Rivers and the oceans are the subject of countless poems and stories. In these anecdotes, we often read about a hero weathering a storm in a small boat or learning to conquer powerful and relentless waves. Sometimes the protagonist battles a creature of the sea or he learns to master the winds to set his sails in the right direction. All are metaphors for life.
As I sat and watched the water recently, I, too, was struck by a metaphor that the sea presented to me. Through my observation, I noticed that the water always seems to be moving forward. The roll of soft waves is never away from the beach. It is a constant motion toward the sand. What we don’t see (or maybe don’t always notice), however, is the action that happens underneath the surface; the undertow that pulls the water back to its source.
I sat and watched that water for quite a while. As I did, the metaphor grew stronger and stronger. I could recall with great clarity the feeling of standing in a surf zone where the water is relatively shallow, but the waves are high. Some of those waves I was able to jump. Some simply swelled around me, lifting my body off the ground in a carefree float. And some of those waves knocked me over and pushed salt water down my throat. I can recall in every situation, however, the sensation of undertow – the sand rushing backward over by bare skin as I regained my footing in the surf. That undertow says to me that even the strongest waves can be balanced out; that another force in nature knows the ocean so well that it works perfectly in tandem with it in a beautiful and productive way.
Many people confuse the term undertow with a rip current. The two are actually different things. While an undertow occurs wherever there are shore-approaching waves, a rip current is actually a more localized event that only occurs in certain places along the shore line. Undertows, I think, are a healthy and necessary characteristic of the sea. The rip current, however, has the potential to be dangerous. Both things, I believe, also serve as metaphors for life.
How much our lives are like the sea! It is no wonder so many of us are drawn to it. Like the water, we have an energy within us that drives us forward. It opens our eyes in the morning, calls us out of bed, and sends us out into the world with the hope that today will be better than yesterday. But under the surface of that drive, don’t we also have an undercurrent of thoughts, ideas, and connections? That undertow helps us to balance the momentum of enthusiastically moving forward with the reminder of who we are and what we value. The partnership of undertow and waves helps us to make decisions that are good for us.
The rip currents in our lives, however, are those things that serve as potential distractions. They interrupt the natural balance of ebb and flow and pull us from our intended direction. I think it is sometimes dangerously easy to confuse the two influences in our sea. But one clear distinction can be made: undertow is constant and true. It is a natural hesitation in us; an impetus to think before we act; a reminder that progress forward requires us to work hard, to navigate the world well, and to trust that even with the forces that sometimes work against us, another surge will come to push us once again forward.
Conversely, rip tides in life pop up unexpectedly – often when we think we have comfortably mastered how to ride the tide. The danger of the rip tide is that often presents itself with great force and passion…the kind of force that leads us to question our own decisions, to forget the lessons we’ve learned from the past, and to undermine our own well-being. As a result, we begin to make decisions that are “safe.” We fall into a pattern of surviving instead of thriving. We lose our ability to embrace adventure. The secret to the rip tide? Relax. Tread water for a while. Do not make sudden changes to direction as a reaction to the rip tide’s pull. Instead, live a life parallel to your shore. In time, the forward motion of the waves and the corresponding undertow will set you back on course, safe from drowning in a distraction that – for a moment – seemed like something that required your attention.
Because I always bring my reflections back to our relationships, I ask you, “Who are the rip tide people in your life?” Are you able to identify the people whose energy or intentions pull you away from your shore? Who are the people whose decisions have left you fighting in one way or another to survive? And do these people exert an energy or passion that is hard to ignore (despite the danger they represent) simply because you share a common ocean in some way?
Conversely, who are the people who know what lies beneath your surface and still choose to work in partnership with you? Can you identify the people who are able to both ride your waves and also keep you grounded? Who are the people whose actions push you not into an open and scary sea, but who more gently invite you to a place of love and acceptance? These are your undertow people. Embrace them, celebrate those relationships, and remember that when a wave knocks you over, these are the people whose influence will pull back the tide so you have time to once again stand.
When was the last time you looked at someone and thought, “Wow. That person is sexy”? Can you remember why you thought that? There are a variety of physical reasons, of course, that one person finds another desirable. But for me, truly sexy people are those who demonstrate certain attributes: confidence, an open mind, a sense of humor, a curiosity in the world. The one characteristic that I find most sexy, however, is resiliency.
James Cascio, who was named as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers, said that “Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected… The goal of resilience is to thrive.” What I love about his quote is the idea that despite the unexpected things life throws at us, we have the capacity to thrive. Sure, we can focus just on surviving. But Cascio reminds us that we are capable of much, much more. It is the people who are able to take the unexpected, embrace the challenge, and truly thrive that I find the most exciting kind of people.
Everyone knows the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I’m not a big fan of that saying. Reason is that to make lemonade means taking those lemons, watering them down to nothing, and covering their tartness with batches of sugar. I’m not one to sugarcoat anything. I’m also not one to pretend that a situation always has a silver lining or that there’s always an easy fix. Some things just suck. But I am an optimist most of the time. And instead of covering the true taste of the lemon, I believe there is value in learning to be comfortable with the bitterness. Without the sting of lemons, could we truly appreciate the kiss of something sweet? Sexy people don’t make lemonade.
