to hang and where I sometimes observed lonely men and women reading books or writing in their diaries, sipping coffee and cheap caipirinhas. Plastic chairs, napkin holders, umbrellas; their colors sun-drenched.

That summer, I built my world around this beach, bringing lunches and books, reading and taking naps in the salty shade of an ancient cliff. Looking up onto the wall embedded with fossilized sea shells, I would spread my hands above me, gazing at the rock through my fingers, my thoughts spreading around the vast idea of time. Inhaling the Ocean: the primal state of mind. Breathing, breathing I was, in and out. In and out.

The Ocean slowly peeled off some layers and retrieved that childish joy in me, that which is absolute and sheer. Unconsciously I was unlearned myself, as my cells encountered the familiar which they recognized deep down in time.

They could not see but they knew it, they recognized it, through the rhythm of the waves and the scent of the salt.

Slowly I learned the Ocean.

It took me a couple of days to master peeing while swimming. It was actually not that easy to align both: concentrating on the regular rhythm of arms and legs while letting go, relaxing the bladder muscles. But, what a joy, to let go. I imagined leaving a trail behind me in the enormous mass of the Ocean, like a little snail. When floating on my back, feeling a wave slowly lifting my body, I liked to think of myself as a tiny grain on the skin of a giant creature, whose body was changing constantly and abruptly, whose surface did not only reflect storms and sunsets but also became them.

Did water remember me?

I was pondering about what it meant to become a person in a place, about all the ways in which places nurture that different kind of intelligence. Knowledge intuitive yet precise, non-transferable. Growing up in a Brooklyn ghetto, on a vast grassland, or next to the ocean. And how it all grows on you.

I was pondering about how Portuguese kids learn to read the Ocean by being in it so often that over time their bodies start to react to waves and currents with an inherent and unconscious accuracy. How respect and understanding the big water takes up space in them before it gets stolen by fear.

Slowly I learned the Ocean.

A particularly large rock in the distance became my point to swim to. Approaching it for the very first time, I discovered its massive underwater body which surfaced from the depths. While climbing on top of it, I had to spread my arms and legs wide, as if I was embracing a big, ancient animal. It had a dark and porous surface that devoured all light.

I can clearly remember conquering its top for the first time. I recall standing there, the salty water still dripping off me, my body tanned and strong from weeks of walking up and down the hills of Lisbon.

With my eyes squinting into the blazing sun, I stared at the shore: now a narrow stripe. 

I couldn’t recognize any human being, nor my book half-buried in the sand. Just the old agaves standing tall on the cliff, their time almost up, humbly bending over the water.

I brushed back my wet hair and glanced down at the water. Just underneath the surface, huge jellyfish were floating about in dark turquoise depths. There was life in those translucent bodies that were invisible to the eye, the life that was happening, together with the Ocean. Yes, the Ocean wasn’t just there, it was coming into being all the time, anew: it had no past, nor future. The Ocean was time. Standing there, my body felt a faint but luminous reminiscence of its own history, in the very liquid in between its cells.

It felt familiar, it felt good.

I glanced over my shoulder: a vast nothing. The horizon: a light burning white just like ashes. The Ocean, mirroring the Sun and heat back against my body, by that time almost dry.

I looked down again. My white toes on the dark rock; jellyfish floating in the water. The far-off shore. As I turned my body back towards the horizon l felt something spreading out inside me, spreading out wide, flooding me like a translucent wave breaking in slow motion.

I looked at the shore and licked my salty arm.

I thought: This is it. This is really it. Ungraspable, yet mine.