The Joy Menu #16: Jellyfish
Taking stock of a memorable jellyfish, your author investigates the nature of persistence as it relates to purpose.
Some memories stick. They stay vivid despite many years’ passage, despite myriad experiences carrying far more weight — more meaning, more narrative influence, more ‘juice’ in the story of your life.
Yet they stick. These little formative nuggets.
And by sticking, do they not gain a kind of functional importance, a survivor’s weight? Meaningful, influential, if for nothing else than the grooves they dig? In their miraculous status as vivid — despite a life’s morass of moments, images, actions, sights and sounds?
Today I am thinking of a jellyfish.
This jellyfish, when entering my story, is — as it turns out — dead.
I never touch this jellyfish. In fact, I don’t even see the jellyfish at first. No one does. My brother steps on the jellyfish. And though he’s barefoot, the jellyfish doesn’t sting. We see it in retrospect.
“What was that?”
“A jellyfish, I think.”
“Are you OK?”
“I think so, yeah.”
It’s merely a stain of clear goo in the wet, cold sand.
We are in New York, walking on the beach (loose term) beneath the Throgs Neck Bridge. We’re visiting my grandparents for their 50th wedding anniversary. I’m 7 and my brother is 4. Our grandfather is walking with us. He’s in his early 70s, a tall, reserved, and formal man. His shirt is collared and has a pocket above the right breast. Our pants are rolled above our ankles and we hold our shoes and socks in our hands.
The jellyfish is insignificant.
The jellyfish is important.
Why is it important?
Life is surely full of jellyfish: moments of slight risk, averted. Moments of subtle peculiarity — mostly unexpected, mildly amusing, partially dramatic (but ultimately not too much of any of those things).
The scene had its specialness, within context: our grandfather, a man who would later move to live near us in California, at this point lived far away and only visited on occasion. We were on a beach unlike our beaches; in Southern California, we had no jellyfish (the biggest ‘step risk’ we faced were nets of swollen seaweed pellets, which, when popped, oozed deliciously foul seawater). It was our first time back in New York since we’d left four years earlier to live in California. My mother’s ‘home’, my birthplace, it figured large in my imagination; representative of some other life unlived, a life of belonging, of rootedness, of a fluid, unbroken identity.
But I was 7. I had not yet conceived of such narratives.
What I really noticed was that our grandparents had bought us a Nintendo, that a one-legged Korean War vet swam in the complex pool, that my cousins were like friends, but captive — that my mother was calm, and girlish, and busy with her cousins, too.
Those are all memories. Understandable memories. Meaningful ones.
So why the jellyfish?
Recently, a friend asked me: “I can’t tell if you consider writing a hobby or not, because you go back and forth.”
It’s something I think about often: these labels. This going back and forth.
There’s power in what we call things. If I call you my friend, it means something — something different than if I don’t. (Different emotional, moral, ethical responsibilities, if also an implied intimacy.)
In 2020, I allowed myself to see writing as a hobby: released myself from the pressures of “art;” gave myself permission to play, to fail, to muck about, as a child with finger paints, or a teenager going to the mall dressed as a ‘punk’.
But there is something lost when we downgrade our friendships for fear of what that intimacy might imply. There is risk in self-protection; when we’re afraid to call something what it is, to own that which lives inside us with ruthlessness and power, we can mute it, or limit it, or render it weak and declawed.
My New Year’s Resolution for 2021: to call this endeavor what it is: passion, organizing principle, central part of who I am.
As far as I can tell, purpose does not live within us only to evoke ego satisfaction — external praise, reach, or income. Rather, it follows us until we pay attention, until we listen. Until we turn around.
Purpose, like that jellyfish, might look like a meaningless goo.
But years later, it’s still in you. It’s stuck there. Vivid.
What is your New Year’s resolution?
Whatever it may be — here’s to a happy 2021.
Onward to creative joy,