Local memoir describes ocean as metaphor for healing process
When calamity hits, how do you save yourself?
Hillary Hauser answered the question by writing “Dancing on Waves,” a memoir that she will discuss at 6 tonight at Chaucer’s Books in Loreto Plaza.
“It’s a deep dive into a three-pronged calamity that happened bing-boom-bam in 1996. One after the other. First, divorce, followed almost immediately by breast cancer, then depression, which I didn’t know I had at the time. I didn’t know the difference between being ‘bummed out’ and full-on depression, which was like going into the lower realm of ‘Dante’s Inferno,’ ” said the vivacious executive director of Heal the Ocean in a recent email interview.
“Why would anybody want to read this lovely stuff? Because as a lifetime diver and ocean explorer, I turned to the ocean for comfort. I swam every day. I had written about the ocean for years — since 1968 professionally, and I also covered ocean issues for the Santa Barbara News-Press from 1978 through 1984.”
During those years, she got to know the diving fishermen of the Santa Barbara Harbor and the marine scientists at UCSB and learned what they were discovering.
“All of this information and knowledge was in my files and provided an enormous narrative for the ocean as metaphor,” Ms. Hauser told the News-Press. “Also, there were so many boat sinkings and a number of tragedies that happened to the fishermen, and their experiences provided a backbone for the boat-sinking I was going through.”
As a professional travel/adventure writer, she took notes everywhere she went in the world.
“I carried little spiral-bound notebooks on boats, airplanes, cars, rickshaws, taxis. These scribblings were the backbones of my stories, what I could refer to as I wrote my adventure pieces. I wrote for years for publications like the Los Angeles Times Sunday Travel Section, National Geographic, Islands Magazine, Geo, Surfers Journal, Esquire and others. So during my journey to hell and back in 1996 and into 1998, these stories were all mixed in with my grief.
“I dived in on the lessons of the sea — recognizing metaphors between human challenges and ocean life — not only the tides and waves, but the behaviors of anemones and abalone — and weaving in the lessons, also, of music,” said Ms. Hauser.
As a long-time pianist, she has studied Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, etc., seriously and listened to the words of piano masters like Jacob Gimpel and Jerome Lowenthal.
“I’ll never forget Gimpel leaning on his piano in his Los Angeles living room, where I attended his master classes for years, and he was explaining the meaning of the rest in music, that place where music stops and takes a breath.
“Gimpel said, ‘Without the rest, music would have no meaning.’ How could one miss that metaphor? Without death, life has no meaning. Without sorrow, joy loses something, and so forth.”
Those who know her primarily for her work with Heal the Ocean — and often her zany antics — are surprised to learn how serious she is, according to Ms. Hauser.
“When I sit down at my piano, people expect boogie woogie, and when, instead, a Chopin Nocturne or Liszt Consolation pours out of me to a depth that can literally take me out of myself, my listeners are shocked,” she said.
Other strong lessons illustrated in the book are from the physiology of diving.
“In scuba diving, you can’t stay too deep too long, or you’ll get nitrogen narcosis and possibly subject yourself to the ‘bends’ when you come back to the surface. You can’t ascend too fast or potentially suffer an air embolism. You have to go slowly and methodically to be safe. In my book, I see the parallels about the need for patience and time in ascending to the world of sunlight,” she said.
“The book is a sandwich: there is a short Foreword that explains a bit about why I had written the book at the time and why the process stopped. The Epilogue is what has happened in the 24 years since — joy, happiness, the triumph and joyful successes of Heal the Ocean. What this magnificent organization has accomplished in the intervening years, fills me even now with awe.”
While writing the book, Ms. Hauser said she encountered several surprises.
“I realized I had had NO idea what depression was, even though I sought treatment to get me out of the soup. This is an area of medicine that really needs a lot — a LOT — of work.
“The big one was that in traversing the arc of my story, I didn’t see the full-circle of a special fisherman friend, an abalone diver who helped me when my mother died, helped me sandbag my house in the 1993 flood, who went with me to my first radiation treatment, who took me out on the Great Abalone Plant, which was an effort to restore the dwindling (now ceased) abalone fishery. There he was at the tail end of my narrative — and it’s tragic, and it’s shocking. For this one, I don’t want to give the Spoiler Alert.”
Ms. Hauser also had an interesting anecdote about Sir Edmund Hillary, the legendary mountain climber.
“When I was growing up, Hillary was a rare name for a girl. So I made up the story about being named after Sir Edmund Hillary, and this fib has lasted all my life. When I had a one-on-one with this great man in Auckland, I told him about my Big Fib.
“I also told him I always wanted to be married to him, so I could call myself Hillary Hillary. He came back with, ‘Yes, we can honeymoon in Bora Bora and play with yo yos.’ It was a hoot. But he and I had a very serious conversation about his summiting of Everest and about his constant battle with depression, words that came back for me to consider years later, as I fought for my own liberation.”