Waves rolled over blackened rock ledges. Seaweed, salty and bulbous, swayed in tide pools. A strong breeze stirred my hair. Sand squished under foot. Gray clouds traded with sunshine. My friends and I, warmed by summer and sand, faced the waves.
We waded in the tide pools and, like lizards, basked on the soft sand. The scene offered enough entertainment without challenging any unseen forces, without risking our lives. We were, by any reckoning, already winners. After all, we had convinced our parents we were capable of managing a getaway to the beach, that we would be careful during the one hour drive to and from the coast. Our parents, although probably wary, hated to discourage our independence and adventurous spirits. Teenagers, yes , but also a stellar group of excellent students and responsible youth — we could almost taste our freedom in the salt air.
Gritty sand mixed with our lotions and flew onto our blankets. Our sand castles sprawled along the tide’s edge. Our footprints trailed toward sand dunes and cliff caves. A rhythm of undertow and rolling surface, a swirl of reality and imagination stirred us.
Aware of the pull of parental caution — sand gets in your sandwiches, sand fleas bite, sun burns skin, undertow kills — youthful curiosity lured me to wonder if I could climb the cliffs or how it would feel to sleep all night on the sand.
My friends and I were challenging the surf, sometimes body surfing. A confident swimmer, I began swimming out further and further, waves crashing over me, currents tugging at me. This is all memory: dark water and foam, the receding shoreline, my suspension of fear when I should have been terrified. With what fate was I toying?
And then, I decided to return. Here was the struggle I had not imagined. I could swim and float but not so easily determine my direction. The currents delivered me toward shore and then drug me deeper into the sea. Desperation’s bile rose in my throat. I swallowed sea water. Fear chilled my limbs. I rolled onto my back to rest. A wave crashed over me, flipped me, and pulled me under. I fought to the surface, coughing and spitting.
If I use the currents, I can make it, I thought. I rolled onto my stomach and cut diagonally toward a point to the south. My limbs ached; my lungs burned. Finally, my toes touched a sand bar. My lungs sucked in the salty air. I waded against the surf to a rocky shelf and lifted myself up to safety.
As I walked around the point, the waves hushed, the gulls floated overhead, and my heart beat steadied. I could see my friends sorting shells and munching on potato chips.
“Hey! I made it.”
They looked up. “Hey. Where ya been?”
That was it. I made it.
What was this about me, this odd suspension of self and circumstance, this challenge of dark and deep boundaries of fate? It’s a question for which I have no answer. An indelible memory of verve, struggle, and escape — the event could easily have taken me with it.
“for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”
― E.E. Cummings, 100 Selected Poems
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”
― Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters