The first time I remember being at the ocean, I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. My family was at family camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and we were at the ocean for the “Beach Day”. Today that meaning carries with it the image and expectations of the rides and hype of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, elaborate sandcastle contests, and competitive volleyball tournaments. But in the mid-70’s, “beach day” was simply the day you spent time at the water’s edge, digging in the sand, looking for hermit crabs, and eagerly running away from the oncoming waves’ froth.
My family never spent time at the beach other than this one designated day each year. So I hadn’t had a lot of experience with sand, or waves, or the stinging sea salt spray that the air seemed to be heavy with. Nor had anybody ever told me that waves could be unpredictable, unexpected, and unforgiving.
I, in my eagerness and zest for life, full of an extrovertism that would quickly vanish in ensuing years, I stood at the water’s edge, bucket and shovel in hand, turning to wave at my mom and dad who, not being beach people themselves, were grudgingly “taking one for the team” and hanging out at the sea for a day.
It was when I had just stopped waving, and started to bend down to dig up the sand to fill my pail with hard, wet globs to carry back to our dry sandy spot, that it hit. I didn’t hear the roar, amazingly, maybe because I didn’t even know what to listen for. I didn’t feel the ground pulse underneath me, probably because I was full of the pulse of my own heart beating happily with life, and I didn’t see the receding water in expectation for a gathering wave.
I only remember being knocked off balance, and pulled out to sea by the power and relentless pulse of the wave that fully engulfed me in it’s angry embrace, seemingly mocking me for standing in its way.
I remember everything going dark, being strangled by the water’s curling and curdling grip, and struggling to gather my tiny frame. I willed myself back to shore with every ounce of energy I could muster, frantically fistfighting the heavy and heaving riples, stopping only to cry when I was safe on the dry sand. It was then that I looked back at the now darkly mysterious and fully alive sea, finally fully grasping what had really happened to me, realizing that the enemy had almost won; I had nearly been defeated.
And then I don’t remember the ocean again really, for another 15 years. Until I was on my honeymoon with my first husband, in the Bahamas. I was already on edge and not myself due to issues written about in other posts. And I vaguely remember there being a tipped sign, barely legible, warning of dangerous riptides. And, much like the rest of my experience with him, this barely 48-hour-ed wife believed him when her husband said that she would be safe, to just ignore the sign.
So I walked out into the seemingly never-ending shallow waters, beginning to relax from the warmth of the tropical waters mesmerizing me with their sparkle. Only to then all of a sudden have my feet sucked out from underneath me, like a quicksand presentation running in slow motion. The tide yanked me back from behind, submerging me to it’s depths, slamming me into the ocean floor with a power that created a sand paper effect over the entire front of my body. And for an instant, I was paralyzed, suctioned to the ocean floor in a magnetic grip.
Again, I struggled to right myself, and free myself of the gale. I gasped for hair and choked on salty froth that had ballooned in my lungs and nose. It wasn’t until I reached shore that the sandpaper effect began to show pinpoints of blood from where the sand had been engraved into my skin. And I remember sitting on the dry, sandy shore, shaking from adrenaline, wondering if in some weird way, the ocean was sharing a premonition with me of what this marriage was going to be like.
And then I don’t remember any ocean or beach experience for another 12 years. This time, I was alone literally, not just figuratively. But at this point, alone was the safest refuge I could find. When I finally left my first husband, under 100 pounds, hair falling out in clumps, six different kinds of hives all over my body, bruises and scars dotting my skin from the war I had been in for the last 12 years, I desperately sought solitude. And the place that kept drawing me to it was the ocean, with a yearning that filled me equally with awe and comfort, surrounding me like a blanket on a cool winter’s night.
Instead of fear or anxiety, the sea called me to it. The pounding waves anchored my broken heart. The rough, warm sand seemed to exfoliate the scar tissue both on my skin and my psyche. The pungest salt-filled air seemed to cleanse the muck and mire from my very breath. The sea was calling to me, the ocean was welcoming me home. The waves, in their angry rhythmic song, sang to me a lullaby.
And it was another 15 years later that I realized the sea had made me. It had been preparing me, from the very beginning, to know how to not only survive, but to thrive, when everyone around me was simply surprised that I was alive. When I should have been terrified of being pulled out to the breadths, or slammed into its depths, instead not only did I rise on my own, and survive the defining comb, but I actually gathered strength and found my home, from what many would flee from and simply randomly roam.
So I learned that the waves, like so much else in my life, had tried to break me, but instead they made me. And this tattoo is to remind me, when I feel discouraged and weary and sad, that my life has been defined. And over and over in time, I have learned to see from what once made me blind; and rather than becoming bitter, these sands have made me kind. Not the type of kind that pats your head, or speaks platitudes, forever being cliche. No, it’s the type of kind, that sees the light in the mind, and is able to identify what most see a common, as actually the sacredly sublime.