In Case of a Water Landing, This Scroll May Be Used as a Flotation Device

I like to think of myself as a pretty fearless individual. Spiders, heights, public speaking – none of these things elicit appropriately anxious reactions from me. My parents brought me up to be able to Deal With Things, be it piano recital, entrance exam, beehive, or untended outhouse. I climbed mountains and flew hot air balloons; I rode rickety ships into the ocean to look for whales and braved Walmarts on weekends to shop for groceries. Nothing phased me.

As I grew older, however, something strange happened: I became afraid of deep water. It started out small and manageable, just a twinge of discomfort when I saw a picture taken under the surface. Almost before I had a chance to process this new sensation, it had metastasized into a full-blown phobia. I can’t explain where this fear came from. It predated a scary snorkeling trip, but postdated a bad swimming pool experience. One day, water was just water; the next, it was poison to my mind.

Living in Boise, I didn’t have much personal contact with the object of my horror, but there were nevertheless plenty of opportunities for me to face my fear. Movies and television were the worst. I found myself physically unable to watch entire portions of Titanic and The Phantom Menace (no real loss); an entire subgenre of my beloved disaster movies suddenly became unbearable. The camera slipped beneath the waves, and suddenly I was there: unable to breathe or navigate, being pulled down into the dark, cold, alien-infested tomb of the deep.

Water, particularly the ocean, has a mysterious pull on me. When my creativity goes stagnant, only a boat ride on a sparkling lake or a stroll through a downpour will revive it. Every couple of years or so, an unshakeable malaise sinks into my soul; its only cure is a pilgrimage to the northwestern coast. I go to the ocean to find God, and God is there – massive beyond comprehension, powerful beyond perception, mysterious, beautiful, and utterly, heartbreakingly terrifying. Standing on the edge of the ocean, I feel the fear of an ancient people faced with the visage of a vengeful god. My fear fills me, exhilarates me. Before that fear – before the ocean – I am so small, so fragile, so temporary. And so very, very alive.

It’s a very strange juxtaposition. A fear as irrational as this requires an equally irrational treatment, and so I decided to make an Ethiopian scroll to protect me from the horrors of the sea. My first challenge was to find an appropriate primary medium. Initially, I wanted to make my scroll on waterproof paper. Ultimately, I decided that the uninteresting appearance of that paper, despite its special properties, did not justify the cost of ordering it. I then thought about making my scroll on lifejacket fabric, or out of the shell of a raft. I know better, though; my medium is paper, and anything else was going to be a frustrating construction disaster. While shopping for a roll of white paper to dye blue, I found a roll of handmade navy paper, flecked with blue shades, which looked like it had been custom-made for my project. I cut it very narrow with visions of eels, tentacles, and seaweed dancing in my head. I also wanted it as small as possible in reference to how small I felt in comparison to the waters.

For the graphic components of my scroll, I searched for online images of nightmarish sea creatures. Evaluating dozens of octopi, sharks, eels, jellyfish, and fish for printability and horror-factor was one of the least pleasant experiences I have ever had in college. Some of the images actually made me physically ill. In the end, I selected three pictures that were not only horrifying but symbolic of the irrationality of my fears. The fish in my pictures (angler fish, dragonfish, moray eel) look like man-eating alien monsters, but are in fact either so small that they could do very little harm to a human or dwell so deep that most humans would never encounter them. I cropped, resized, and touched up the pictures, then printed them on white vellum on a color laser printer. Next, I picked three pages out of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea that contained graphic descriptions of suffocation and sea monsters. I scanned and printed these pages onto ivory cardstock and cut them out as backing for the fish photos. Finally, I sewed the photos on the pages using heavyweight fishing line. (Word to the wise: sewing with fishing line is a pain in the neck.)

I decided to write something vaguely poetic for the textual components of the scroll, judging that use of rhythm and semantic devices would prove effective in eliciting some of the emotions I was experiencing. I started in a half dozen different directions, and finally came up with two different texts. While the first had some very good lines and images, I ended up choosing the second. It is written in the style of a prayer, which I thought was appropriate for a protective scroll. Additionally, it has a more concrete rhythmic structure, complete with iambs and trochees, which seems to elicit a singsong or sea-chantey effect. Each stanza of the poem has seven lines for good luck and for the seven seas. I chose to handwrite my poem to make the scroll more personal, to tie it closer to me as my outermost skin.

For purposes of balance, I placed the graphic and text components relatively close to one another near the center of the scroll. To fill the empty spaces at either end, I added “scrapbooking pebbles” – or, as I prefer to think of them, bubbles (perhaps the bubbles of a drowning book artist!).

I was lucky enough to find red alphabet pebbles with which to spell out my name. The end result was a bit bloody, but not at all inappropriate given the many dire fates that might await me in the nightmare world of my phobia.

The finishing touch of my scroll was the hanging hardware. I wrapped the top of my scroll over an inexpensive snorkel, strung fishing line through, and secured it with a bobber large enough to symbolize a buoy. The buoy keeps my scroll – and hopefully me – afloat and out of harm’s way. At the other end, however, I’ve grounded my scroll with two coins. They serve a practical purpose in weighing down the bottom of the scroll, and a symbolic purpose as a reminder of the rites of death. Finally, I utilize a water wing – reassuring if largely illusory flotation device – as the scroll’s holder.

From a practical standpoint, I feel that my scroll has some problems. The combination of rigid plastic bubbles and stiff squares of cardstock prevents me from rolling the scroll as tightly as I would like or from rolling it around the snorkel. The cardstock has been bent and curled b
y the rolling process, and doesn’t adhere well to the paper. While I did manage to get them to stick using double-sided tape, the red letters did not want to stay on the scroll at all. I am also somewhat concerned that all of the brightly colored “props” detract from the ominous tone of the scroll.

That being said, my estimation of the scroll’s overall effect is very positive. Over the course of sketching plans, hunting supplies, sewing through paper and hand-lettering text, I found myself giving my phobia a lot of thought. I’ve come to realize that I created my scroll to protect me, not from the ocean itself, but from my fear of the ocean. I’m not statistically likely to die a sailor’s death, but I allow a foundationless hydrophobia to affect my landlubber life. Creating this scroll was an almost meditative experience that forced me to face, evaluate, and address that fear. I don’t know that I’ll be able to watch shark movies or evade a predestined appointment in Davy Jones’ locker, but I feel a certain amount of much-needed objectivity and sanity returning to me.

Photo #1 taken from Wikipedia. Photos #2, 3, and 10 taken by my mom, Bonnie Hoffman. Photos #4-8 and 11 taken by me, and Photo #9 taken by my husband, Ryan.

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