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Girl vs. Ocean

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

When I was a little girl, I used to go to the Jersey Shore to visit family. My favorite time to swim in the ocean was during high tide when the waves were large and aggressive. I would stand on the shore, dig my feet deep into the stand and challenge the water, daring it to give me a big one. "Come on, ocean," I would provoke. The goal was simple. To stay standing. No matter the force, to stand up to the wave-- to beat the sea.

Looking back now, I am not really sure what was more thrilling, the challenge or perhaps allure of drama and challenge- an addiction to my own demise, something that I would come to better understand much later in life.

I remember being an angsty teenager standing at the shore… waiting for the next big wave. An internal gauntlet laid down to the vastness of the ocean… of life… of the Universe… “bring it on motherf@#%&...”

Careful what you wish for my girl.

I remember one particular wave that not only hurt me but also did some pretty massive damage to my ego. I was 14 (picture big feet, large boobs, braces, pretty awful bangs, and serious self-conscious body issues). The ocean’s thrill was still too strong for my playing it cool, so I stood on the shore and, in my usual way, sneered at the ocean through a metal grin…. “hit me with your best shot…” And hit me, it did. The ocean delivered a wave that not only knocked my feet out from under me but also sent me ass over head, face in the sand, and bikini top into the surf. It took me a while to recover and realize that in addition to bleeding from my nose, I also was missing a pretty important part of my wardrobe. Mortified, I ran for my towel- physically hurt, but ego also bruised. The ocean, whom I loved, had punished me. Aside from the mortal embarrassment, it was one of my first exposures to the awesome force of the ocean…. relentless ebbs and flows governed by something beyond that are both thrilling and completely and utterly devastating.

The waves of my life were relatively mild until I hit my 30’s. Though at the time, I thought things like breakups and job decisions were the “big ones” nothing could prepare me for the tsunamis of miscarriages, caring for an ill parent, motherhood, watching a child fight for her life in the ICU, facing childhood trauma, divorce, single parenting, and a global pandemic.

These waves came in rapid succession with little or no time to stand up, regroup, adjust my wardrobe, and breathe. Some were predicted waves that announced their impending nature from a distance… others were rogue and packed an unexpected forceful punch. Still, others seemed small but had a powerful undertow threatening to pull me out into the deep. I fought each one, standing up, digging my heels deeper, and sometimes through weeping sobs and gritted teeth, I stood my ground, or didn't, and got swept up.

I was recently going through a box of memories and came upon some sea glass I collected as a kid. I thought of what the green glass was before becoming opaque and soft around the edges- I imagine some drunk teenage kids throwing beer bottles at the rocks from the pier above, unaware that their reckless behavior would a) probably result in some poor soul's bloody foot and b) would cause a woman at the cusp of middle age to ponder Universal questions of life. I feel like that glass now, broken down, tossed and turned over over in both the calm and tumultuous seas of existence- beveled but not gone, just different. Depending on how you look at it, the glass could be sinking or surfing.

The waves big and little of the last few years have taught me a couple of things:

  1. I surmise that in order not to drown, one must jump in. All in. It sounds counterintuitive, but whether you are standing your ground or not, the wave is coming. If you stand onshore, you bear the risk of losing your footing and getting owned by the wave. You have to feel the feels and not just touch them but dive into them. You have to fully immerse yourself in the beautiful messed-up mystery of life to live it fully. Sure, you still can find yourself spinning, but you can't surf if you're not all the way in.

  2. You have a choice. When the big wave comes, you no doubt will be impacted. Pulled and tossed. For some, you can dive down deep, avoiding the impact. But the real fun comes when you, in fact, learn to ride the wave- to surf through and feel the unbearable lightness of just being. This means letting go and just being here, whether that be on a sandy beach or an ICU room, you have to be all there.

  3. There's a freedom that comes when you give up the fight. I don't mean this in the sense of giving up on life (not fighting to win the battle over cancer or complete a marathon); I mean it when you give up the fruitless endeavor of fighting the current. I want to tell that little girl standing on the beach she doesn't need to stand up and beat the ocean- there is nothing to win, but there is something to gain, and it's far more valuable than your ego.

Oh, dear reader, you think because I have written these words, I have mastered these lessons. Not a chance. It’s one thing to learn and a completely different thing to do. Alas, I have caught glimpses of what the surrender to surf feels like. No surprise, it doesn’t suck or hurt or cause you to lose your bikini top. It feels good and easy and alive. Perhaps the glass, shattered but surfing.. has actually arrived.


Listening to: A Walk, Tycho, Dive, 2011

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