On Floating

Author: Genevieve Redsten

A few years back, my mom decided it would be fun for our whole family to try out a sensory deprivation tank. It’s a silly thing to do, very New Age. The idea is pretty simple: You climb into a soundproof pod filled with salt water, and the lights shut off. Just you and nothing else for an hour — complete silence, complete darkness, no gravity. It’s supposed to put you into a trance. Or something like that. Apparently some neuroscientist cooked up the idea in the 1950s when he was studying the origins of consciousness. Eventually, he abandoned the project in favor of LSD and ketamine research, and the tanks became a quirky consumer product, a spiritual experience you can rent by the hour.

My mom found a Groupon deal online for a family “float session,” so we all packed into our SUV and drove to a strip mall on the far west side of Madison, Wisconsin. Inside, we sat in a waiting room filled with Himalayan salt lamps and coffee-table books about Eastern healing arts. A suburban-looking lady led us to each of our “float chambers.”

She left me alone in a room with gentle, spa lighting and a big, white pod smack-dab in the middle. It looked like a massage clinic, if the massage table had been replaced with the Austin Powers cryogenic chamber. She told me to strip down and climb in the tank. She’d be back in an hour.

That hour was supposed to be relaxing. But, of course, I got antsy, thinking about everything I hadn’t done — all the homework I’d neglected, all the chores left unfinished, all the texts sitting unread while I marinated in darkness and Epsom salt. Those tanks are pretty gross when you think about it — like a dirty, salty bathtub — and a terrifying waste of time. It was a Sunday afternoon. I didn’t need to hover in nothingness and reconnect with my senses. I needed to be productive, efficient, busy.

Online school passes the time, I suppose, and sometimes we read books that plunge me back in time, into a world where people walk freely down crowded sidewalks and visit shops and touch their faces without thinking twice.

Instead of getting work done, though, I just waited in that tank, twitching and fidgeting. And if you fidget in one of those tanks too much, eventually you start spinning. You can’t see anything — you can hardly tell up from down — but you start bouncing off the walls, and that’s how you know you’ve lost control. I started spinning, then spinning faster, just trapped in that stupid tank, flailing my arms, until I blindly swatted the light switch and my senses came back into focus. But I couldn’t just shut the light off and lie back down. I needed to sit up in the tank for a minute and catch my breath — frozen, naked, dripping in salt water, the light shining down from the ceiling of the pod.

My hour ended shortly after that.

Years have passed. I should be at college, panicking about finals and bumping into friends at the library. But instead, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom and staring at my phone, reading scary headlines, because that’s what I do these days. This isn’t the first time humans have experienced a plague. Over the millennia, we’ve stared down mortality, languished in isolation, watched normalcy collapse around us. But now we have antibiotics and the internet — our grandparents watched a man walk on the moon for God’s sake — and I don’t know much about viruses but until a few months ago, I’d figured somebody knew how to handle them.

Apparently not. Coronavirus lurks around every corner, and if you dare visit friends or walk through a crowded park, you’ll probably spread it further until, eventually, thanks to you, it reaches your grandparents. So I stay home, sit in my room and wait for the endless lockdown to tick by.

Emotions these days come in waves of three. The first, sadness, is the easiest to understand. It arrives when the sky is overcast, which, in Wisconsin, it usually is. I cry because I miss school and my friends, and then I cry harder because I shouldn’t even be crying about school when people are dying. The sadness eventually gives way to the second emotion, numbness, which is actually just sadness subsumed in routine. The numbness seeps in when the weather’s fine, the news hasn’t changed much and I still can’t go anywhere. I read a book, watch some TV, pet the dogs and everything feels momentarily normal. And then the third emotion passes over: the fleeting calm of forgetting. I joke around with my parents, watch a funny show, laugh and sometimes the sun peeks through the clouds. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s carefree, until I remember that people are dying. I can’t see the suffering, but I read about it on my phone and the sadness hits all over again. Then I settle back into the routine. How else to put this?

I’m bouncing around the tank.

Virginia Woolf lived through the 1918 Spanish flu, but she didn’t have Zoom or email or Instagram, so she wrote essays and novels. Twice a week, my English class — which used to be a lovely, in-person seminar — meets over Zoom to discuss her work. I learn a lot from our conversations, which usually go a little something like this:

My classmate: “I like this line where she —”

My professor: “Sorry, I think you’re cutting out.”

My classmate: “Oh was I? Hang on, my wifi’s spotty.”

Online school passes the time, I suppose, and sometimes we read books that plunge me back in time, out of this time, into a world where people walk freely down crowded sidewalks and visit shops and touch their faces without thinking twice. Virginia Woolf’s characters like to walk endlessly along the streets of London, people-watching, musing, remembering. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf’s protagonist Clarissa Dalloway, weaves through the city, watching as cars speed past, shopkeepers fidget in the windows and pedestrians hurry along on their merry way.

We need to lose all sense of time, order and normalcy to grasp what’s so precious about this consciousness we take for granted.

When Clarissa Dalloway sees these strangers on the street, she’s reminded of her childhood. She walks, breathes in the fresh air, appreciates the present and relives the past. And so, too, do the others around her. That’s how consciousness works in a Virginia Woolf novel. Characters collect new experiences, then spiral back into old memories.

But when we fall ill, Woolf has written, everything changes. In her 1926 essay, “On Being Ill,” Woolf argues that illness pulls us away from the rest of the world. We descend into a state of detachment and delirium, clouded by pain. No healthy person can understand us, and we can’t understand them. We cannot understand the norms, the systems and the words that bind us to the people around us.

In this state, Woolf writes, “we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up — to look, for example, at the sky.”

But also in this state, Woolf adds, poetry has more resonance, “words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other — a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause — which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor reason explain.”

In other words, Woolf seems to suggest, we need to experience illness to appreciate the beauty of the everyday. We need to lose all sense of time, order and normalcy to grasp what’s so precious about this consciousness we take for granted.

Although she walks for miles down the streets of London, Clarissa Dalloway is frail. Years earlier, she fell ill to the 1918 Spanish flu and never fully recovered. Clarissa knows what it’s like to see strangers on a busy sidewalk as an existential threat. She knows solitude, paralysis and fear. She’s spent countless hours staring up at the sky. And she knows that her consciousness feeds off movement, off the beauty of the ordinary, off strangers passing in and out of view. Perhaps that’s why she walks so much.

Sometimes, the whole world falls ill. A virus bubbles up in some far corner of the earth and spreads like wildfire, bringing us all, collectively, to our knees. It blinds us to the future, unmoors us from our senses and sets us floating along with the sticks on the stream.

I don’t like this delirium. I want to return to busy streets and packed stadiums. But I have to believe that maybe, in the months or years we float in this unknown, we’ll be able to look around, to look up at the sky. It might take a minute for us to reorient, to collectively catch our breath. But perhaps once we do, the poetry will make more sense.

Genevieve Redsten is a sophomore English and anthropology major.