This reflection does not ignore the fact that sometimes life is really, really hard. Sometimes, right out of the blue we are smacked with a situation we never even saw coming. Sometimes, we are left feeling not like ourselves at all and we get tired. It is easy at these times to become a victim. But it is those people who can take these times to learn something about themselves – and who become better people as a result – those are the sexy people. Those are the people I want to be around.
I looked up the word resilient in the dictionary and found three definitions:
1. springing back;
2. returning to the original form or position after being bent, compressed, or stretched; and
3. recovering readily from adversity, or the like; buoyant.
The last definition is my favorite. I never thought about being resilient as being buoyant. But the idea of being able to float on top of the adversity in our lives is a really beautiful image to me. Floating on it does not deny its existence. Instead, challenges become like an ocean under the boat of our lives. We can learn to navigate them, to maneuver them strategically, and to appreciate the swells that constantly move us forward. We may not always move in the direction we intended and sometimes we get splashed right in the face with a mouth full of brine, but we keep floating. It is when we can savor the smell of salt air, appreciate the wind through our sails, and continue to chart great explorations, then we are living … thriving … I’d get on that boat any day. (If there happens to be a sexy first mate on board, even better!)
Today I find myself staring at a print that’s been framed and hanging in my office for many years. It is a reproduction of American artist Howard Pyle’s The Mermaid. The work depicts two figures – a mermaid and a man – in a deep embrace at the edge of the sea. The two are folded so tightly into each other that it is almost hard to determine where one body begins and the other ends.
I first discovered Pyle’s painting years ago – so long ago, in fact, that it is hard for me to recall how or when exactly. I do know that I liked it enough to order a large print from the art museum. That print is now framed and has followed me from work space to work space over the years. Sometimes it stood neatly in the back of a closet (as I reconsidered my decorating options), but for the better part of 20 years, that painting has been present – neatly hung on otherwise plain walls – in the spaces where I’ve spent most of my time. Over the years, I found many reasons to love this work of art. I have actually surprised myself with the number of observations I’ve been able to make about the painting.
Today as I sit looking at the print, I am imagining a story behind the painting. The figures in the painting are obviously in love with each other (or so I think because of their embrace). But a relationship between a mermaid and a land-lover is obviously challenged by a variety of things (yes, for just a moment,you have to give into the idea that mermaids exist). They live in completely opposite worlds. One could argue, in fact, that the man on land lives a more rigid life, bound to the elements of his universe and forced to navigate a rocky terrain. The mermaid on the other hand, lives in the sea where she has learned to swim with the current. To me, she is the more flexible rider of waves. She has learned to hold her breath and dive deep beneath the surface in hopes of finding treasure not always obvious at the surface. She, to me, is the more carefree and adventurous of the two. He is grounded (literally) and unable to explore the depths she knows.
And yet they are here together in Pyle’s painting, each having come half-way to the other. He is knee-deep in the ocean. She is waist-high in the air. And they are sharing an embrace in which their longing for each other is palpable.
Is it because they can’t be together that they want each other so much? Or do they simply want each other despite the challenges they face? I guess Pyle leaves that up to the viewer to decide. But when I look at the painting, here’s the story I see:
One day a man went out for a walk. Attracted to the cool ocean breeze and the twinkle of sunlight on waves, he chose a path along the shore. As he walked, he caught glimpse of something unique and interesting in the surf. When the man moved closer to the water’s edge, he realized that the thing he observed was a woman diving up and down in the waves. She sparkled, unlike anything he ever knew before. Again, he moved closer, putting just toes in the water. When the woman saw him, she retreated deeper into the ocean. Alarmed, the man called out to her, reassuring her that he meant no harm. The woman swam closer. The man moved to a rock at the water’s edge and sat. Curious, the woman swam closer. Soon, he began talking and she listened. She had never heard a voice so soothing, words so sweet. But then, reminded of her tie to the ocean, the woman turned and swam away. The man sat for hours on the rock waiting for her to return. Finally, he went home and tried to forget what he convinced himself was a dream. The next day, the man returned to the same spot along the ocean’s shore. He perched on the warm rock and began to read a book. Soon, he heard a splashing in the ocean that once again revealed the woman he knew from the prior day. This time, the man invited her closer, asking if she’d like to hear part of his book’s story. She moved closer. The man read chapter after chapter, each turn of the page brought her closer and closer to him. After several hours, she was positioned on the rock next to him, her upper body folded before him, her tail still emerged in water. The man repeated his visit day after day and readings from the book soon turned to conversation. She did not see his legs; he did not see her fins. Instead, the two found a connection. Love. Days turned into weeks and weeks into years and today each of them knows that their situation is not practical. He can never live in the sea and she cannot survive on land. But their passion for each other continues to drive them back to this rock. And in moments of compromise, he moves into the water and she reaches back into air. They find each other. And in their embrace, each believes – for just a moment – that if he were to jump fully into the water, her love would help him float.
But that’s just my imagination. What does the painting say to you?
