“There was a magic about the sea. People were drawn to it. People wanted to love by it, swim in it, play in it, look at it.” — Cecelia Ahern
I felt that same way about the ocean. The ocean was my first teacher. In many ways, it was also the best because I learned many lessons from my experience there that are still applicable to navigating more gracefully through life.
The highlight of the year for me from a very young age was the annual trip to the ocean for two weeks in July when my Dad had a vacation. My grandparents had a beach house on the Rincon beach between Santa Barbara and Ventura. The excitement for me began as we got close; all my senses were engaged. At the first glimpse of the ocean, I could hear the waves crashing on the shore; I could smell the salt air and feel the ocean breeze. I fancied myself a mermaid. I never had swimming lessons so I must have been born knowing how to swim, and unlike many children, I was never afraid of the water. From the ocean, I learned everything I needed to know about what it meant to be free. Although I didn’t have the vocabulary for articulating that at the time, I most certainly remember the feeling of being free. Free from what you may ask?
My mother was afraid of the water and she would sit on the beach to be sure I didn’t go out over my head, which of course, I did. She had a collection of stories about tidal waves, rip tides, and sharks that she thought would scare me, but much to her dismay, it didn’t. The ocean to me was like what many would call God, a friendly all-powerful force that would lift me up to great heights and drop me gently on the sand and it never failed me in doing that. Except once. when I saw that I couldn’t get into position soon enough. When I saw the wave about to break on top of me, I foolishly turned my back, dug in my heels, and had a very bumpy ride to the shore. I was very small and the wave was very big. The water swirled and twirled me around. I bumped up against rocks and was pushed underwater. Lesson learned. I went right back in the water, and then once again, when it appeared that the wave would break on me, I dove through it or under it and found myself farther out and ready to position myself to catch the next wave. It was a really good lesson in learning how to use a challenge for an opportunity to move ahead. Sometimes I would continually dive through or under the waves until I got to a place where the ocean was completely still, without any waves at all. My mother appeared to be so small. All I could see was her red handkerchief that she waved frantically in an effort to bring me back in. I waved back and stayed out longer and swam out farther.
There was a sort of freedom of being able to get out of range even for a short while. There were usually consequences because she would be angry, but when I was allowed to go back in the water, I could feel the cleansing power of the saltwater washing away all the anger.
These trips to the ocean continued until my grandparents died. I was a teenager by then and joined a swimming team in Berkeley. But even the best indoor pool is no substitute for the ocean.
Years later when living in the DC area, I became acquainted with the Atlantic Ocean, thanks to one of my students who offered me the use of his family’s beach house at any time.
There were other memorable trips to the ocean— the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where I discovered the beauties of colorful fish and other fantastic sea creatures under the surface of the ocean. Also swimming with dolphins at Key Largo and snorkeling in Hawaii.
Today I live in Missouri, more than a thousand miles from either coast. Although I fully intended to return to California, I got waylaid in Missouri for ministerial training at Unity Village. Interestingly I discovered in the Unity library that the Daily Word for the day of my birth was free and that is what inspired these reflections.
The Pacific Ocean will always be calling me, but for now, it’s a memory of my first experience of freedom and a few life lessons. I can still wrap myself in that feeling of freedom that I had when riding the waves even when I feel anything but free. When I feel trapped in a challenging situation I can usually find a way to navigate through or around it just as I did when seeing a big wave about to break on top of me. I can look at a challenge from a higher perspective or at a distance, making it so small as to be insignificant as I used to view my mother as I swam far away from her fears.
As a child to simply it was so much simpler to learn through experience; now as an adult somehow it has become more difficult to apply the lessons of the ocean to everyday life, but it does inspire me to try. No theories or philosophies could have taught me what the ocean did.