It changes you. It must.
I nearly drowned off the coast twice, you know, not far from Astoria. The first time I nearly drowned, I was on a spill patrol boat. And the second time, I nearly drowned while swimming in a rip.
It’s a good description. You’re ripped. You’re taken. Everyone who has lived on the coast has felt a good riptide, even if it’s only pulling on your legs in the shallows. You get a sense of the great big ask of the ocean – A-S-K – the asking for respect. The ocean says I will ask you to respect my needs, my persistence. There’s nothing in our usual array of strategies to deal with the ocean.
When it happened, I was swimming in the breakers, in there with a 5mm suit, and aware on some level of the majesty and power of the Pacific. Of course I was. But it’s there daily, roaring at me, pushing at the shore, sometimes lulling me. I get used to it. We all have to minimize the ocean’s power just to get on with our days. We have to keep it at arm’s length because the viciousness is incomprehensible.
All the while, every day, what it’s doing? Lunging, pulling back, lunging, pulling back, lunging, pulling back, ready to kill. That’s it, isn’t it? You barter with it; you make deals. We think we know it. We’ve got tide tables. We believe we understand its motion, like we’ve perfected some sort of surveillance. “Okay, ocean. You’re going up the beach this far. You’re receding this far; I know your movements, I own you, you know what I mean?” But every last bit of it can harm you. Our knowledge is so far removed from its abilities. From its will. Have you ever tasted salt when you opened a tide chart or visited a tide website? All you see are dry numbers. Dry knowledge. We have no idea.
It draws us in. I’ve got a 5mm wetsuit, and that’s usually fine for ocean swimming. Even in the winter, some days I put on booties, some days I go with plastic shoes, bare hands, bare head, knowing I’m not going to be there in there forever, knowing that the suit will give me a bit of buoyancy.
On that particular day, it sounds weird, but I was thinking about all the unfinished business in my life. I guess I was at that stage where I was looking around and thinking that there would be much unfinished work in the world, no matter what. I was 52.
I wasn’t going to truly know my kid. I wasn’t ever going to make things right in my marriage. That is, not entirely right. Not sufficiently right. You know, there would never be a point in my life when I’d accept I’d seen enough, or felt enough, been enough. Maybe if I’d had some ungodly amount of focus my entire life, but I was thinking about how there would be vistas I’d never see. It wasn’t the only thing on my mind. Still.
I remember watching videos about how to tie a tarp to a tree, like just how to tie the proper knot to ensure the tarp stretched across. And as much as I’d watched the video and tried to mimic it, I was never going to get to truly know that skill.
I understand the teachings – not the tarp teachings, but the actual teachings of life. They tell us that yes, of course, you won’t finish life with all your t’s crossed. And for most of us, the best you’ll get is pleasant exhaustion at the end when you’re old. Like, you know what? Fuck it; I give up. I don’t know. Some of us won’t make it that far.
It was the day. It was the weather. I don’t know what it was. But I wasn’t feeling much acceptance. When I’m not watching tarp videos, which I do watch a lot, I’ve been watching plunge videos, cold water swimming, and what it’s supposed to do. I know the genuine hard-core folk might sneer at my 5mm wetsuit, but I was working up to bare skin. I wanted to eventually swim with bare skin throughout the year. I wasn’t going to overthink it. I’d just go into the water. So I got into the water.
And I drowned.
I just fucking…you know? The waves are hitting me, hitting my knees, hitting my stomach; I’m feeling once again the power of this water. This is not a conversation. That’s always one thing I’ve liked about the ocean. There is no way to argue your point politely. There’s no way to ask for an extension. There’s no way to say I won’t deal with this now. That has become a tactic in so many areas of life. I’m overwhelmed. I need a little more time. Can we circle back on this? Can we stretch this deadline?
Can we all agree that we don’t really want to do anything? That’s generally accepted, at least in parts of the world. Negotiation. Can I stay up ten minutes later?
What I’ve always loved about the Pacific Ocean is how it says, “No. I’m going to kill you right now.” First, I will tumble you in a riptide that hits with some phantom strength I’ve kept under the waves. I’m going to wash your face with sand. I almost said, “Faces.” This is true, too, because one of my faces was calm. “Oh yeah,” it thought while being pulled by the riptide. “A tumble. This is a tumble in the ocean.” And then it turned into a face of horror. I’m sure I was red-faced, with my lips pursed, arms flailing, and fingernails scraping the sand. All this light hitting my eyelids. You’re seeing nothing. You see spots. And then you might come up into the air with a gasp face or half-gasp face because now it’s real. You know? Now the drowning is real. Now there’s another non-negotiable wave coming at you. And you swallow a huge amount of water. It just flows into you.
For me, the “I am not finished” feeling came later. When I was further out to sea, still being moved by this water, I could think and, eventually, breathe. I could think about, I don’t know, all that was unfinished. There was no ill will. It was just the ocean, you know, doing its thing. Impassive. No hard feelings.
I struggled out there, far from the shore. I looked at that shoreline. I wish I were thinking something like, “It’s beautiful.” No. It was just there, far away, feeling faint. I tried to swim in closer. I felt very tired. Apparently, I was face down when they pulled me out.