(Howard Pyle’s original painting of The Mermaid is housed in the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, DE. It was painted in 1910 as oil on canvas. For more information, including the museum’s story about the painting, visit http://www.delart.org/collections/american-illustration/the-mermaid/)
We’ve all heard the saying, “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” However, as I sat watching sea birds this summer, I began to wonder if instead of stressing the plenitude of fish, we shouldn’t be focusing more on the technique of the fisherman. For the purpose of this consideration, I will call upon the behavior of three birds I watched carefully from the shore.
The first bird is one most often associated with the sea shore: the gull. A bird of substantial size, he makes his presence known on the beach. Most often seen in the sky above lunching beach-goers, the gull has a loud, repetitive call and a persistence that is difficult to ignore. Interestingly enough, though, the sea gull is not spoken of by most people with deep admiration. Perhaps it is because he is a nag. Whether stalking from the sand or the sky, the gull is almost too eager for acknowledgment. Once the sympathetic beach beauty does offer a scrap of her lunch to the gull, he screams out loudly, announcing her generosity to every other lurking gull. Before she knows it, she is surrounded by scavengers, all looking for a piece of what she’s offered the one. And once the goodies are gone, so are the birds, leaving behind only their messy droppings. It’s no wonder they have the reputation that they do. Despite the fact they evolved with sharp beaks, impressive wingspans, and keen eyesight – all qualities that make them skilled fishermen – the gulls are perceived as a lazy menace. They are often shooed away from the beach with bellies empty, left to fly across the horizon unsatisfied.
The sandpiper on the other hand never makes direct contact with beach-goers in its hunt for food. Instead, it shows up as the tide begins to retreat and fishes joyfully at the water’s edge. When the ocean breaks on land, the sandpiper retreats quickly on tiny legs that are amusing to observe. And as the water retreats, he follows in the tide to take advantage of the baby clams that were once hidden by sand. Partnered with the sea in its quest for food, the sandpiper penetrates only the shallow, soft sand to dine on the once burrowed clams that are now within easy reach. While it is willing to get its feet wet in the quest for satisfaction, it’s never seen floating in the sea and certainly doesn’t take great risk. It is a shallow fisherman. And, while it seems satisfied with what it finds, the tiny sandpiper returns throughout the day to work terribly hard for tiny clams.
Finally, my favorite of the sea birds is the tern. Resembling a small gull, these birds appear in small flocks over the ocean, not far from the shore. Skilled aviators, they move in the wind like graceful dancers, eyeing crabs and small fish that swim just beneath the ocean’s surface. The tern navigates the wind like a kite, unaltered in its mission and not discouraged by a shift in direction. It is a brave and determined fisherman that navigates with agility. It floats on the breeze and scours the waters below for the perfect catch. It seems particular and patient; almost confident that its persistence will offer reward. Then, like a World War II divebomber, the tern plunges into the sea bravely and swiftly, adding strategy to its dance. It is not afraid to penetrate the surface, knowing that the substance often found below the superficial current will be worth the time and risk invested. More often than not, the term reemerges into the sky with a beak full of fish. Then it soars to greater heights and ventures off to (I’m assuming) a nest to enjoy its catch.
Whle it may be true that “there are plenty of fish in the sea,” I have also learned from the sea birds that fishing strategy plays an important role in securing a “catch.” We can be like the gull who is persistent and noisy, satisfied with scraps of whatever is offered to us and never willing to take real risk . We could also be like sandpipers who work very hard for very little reward. But it is the tern, I think, that offers the greatest lessons for us about netting a catch worth holding. If we can be patient in our search, learn to be resilient in our effort, and be brave enough to penetrate the surface, I think the fish we end up with will be worth all our effort in the end.
There is nothing I enjoy more than being at the beach. Stating this fact, I know, does not make me unique in any way. Lots of people love the beach. In fact, social media pages this time of year are covered with images of kids playing in the sand, the surf crashing on the shore, and the sun majestically setting over a beautiful ocean.
Yesterday I sat comfortably in my beach chair. Close to the water’s edge, I suddenly became very aware of the gritty sand between my toes, the salt air blowing though my hair, and the rhythm of waves crashing on the beach. It was mesmerizing; an almost magical trance of serene being that I haven’t been able to duplicate anywhere but at the beach. My guess is that while most don’t stop long enough to reflect on the “beach experience” in this way, it is a similar state of relaxation that beckons people back to the beach year after year. Together, as we shed more of our clothes than some probably should, we also shed the everyday stresses of work and obligations.
Well-known ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau wrote that “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” I, for one, and spellbound. The ocean sings a song to me more beautiful than any melody and in that song is a promise of renewal; a sense that I am just one small grain of sand in a universe I know very little about. I imagine my legs, somehow magically transformed into the fins of a mermaid, and I dream about diving down beneath the dark blue surface to swim freely with whales and sing their song. But perhaps I am too poetic. With my land legs bound to the shore, I sit watching the tide and it somehow allows me to believe that in the ebb and flow of the universe, everything happens in the time it is intended. We cannot rush it. We cannot force it. We can only be open to the possibilities – like the shore sits open and waits for the sea.
There is value in being at the beach.