this is water


I have been meaning to write this particular thing for a while.

See how the words are crooked? That’s because I accidentally scanned them that way, and now that I am sitting down there’s no way that even the dormant perfectionist in me is going to get me back up again to rescan it.

I first read This is Water when it was still online. I think I read it online, when David Foster Wallace was still alive. Now he is not alive and This is Water (well, the original transcript of his address to the graduating class of Kenyon College) is no longer online. It got pulled down and the words got turned into the thing I just scanned crookedly: This is Water.

Part of the reason it took me so long to get around to writing this was because I couldn’t find it online any more. And I also couldn’t find the pocket book it had been turned into on our shelves. It is a small book and our shelves are positively cavernous (or not so much cavernous as they are like a Sunday afternoon excavation project, if you can be bothered really digging for the book you think you might be after, which is mostly not the case at all).

I have been thinking about DFW a bit lately. Maybe partly because Mark Linkous just recently took a text message, walked out on a group of friends, slightly distressed, and shot himself in the chest. Not that DFW and ML are in any particular way similar. It’s just a bit – I don’t know – shit when you realise that sometimes (often) sheer cleverness, even outlandish talent, provides no shield against the demons. That, in fact, the presence of cleverness and talent seems to actually heighten or make more probable the exposure to the influence of the demons. (Actually, don’t let me get started on that. It isn’t what I wanted to write about, and now I am hijacking my own post with my own side-trackedness.)

So, the basic premise of This is Water (paraphrased): two little fish are swimming around and an older fish swims past and says to them: how’s the water? One little fish turns to the other little fish and says: what the hell is water?

DFW isn’t – or should I say wasn’t – one for neat, tidily wrapped up little parables.

He says: “The immediate point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

The water is all around us. But do we see it?

I don’t really want to summarise (but I will, of course I will,  in my own long-winded way). DFW is addressing a bunch of arts grads. He’s talking to them about going out into the world, about the value of a liberal arts education, more or less. He’s talking about the power of observing the world from all different kinds of angles, about mundanity and empathy. About getting through. About the fluidity of meaning. About critical thinking and our own unstoppable self-centredness.

He says: “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”

And that this is true for all of us.

And that some of us over-intellectualise and get stuck in our own skulls.

And how somehow we need to exercise control over the world inside our heads, decide what to think and to care about, and to see outside ourselves.

How we need to get through the day in, day out meaningfully. Because most of adult life is just that. Getting through the boring shit.

And that we get to choose. What to believe in. What to make real.

And then he says: “I wish you all way more than luck.”


Okay, so…. what I was going to write about was my walk to work every morning, and sometimes my walk home. How sometimes I look around me and think: this is water. I try to remember to be present. To notice it. Before the day starts with all kinds of people in it and all my attention gets sucked up and blown away.

I walk down the hill and through the cemetery every day. I had been doing this for about four years before I learned about the motorway project blitzing through the middle of it, and the mass grave that now sits beside it.

In Art History at secondary school when we studied Rita Angus I remember her Wellington paintings, and her Bolton Street Cemetery paintings. Often when I walk through the cemetery every morning I think of Rita Angus being right where I’m walking.

It’s kind of cool to think about.

Sometimes I panic because I feel like I am losing sight of the thing that is water. So I just try and concentrate really hard on the small and beautiful things around me. The things I see every day and might forget.

Autopilot is easier than anything that requires effort. Especially the older you get. That’s what I think, anyway.

A while ago I wrote about a piece of rock I saw every day. It looked like a heart.

Noticing is a thing I try and practice most mornings, even if I have ceased to notice most things by the time I have hit the dregs of my morning coffee.

It’s not even a writing thing, noticing. It’s just a working out what matters to me thing. And I only really work it out about 5% of the time (to put an arbitrary number on it).

And here is one of my other daily views. I took the photos on my phone, and then tried to put them together as a composite/panoramic photo. Note the crooked building in the middle, the change in lighting and the half a bus…


4 Responses to “this is water”

  1. 1 matt

    Katy, This Is Water can still be found online in some dark corners of the Internet, e.g. Here:

  2. 2 katy77

    Matt – that’s awesome!

  3. I like what you are getting at here and it has certainly made an impression on me.
    I also think that besides noticing objects, which was what I took as the theme because of the various photos of ‘things’. I think it is good and true to notice those people that you might see every day and never ever say a word to. Why not say hello on occasion, it is something that has been lost in recent times, the casual ‘hello’, people have become insular to the point of not even looking at people they walk past in the street every day, it is madness really, as the world is always brimming with possibilities for communication that could be rewarding for all parties, but time is not taken even for the merest of ‘hello’s’.
    Thanks for sharing the ‘This is water’ idea, I will look it up, it seems worthy of further investigation.

    • 4 katy77

      Hey Illya – you can check This is Water out in Matt’s link above… otherwise can be quite hard to find (unless you’re in a bookshop)

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