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And the Waves Play Through It

Christine Caldwell

I was raised six blocks from the Pacific Ocean, in a southern suburb of Los Angeles, back in the 1950's when there were still working class neighborhoods near the shore. If I stood very quietly in the evening darkness of my front yard, I could hear the sound of the surf, muted over distance into a hushed and continual low-pitched boom. The Pacific Ocean is quite spectacular in this area, kicking up some impressive waves, making southern California one of the finest surfing areas in the world.
I was afraid of this surging water. When I was a toddler I had to be rescued from a swimming pool, and I suspect my body and psyche hadn't forgotten the frantic thrashing and panicked sucking of water into my lungs during that incident. As a result, I didn't go into the ocean as a kid; no amount of cajoling from my family could persuade me to risk that, so I contented myself with playing in the wet sand at the edge of the surf.
Throughout my childhood I also had a recurring nightmare. It began with me standing on the wet sand, looking out to sea. The water would then begin to suck back, exposing the shore, retreating into the building mass of a huge tidal wave, a wave so immense that it completely filled my field of vision, looming to impossible heights. There was no way to escape the imminent deluge, and I knew I was going to die as it gathered itself up into a frothing wall, ready to pound me out of existence in a heartbeat. In each recurrence of the dream I turned and ran hysterically away from the wave, all the while knowing that my running was futile. The dream would always end with my frantic fleeing.
Children grow into adolescents, who tend to assume a certain degree of invincibility. It was this assumption that helped me to push aside my fear of drowning as a young teen, and begin to play in the surf. If you wade out to about hip deep, the waves are often over your head and you can either jump up into them as they crest, getting a gleeful vertical whoosh as the waves pick you up, or you can jump in front of them just as they hit you, stretch out flat and "body surf" them into the shore. Timing is everything, as is an ability to read the break and shape of the wave. But the payoff is a tremendous amount of fun. And if you just stood there, trying not to have fun, getting solid and unmoving, the wave would most assuredly bowl you right over and knock the breath out of you. And if you just went limp and let the wave take you, well it would, frequently smashing you against the sandy bottom and knocking the breath out of you. To play in the waves, to maximize your fun, you had to participate with the wave, not resisting it and not giving up in it. There is also a zone the water play can occur in. The zone exists according to your size and ability. Too shallow and you can't catch anything; it's all petered out. Too deep and you can't catch anything, it's still forming. Interestingly, there was also what we called the "kill zone." This area included and bracketed the play zone, and had to do with not reading the waves right. The results were obvious.
One day in the summer I was fourteen, I hit the beach and dashed into the water, not taking the time to read the waves and see that they were "running in sets", meaning that a series of really big waves was alternating with regular-sized ones, a frequent pattern after a storm out to sea. By the time the set started, I was too deep to get back to shore and too shallow to be out beyond their furious pounding. I was caught right in their "kill" zone, which, on another day, would have been the play zone.
The first wave approached, way too big to jump or surf. I tried to dive under it, the standard bail-out procedure, but it caught me up, spun me over, and slammed me onto the bottom in a series of flailing somersaults. I broke the surface panting, trying to suck air, knowing there were at least four or five more of these ten footers coming. The exact same thing happened with the next two waves, and as I rose for the fourth time I was on the verge of passing out, unable to take in enough breath, knowing that I would not make it through the next wave. I had no energy or oxygen left to endure. I backed away from the next huge wave, struggling, knowing it was futile. Just as the wave loomed, entirely filing my field of vision, I felt the firm grip of a lifeguard's hand circling my upper arm. He told me I was OK now, that he was here and he was going to get me through the next wave, and we were going to make it.
To this day I don't know how he did it, but when that wave broke over us he sat us both down on the bottom, just under the pull of the water. As soon as it passed, he scooped me up, carried me to shore, and dumped me on the wet sand. He hovered for a second, told me I would be OK, and told me he had to go, that there were others still out there who needed help. He took off running, back into the water, and I never saw him again. I spit up water and sucked air, lying there face down until I could breathe normally. I picked myself up then and slowly walked home, grateful to my nameless rescuer and happy to be alive.
After that incident, the recurring nightmare changed slightly. The tidal wave still loomed, it was still going to smash me, but just before I turned to run I would notice how blindingly beautiful it was. I could see the small details of its immense, awesome shape, the way it would curl and froth at the top, the way the sun would glint off the front wall of water. I marveled, just for a moment, at how utterly powerful it was, how nothing would be left standing before it. I remember gasping a "Wow!" right before I turned and ran.
The last time I had the dream was right before I left home at seventeen, the night I was packing my bags for college. I was there again, looking out to sea. The water at my feet sucked back, the wave coalesced and filled my field of vision. This time, I was so struck by its' immeasurable beauty that I stayed rooted to the spot. I realized that I was going to die, and I decided that since these were my last moments of life, I wanted my death to occur while my eyes were filled by the colossal power and awe-full radiance of this force of nature. A sense of bliss and completeness suffused me, and as the wave crested and began to fall over me the dream ended, then, and forever.
Some part of me died there on the beach that summer day when I was fourteen, and it died again the night when my deathful nightmare transformed into an epiphany of aliveness. In the decades since that day, I have been attempting to grow towards a level of consciousness that could fully understand and make useful the events of that day and that night. I suspect we all have stories just like this one, moments of danger and possibility that planted seeds of change that we now have the responsibility to either weed out or to water and nurture.
Fundamentally, by working with birth and death, we water the seeds of aliveness, and of play. Play can be defined as a spontaneous engagement with someone or something for no other reason than the pleasure and satisfaction it brings. In return, we tangentially learn skills (physical and observational) that can help us to cope with future stressors, deal with complex events, and problem-solve "on our feet". That day in the water I was ostensibly trying to find that slot in the surf where I could have fun, revel in my aliveness, and meet any challenge. What more could I want from my entire life? What affirmed this learning was the possibility that by engaging playfully with my life, I could eventually face my looming death with a sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude.
We are all surfers, at times reluctant and resistant, at times leaping wildly into the waves, sometimes getting bowled over, sometimes getting spine tingling thrills. Our conception, gestation and birth can be seen as our first experience of life's waves, and our death looms as our final opportunity to surf. By working consciously with imprinted patterns from birth that may have frightened us out of going into the water, we can re-learn to play well through our lives. And when the time of death comes, we can then stand in the awe and face the transformation to come.