September 22, 2016

A Gift From the Sea

“My soul is full of longing
for the secret of the sea,
and the heart of the great ocean
sends a thrilling pulse through me.” 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It was time to leave the familiar black line at the bottom of the pool and face the deep sea. Or was it? I recently went for my first open-water swim in the Mediterranean.

I was anxious, apprehensive, insecure.  I’m one of those people who like to sit in the sand where the waves gently touch me. I have great respect for the deep, dark sea and feel like my place is safely on land. Yet I love to swim. For my son, who is an extreme athlete, dipping toes in the sand is just not permitted.

I fretted about water safety. Yet when he bought us each a swim float, I had no more excuses.  It was time to go. We headed out in the dark at 5:30am. The sky was just lightening by the time we reached the beach.

We pulled up at Hof HaZuk just south of Herzliya Pituach. The parking lot was filled with cars. Swimmers, kayakers, surfers, paddle boarders and runners gathered by the beach. It looked as if every triathlete in Israel was at this beach today.

 I have never seen so many fit, motivated, serious athletes in one place before. My son grinned. He felt like he was at home with his people. As for me, I felt like a Chihuahua in a pack of greyhounds, a penguin in a flock of falcons.

I grabbed my goggles, inflated my floatie and headed for the sea. Speed was essential for if I thought this through logically, I would be at the beach coffee shop sipping a steamy cappuccino.

The waves were high, arching, crashing and breaking thunderously. They were so high, surfers were out there.

“Did you check the water conditions today?” I asked my son who was still grinning, just itching to get out there.

“No,” he answered, moving forward into the crashing waves.

I noticed it was too early for the lifeguards to be out, but since people were out swimming, it must be ok. Groups of triathletes huddled at the beach, receiving instructions from their super athletic coaches who drew lines in the sand and explained technique.

I need instructions to swim? I was starting to feel very deflated and insecure and seriously preferred a beachfront seat at the café.

“Come on in. Swim,” my son called out to me, disappearing behind a wave.

Not wanting to be left alone, I entered the water, swimming under the crashing waves, waiting for the water to subside just a little. It did not. We swam straight out to a buoy and then he explained that we would swim parallel to the shore from buoy to buoy, then return the same way. Sounds straightforward? Not.

With currents, tides and swells, swimming in the sea is not like swimming in a pool. We are churned and lifted. In the midst of the sea, far from shore, we feel diminished, weak, lost.

Swimming in a pool is akin to running on a treadmill or spinning on a bike. The wild, outdoor versions of these tamer sports are single track mountain biking, wilderness hiking and open sea swimming.

As I started to swim, my eye on the buoy, I felt as if I had little control and could barely keep in a straight line. Each wave lifted me and dropped me, giving me a feeling of seasickness. It was daunting and I felt fragile and insubstantial.

Yet I kept on, stroke after stroke. I tried to calm my mind and surrender to the great being that is the sea.  I remembered hiking in the Himalayas decades ago and feeling this same respect for the greatness of nature. Back then, I also felt like an outsider and wanted to hike delicately, softly, offering respect for the towering mountains with their fierce, changeable climate, winds and high altitudes.

So here too. I was aware the winds could change and the currents could shift. I knew that there were fish out here and someone did mention that sharks are in the sea.

I peered down and saw something black and huge that looked like it was moving. Panicking, I decided not to look down but rather to focus on the buoy. The buoy, my target, my slimy, makeshift home sweet home. My essence in a watery, insubstantial world.  It rocked and shivered, its chain clinking hauntingly like a prisoner rattling in its cell. The waves keep churning, forcing me to lose sight of it.

I calmed my mind. I floated.

Occasionally, groups of swimmers would pass by, happily chatting away as if they were in a supermarket check out line. It was a bizarre feeling to meet up with bobbing heads way out at sea. I felt like calling out to them across the crashing waves, “Beware. Be mindful. This is the sea.”

Swimming onward, I lost sight of them, lulled forward by the clinking chain somewhere in front of me.

And when it was time to turn back to shore, I felt slight regret. I had just faced my frail mortality and was tingling from the awesome power of nature.

The sun was now quickly rising behind the shore. Traffic was building on the highways as commuters raced to work and kids hurried to school. The mad rush of a new day – yet I was beginning mine with a connection to something larger and timeless, my gift from the sea.

My son cools down with a sun salutation.
As Anne Morrow Lindbergh so beautifully writes, "The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach - waiting for a gift from the sea." 

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