I was a little nervous taking my Girl to the beach a couple of weekends ago. I wasn’t sure how she’d react to, well, to any part of the “beach experience.” The sand, the water, the noise of the ocean, the birds, the seaweed—there were too many variables that might make her pause with trepidation. My husband and I never know what might throw her off. Yesterday, she decided that a small, metal, non-living elephant might soon start stampeding towards her. However, she walked down the boardwalk, over the dunes, and onto the sand like it was her normal, and personal, backyard. She enjoyed her steps. The birds gathered in a welcoming formation, waiting to greet her. She enthusiastically said hello to them. The waves bid her, “Come in!, and with the donning of her Puddle-Jumper and some encouragement from her grandmother and me (she held a good balance of fear and bravery), she accepted the invitation. The sun did its part by warming the whole scene.
I watched her eyes as the things in her picture books became real to her. Boats floated along with us in the water. Birds flew close to the water and sang for us while they fish. (They seemed to laugh at me when a fish found my toe.) Shells shared there many configurations, remaining beautiful pieces of artwork even when chipped.
Each day we were there, she discovered something new. In turn, each day, I saw and experienced familiar things for the first time. For example, the many forms of sand were captivating—she learned that wet sand feels and looks differently than dry sand. She also discovered that sand packed nicely into a bright orange bucket.
My favorite place to sit on the beach is the spot in the sand where the waves tease you with their unpredictable touch. With each wave’s delivery of sand and shells, you know that the sand is finding “curious-er and curious-er” places to settle in your swimsuit.
I introduced my Girl to this place on the shore and watched her as she put clumps of sand on her feet and mine; she studied the way the water took the clumps back with it into the collective ocean, claiming final ownership. I dug my fingers in the sand, and sat, re-amazed, at how I could grasp a bunch of it in my palms and hold it, and then have it quickly slip between my fingers again when water unformed it, loosing it from my grasp.
Beside me, my Girl looked up at me and smiled, pleased with her experiential lesson. I smiled back at her, pleased with life.
The next day, I saw a lady with the tattoo written across her back, “Life is a beautiful struggle.” Several tattoos were on her body and at first the statement was lost to me because of all the other ink spots. But as I stood on the shore, gazing at the beauty around me, the words caused me to pause and to ponder.
I was getting ready to make my way back into the ocean and realized that I was willingly going to take a few hits from unruly waves, maybe even be knocked down a couple of times, in order to get to a different part of the same water where I could float along peacefully with the fish and sand and boats.
Once I made it past the barrage of incoming waves, the ocean offered the opportunity of release. I was lifted up and then placed gently down with each passing wave. The noise of the crashing waves faded slightly into pleasant background noise.
Still, the peace that the ocean offered was still not a peace that came without struggle. I had to constantly keep my sight on the shoreline, careful not to drift left or right or in or out. I guess that some effort is required in maintaining peace.
Life is a beautiful struggle—I’m not sure I completely agree with the artist’s philosophy, but I think I understand the sentiment behind the statement.
This past week, we had some more time with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins because the very same waters we played in on vacation were having a raucous party with a cluster of thunderstorms. The end result threatened to take that party onto shore. We aren’t party-ers, so we left town.
In the days of preparation that came before we evacuated, there was a great sense of concern and nervousness in the city. The term “palpable tension” applies. At the store, there was the usual run on supplies—water, canned food, non-electric toys—but everyone was civil. Along with the tension, there was the feeling of a “we’ve done this before, we can handle this” attitude. Calls that I made to my patients gave me similar impressions. Still, the definite stress of the present was in part due to the pain of the past. The losses, the lack of control, the anger at the unnatural natural, were dredging up some recent and not-quite-healed scars.
A chaplain in New Orleans, I have heard many people’s stories from the 2005 hurricanes. I listen as they travel in their minds and remember the irreplaceable items that they lost. They remember not hearing from or being able to call loved ones. They recall the lack of color, the lack of light at night, the suffering flora and fauna. And then they talk about the water. Though many water lines have finally faded or have been painted over, they know how high it was in their homes. They know how it felt on their legs as they waded through to get to their homes or their pets. They remember the smell it left behind, wrinkling their noses as though it were still a present scent. And so, as this 2012 hurricane lingered in the Gulf, people started seeing and smelling the memories of 2005 again.
Water baptizes, cleans, refreshes, births, and energizes. But water also invades, muddies, overtops, drowns, and imposes. There is tension in Water. It is a source of inconsistency and contradiction.
Luckily, I didn’t have to navigate the stormed-churned water. Luckily, and graciously, I get to listen to the stories of the ones who did. At my best moments, I get to live in the tension along with the narrator. In gracious moments, shared tension becomes less tense and we all get to navigate rough waters together.
While my family waited with my cousin and her family for the dawdling storm to show its intensions, I had a rush of relief come over me, just knowing that we were together, over the bridge, alee, at least from the brunt of the wind.
The article I referenced in my introductory post by Johanna Shapiro, states: “the first person voice, no matter how incomplete, flawed, transgressive or unexceptional, still merits respect and empathy because ultimately it belongs to the patient and represents the patient’s truth in that specific iteration… [For patients] telling their stories is one of the few aspects of their lives that remains somewhat under their control.”
I listen because people’s stories deserve a hearer. I listen because I believe that Water cannot be navigated by just one person. I listen because there are times when I want to be heard.
I wade in the water because I need to know that it does exist as a place of beauty and release, not just as a threatening, power-yielding deity that only causes strife and struggle. I wade, praying for cleansing and healing.
Water, flow gently.
Read more from Stephanie Little Coyne at her blog.