Becoming Water: Highs, Lows, Ebbs, and Flows

Susan Mathews

“Unable to discern the form of You,
I see Your presence all around
Filling my eyes with the love of You,
My heart is humbled.
For You are everywhere.”


From The Book of Everything: Journey of the Heart’s Desire,
Hakim Sanai’s Walled Garden of Truth, translated by Priya Hemenway, 2002.

This lovely poem is quoted slightly differently at the end of the movie The Shape of Water—a beautiful adult fairy tale about a fish-man, where it reads, “Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.” A strange, mesmerising, and transgressive love story, the movie inspired me to write this blog post—my own love letter to this shapeshifting, extra-terrestrial, molecule of life—water.

Escaping our fingers, water flows out of one’s hand when picked up, always eluding us, leaving behind a trace of wetness. This elusiveness, this inability to hold-it-ness, is because in its purest form water is an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron. The many faces of water, and the many forms that beauty can take are what inspired the name and theme of this film.

Entering Watery Realms

My own quest into watery realms started early this year when the idea of having ‘water’ as a theme for our podcast, The Subverse, started taking shape. Now I wonder if it may have been water that chose us, rather than the other way around as it leads the way, not just for the podcast and other spin-offs on the website, but it has also become a mirror and guide for our vision this year, including some personal quests.

For me, that has meant finally learning how to swim—facing an old and persistent fear from childhood—and planning a personal pilgrimage, the first of many parts, to Lofoten Islands in Norway. I write this blog in Moskones, from where the infamous maelstrom hails. 

Photo credit: Susan Mathews

At the level of this site and space, learning from water has meant letting go in numerous ways—soaking and basking in current projects while making way for the new; letting unusual currents and strange tides wash over us; and being a watery receptacle for zany ideas and fluid entanglements.

These are some of the many gifts that water has given us this year, but we continue to grapple with some questions. How can we reconcile water, this quotidian thing, with what we truly know is stellar happenstance, an accidental tourist on our planet that has forever changed its shape with its life-giving chemistry? How are becoming water and being water related, and what do they portend and signify?

Delicately balanced and biophilic, water is the dream stuff that metaphor is built on—as much a construction, an imaginary, as it is this actual life-creating molecule. In using the term imaginary, I refer to the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols through which people imagine their social whole. We know what water is, we are surrounded by it, composed of it, we drink and expel it. But it remains unfathomable, constantly slipping away, its depth and age eschewing us.

And yet, water gives itself to us constantly. So, we begin to build bridges, dams, and infrastructure; we channel, irrigate, choreograph, pollute, and contaminate it. There are real wounds and damage that we have inflicted on water, and on species that live and depend on it. Empires were built through water cartographies, and so are our trading routes, allowing for the rise of modern and global water, as evoked by Jamie Linton in What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction, 2010.

In this imaginary, global water has given us toxic and plastic water. And we are only beginning to discover what shapes these new organisms and hybrid species will take. Water is also unleashed through storms, floods, droughts and melting glaciers, and it can speak to us in violent, cataclysmic ways. Now, accelerated by our own hubris, we are constantly reminded that we cannot really negotiate with this biological power.

The Tao of Water

But in this blog post, we look to some other imaginaries, other ways to play with water and learn from it. Water as a teacher, kin, and co-creator.

“Still water. Sweet water. Slow water.
Steady water, Strong water, show me the way.”

Sharanya Manivannan, Incantations over Water , 2021.

For water as a teacher, we need to look no further than Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching in which water is used as an analogy to describe Tao. In Tao Te Ching, Tao is described as a “deep pool that never dries,” and water is seen as a symbol of humility, benevolence, and non-action. But it also symbolises leadership and the ability to overcome obstacles.

For reading Tao Te Ching, I am using the rendition of Ursula K. Le Guin (Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, A Book About The Way and the Power of the Way, 1998), who preferred it to the word translation.

In Chapter 8, Easy by Nature:

“True goodness
is like water.
Water’s good
for everything.
It doesn’t compete.

It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.”

In Chapter 43, Water and Stone:

What’s softest in the world
rushes and runs
over what’s hardest in the world

The immaterial
Enters the impenetrable

The paradoxes of water are many, and even though they’re apparent, they are still beguiling as they seem impossible to reconcile. That is probably the best lesson of all, this non-resolution, this leaving the door open to possibility, to surprise, difference, and other ways of being.

Becoming Water: I am complex and many

The brilliant Bruce Lee, taken away too early, once said in an interview, “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Part of becoming water is to not hold on to a steadfast, fixed idea of who or what one can become in some natural and biological sense. It is the fluidity, the hybridity, and the mystery that keeps us guessing in the best way. 

As Virginia Woolf notes in The Waves, “I am not one or simple, but complex and many.”

The work of cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis in her Bodies of Water, 2017, has been particularly illuminating for me in terms of really plunging into these entanglements. First, she rescues water away from the abstract, modern tower we have imprisoned it in, which sees water as something ‘out there’.

As she writes, “We are the watery world—metonymically, temporarily, partially, and particularly. Water irrigates us, sustains us, comprises the bulk of our soupy flesh.” She says, “Water is articulated as always both ‘being’ and a process of ‘becoming’— gathering water from certain bodies and flowing back into others in return.”

As for us humans, she says so presciently, “We are its curious custodians rather than its masters. Intimacy is not mastery. We are always becoming water, but water is also always beyond us. We are becoming water that we cannot become—not in any full sense of finality, completion, or control.”

Becoming water is to inhabit some of its own being, or how we imagine it—its humility, clarity, stillness, force, all embodying the tao of water. Also, to be shapeless, or taking on its many forms; to become the teapot, to become the bottle, a multiple becoming. Water is also a medium and solvent. Not only is it outside us, but it is also inside us too, and yet, it is a border, a passage, an edge, and we can never fully capture or control it. It is porous and permeable, but also opaque, unknowable and the most concealed of secrets.

Water will always slip through our fingers. No opposable thumbs can help contain it.