Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Power of the Sea

We would stand on the beach at Montauk, a boy and his father, looking out past the easternmost point on Long Island, and I'd strain to hear my father’s words as the ocean waves broke in front of us, crashing and thundering to reveal their power.

“Never turn your back on the ocean,” my father would warn me. “The riptides are treacherous.”

Some of the waves were five and six feet tall, and my father, who was broad-shouldered and a good swimmer, would dive into the waves after issuing this warning, and I’d watch with admiration as he swam under and through them.

Somehow he always managed to emerge safely in the calm sea beyond the crash of the waves, and that’s where he’d wait for a large wave to ride back into shore.

A few times, though, he'd turn his back to the sea, and a wave would surprise him with its power and catch him off guard. And I’d watch from the shore as the wall of water slammed into his shoulders and hips and dragged him under.

Those moments when he disappeared from view were always frightening. I remember waiting anxiously until I could see his head bob to the surface. Only then would I release my breath and feel the tension in my body relax as he stood up and walked out of the sea.

All these years I’ve followed his advice, never turning my back on the sea, except for once —and that’s the time when a strong current took me by surprise.

It happened when I was swimming off Long Beach Island in New Jersey. I turned my back on the sea for a moment, and, without warning, a strong undertow grabbed my arms and legs, and the current felt like a steel clamp as it dragged me away from the beach toward the open sea.

I was scared and tried not to panic. No amount of kicking or swimming could save me. My legs were swept out from under me, and the current pinned my arms to my sides and pulled me further out.

I worried that I would drown if I couldn’t find the bottom with my feet or swim out of danger. There was simply nothing I could do except let the current take me.

And then the current slowed and my toes unexpectedly touched bottom, a shallow reef that wasn’t visible from the surface, and I pushed with all my might and managed to slip out of the current’s grasp into calmer water.

I was breathing hard, but I was safe.

Lately, as I make my way into the deeper water of revisions, I try to remember how letting the current take me was what saved me.

With each new draft, it feels like the current is trying to pull me under again. On some days I feel like I’m being pulled into dangerous water, that I'm out-of-control, drowning.

What I need to remember about revisions is what I learned when I was being dragged out to sea by the current.

I need to remind myself to let go of the need to control the situation, to stop fighting the current.

I need to remember not to panic if I lose my way.

I need to take deep breaths and try to let myself float and go with the current, even as my father's warning continues to echo in my ear. 

Never turn your back on the ocean. The riptides are treacherous.

Yes, I've learned, the ocean currents can be dangerous. 

But if I can find a way to let go of panic and fear, the way my father used to swim through the rough waves off Montauk's beaches,  the current will take me toward the deepest part of the sea.

And that's where I'll find the source of our stories.