In Part 1 of Wisdom of the Waves, I promised to tell you how I could be raised “a surfer girl” and not actually be a surfer.
OK here goes.
Between the ages of 7 and 10, I lived with my family in a small, humble abode on the Esplanade across from the ocean in Redondo Beach. We weren’t rich. Far from it. Six people in a tiny three-bedroom house with one bathroom, but the grand ocean view framed by the large front window in the living room helped the house to not feel so closed in.
My grade school was only a block or two away from the ocean, so nearly every day after school on my walk home, I went to the beach.
I was a fairly strong swimmer, and body-surfed a lot, but we didn’t have the money for surfboards (when you have powdered milk and hotdogs for dinner, the subject of surfboards never comes up), so I never got a board.
At one point my father bought me and my siblings a small blowup raft for lake camping. My brother Grant and I would sneak it down to the ocean, blow it up ourselves (which took forever), and then paddle out as far as we could. Did this nearly every day of summer, for as long as the raft lasted! Even caught waves with it!
We were pretty desperate to be on the water in whatever way we could, because our home life wasn’t all that happy at the time. Mom and Dad we’re going through what looked like a divorce from a child’s perspective (it never came to pass and things eventually got better), but the emotions in the house ran pretty high at the time, so I was desperate to stay clear of the storms inside.
The ocean was my salvation. I was in it and around it as much as possible… even in my dreams. One of my favorite reoccurring dreams was about living and breathing underwater. My best friend was a wave—yup, a wave that spoke to me, protected me, and took me anywhere in the world I wanted to go as long as it was in or near an ocean. We had great adventures together below and above the surface of the water. I knew and trusted the ocean and she knew and trusted me. That’s how it felt to my 9 yr old brain, and I believed it was true.
But one day, in a split second, all that got taken away from me.
I was swimming alone that day. A storm was headed our way so the ocean was restless, but the skies were clear and there were no surf warnings, which I had been taught to look out for. I didn’t have my big brother with me like I usually did, but I thought nothing of it. I had been swimming in the ocean for years and was pretty confident in my skills, but I came upon a foe that I could not beat.
In the span of a few seconds, I was pulled down by a monster called an Undertow. It sucked me beneath the water and into a deep sand trench. It held me there until I had no more air in my lungs. Hunched over, waves hammering on my back, the only thing I remember was trying with all my might to stand up straight, thinking if I could straighten my body, I’d have a chance to break free. But the waves crashed down with such relentless force that I finally collapsed under its pounding weight.
Then something happened.
Everything went quiet and still inside and I begin to see each individual drop of water move in slow motion. The roar and pounding of the waves in my ears had gone quiet. Everything slowed down, so much so that I had enough time to think complete thoughts and contemplate the situation, but I was so taken by what I was seeing, that the only thoughts I had were feelings: peace, serenity, and utter fascination.
Next thing I knew, I was on the beach and a lifeguard was ‘waking me up from a dream’—a beautiful dream. That’s how it felt. At first my mind couldn’t make sense of what I’d experienced. I was yanked out of peace and into chaos. But as the coughing and choking ceased, I realized I had nearly died.
I never told anyone what had happened that day. But that was the end of ocean swimming for me. I never went in the ocean again. I still went down to the ocean every day after school, stood before her, grateful she had not swallowed me up entirely, and every day I thanked her for sparing my life, but from that day forward, I only ever admired her from the shore.
As a teenager, dating surfer guys, and spending all our free time at the beach, I was asked, periodically, why I wouldn’t go in the water, and I said simply, “The ocean spared my life once, I don’t imagine she’ll do it again. I am content to love her from afar.”
Strange thing is, I didn’t feel afraid of the water. I have never felt fear around the ocean. I just felt, and still feel, in awe of her beauty, her majesty, and respectful of her power over me.
Maybe it has to do with the peace I felt as I stopped fighting the waves and just let go of the struggle. That moment showed me something my young self had never seen before and taught me a lesson that would stay with me for the rest of my life.
In a strange way, it taught me to be fearless. Or more accurately, it taught me not to fear death. There is a nearly unbearable beauty in the letting go of life. It is said that energy, which we are all made of, is neither created nor destroyed, it simply is and always will be. And when I began to understand that it’s the same for our inner being—our soul consciousness is neither created nor destroyed, but simply is and always will be—things changed for me. It’s hard to explain, and I guess even harder to understand if you’ve never been through it, but I knew, in that moment of stillness, that death is not the end I’d once thought it was. There is a beyond, and it is beautiful.
I’ve come to the brink of death four times in my life. In my 50s I was, with a modicum of fascination, able to connect the dots of these experiences, and when I did, I realized that each of my four brushes with death fell into the category of one of the four elements.
❶ I almost drowned in my youth: WATER
❷ I woke to flames when my house burned down in my 20s: FIRE
❸ I nearly died in a plane crash in my 30s: AIR
❹ And I survived a near-fatal car crash in my 40s: EARTH
In each of these ‘tragedies’ I experienced that same slowing of time, and had the ability to calmly assess the situation, even though chaos rained down around me. And every time, the event changed my life, each leading me to a new awakening.
If I had the chance to do my life over again, I would not change a thing despite the difficult times and the pain they brought me (sometimes years of pain), because those experiences made me who I am, and I have come to realize I like who I am. I survived against all odds and that changes the inner landscape in beautiful and dramatic ways. Once you survive a tragedy, you see that you got through it and not only survived, but eventually thrived. And once you know that about yourself, the way you look at hardship changes. You can never go back to the way you were, nor would you want to.
I would not wish an easy existence on anyone. It is the challenges in life that allow us to rise above and become who we were born to be.
When I started to learn how to sail (my sweetie has a catamaran), some fear came up, but I realized it was more about getting seasick than it was about the ocean itself. I have always been plagued with severe motion sickness ever since I was a girl, fell out of a tree, and smacked my head on a concrete wall on the way down to the ground. I ended up with a severe concussion, and for an entire month, I went without equilibrium—that all-important function that you never think about until you don’t have it anymore. I couldn’t stand up straight, I couldn’t keep food down. I felt like I was constantly on a boat that was being tossed about on the ocean by the mother of all storms.
We all take equilibrium for granted, provided seamlessly and thanklessly by our inner ear. When you spend a month without it, you really start to get how incredibly important it is in our daily lives.
I digress. What I had to do when I began to sail, other than taking lots of ginger because Dramamine puts me to sleep (even the non-drowsy variety), was to make an agreement with the ocean every time I went out. The agreement was, “You don’t kill me today, and I will share my joy with you all day long.” No lie. Those were the words and I spoke them aloud, with my feet firmly planted in the sand. And it worked. Once I made that agreement with the ocean, I was free to enjoy the day.
For someone who loves the wind as much as I do, sailing is pure pleasure, as long as I can circumvent inner obstacles, and let go of any resistance manifested out of past pain.
I guess the same can be said about life!
Thanks for sharing this time with me!