30 January 2008

High tide

"On the open sea there are no landmarks, there is only an amorphous, chaotic shifting of directionless masses of water that loom up and break and roll, and their surface is, in turn, broken by subsystems that interfere and form whirlpools and appear and disappear and finally vanish without a trace. Slowly this confusion will work its way into the chambers of my inner ear and destroy my sense of orientation....I'm not afraid of the sea simply because it wants to strangle me. I'm afraid of it because it will rob me of my orientation, the inner gyroscope of my life, my awareness of what is up and down, my connection to Absolute Space."
-Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg

When I was 14, I was swimming in the Atlantic, off the coast of Maryland. I was there with an enormous group of extended family; my mother and her sisters had been visiting this coastal town since they were girls, and now my cousins and I joined them.

There was a hurricane down the coast, and the undertow was fierce that day, although the water sparkled, the sun shone and the breeze blew. I was aware of the danger, and was staying fairly close to the shore because I'm an ok swimmer, but certainly not a great swimmer. Usually I'm pretty good at knowing my limits, though I've been known to push my luck. Not this time, though. I will chance some things, but not in open water.

So it was just accident, bad luck, that I wandered off a shelf and ended up in deeper water than I'd intended to be. And it was worse luck that I was hit by a wave at the same time I discovered I was literally in over my head. I saw the second, bigger wave before it hit me, and tried to dive into it. That was where I met the undertow.

Sometimes, you just know that you aren't going to win. Sometimes, you just know that something is so much bigger and stronger than you are that there is no fighting. But I'm a fighter, and I struggled to swim even as I was being pulled away, bounced down into the sand and dragged further out.

My enduring memory of those moments--and I know they had to be moments, though it seemed like hours--is green water filled with sand swirling in front my eyes as I was flipped around onto my head. I remember how much it hurt to be thrown into the sea floor--I'd lost all buoyancy and was being hurled through the water, upside down and all around. I was already tired from swimming and the sun, and fighting the force that was holding me underwater was becoming more difficult since I no longer had any bearings. I no longer had any control.

My life did not flash before my eyes. I just suddenly realized, "This is it. I'm not going to make it." And I relaxed, and let the water take me. I felt very calm. Then, my knees hit the sand, and my head broke the water. I'd landed on a sand bar, a good half mile down the beach from where I'd started. I sat there for a little, not cognizant of my very good fortune, just weary, breathless, and a little dizzy from being thrown around underwater. Eventually, I was able to get up and stagger back up the beach where my family had not even noticed my absence. One can indeed drown without a sound.

I still have nightmares of being trapped underwater. I will go into open water only up to my ankles, and I venture no further.

Like the ocean, life runs in cycles that sometimes seem no less than amorphous, chaotic shiftings of directionless masses of daily activity. We are born, we reach maturity, we reproduce, we die, and hopefully, in between, there are moments when we land on a sand bar to take a look at what's going on around us.

In the last five years, and most dramatically in the last three, my life has been broken by waves and whirlpools and eddies that have threatened my orientation, my sense of place in the world. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it has knocked me off balance. Right now, I feel like I'm standing again on that shelf in the Atlantic. I see the wave coming, and there is no avoiding it, but I'm not sure how hard it will it hit me, what will be the effect, if an even larger wave is lurking behind. Will this be the one that pulls me out to sea, or I will step off the shelf of my own volition?

This is admission that I know things have changed, possibly more profoundly than even I realize. A couple of nights ago, the son and I were discussing his entrance into high school and how much he dreads the change. "You can make it an adventure," I told him, "or you can make yourself miserable."

I can also make change an adventure, but I haven't reached that state of calm yet. I haven't reached the place where I can allow what is inevitable to take me. I don't know how to ride this wave, and I can only hope that I figure it out in time.

Go listen to some good music: "High Tide" from the album 7 Day Weekend by CS Angels.

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