This evening, I swam in the ocean. The moon had pulled the tide out to its lowest point, leaving the shoreline raw and exposed. I too feel myself turn inward, dragged down by an invisible tide. I’m tired of resisting, so I go toward it, walking out to the far edge of the shoreline, through the dark and sinking sand, stepping in the cold water that rolls over my feet slowly, speaking outloud that though I’ve been gone, I am here now, and asking what the water wants of me.
I have been writing a story about the ocean for over a year now. I see story-telling as an activity that is not separate from lived activity but that the mythic and the lived mingle together, co-creating each other, so story-telling, as with all things, cannot be rushed.
Over a decade prior, as a passionate and overeager zen student, a grueling three-week silent meditation retreat split me open and left me feeling like the rock struck by Moses gushing water. In the days after, I sang a short verse — Take me back to the water that is cold as my bones. Take me back to the water that is dark as a stone. There’s a story under the water there and it’s never been told.
Finally, having exhausted other possibilities, I give up trying to get away from the dark water and start writing. I take care of the story as I learn how to take care of myself. I step into the cold waters to listen.
The water reachs out to me as I reach out to it. Last year in Maui, the ocean came to me in a dream during night of fitful sleep, as a mother with a warm and boundless heart. But the ocean, like the goddess, takes on many forms. I am interested as much in her darkness as her sweetness. So buoyed by the gentle invitation, arriving home in the San Francisco Bay, I began floating in the salty brine of the waves at Muir Beach. Still, that was early fall, so the water though cold, was not cold enough to warrant concern.
That winter, I traveled to Ireland where new friends explained that women across the island swim in the freezing waters of the Atlantic even on the shortest and coldest days of the year, a tradition in keeping with the mythic narratives of the place, where women shape-shift into seals as if belonging to the ocean as much as to the two-legged terrestrials.
I didn’t swim in Ireland until my last night. Every time I considered it earlier, reasons not to swarmed my mind like bees. Despite having once won a state championship in swimming, I am scared. The cold is too much. I need more gear and I don’t have it. I shouldn’t go alone. Wait until I go with someone, in case of drowning from cold shock.
Finally, after leaving the far remote countryside where I stayed close to the sea, having traveled to the busy streets of Dublin, I realize I’m flying out the next day and I didn’t submerge myself in the ocean even once.
At 6 am the next morning, I ride the subway to a suburb of Dublin. It’s December 15th. I pass a park shrouded in the pre-dawn darkness and see the ocean, shining with the light of the moon. The cement jetty is lively with swimmers, even at this early hour.
I strip down to my bikini. It’s only the second time in my life ever wearing anything other than a one-piece swimsuit. I follow the light of the moon into the water. I just keep swimming. Deeper. In circles. And around again. Seeing the other swimmers, I think I will not die. The cold consumes me and I give as much as I can bear of myself to it.
I make it back to my hotel room in time to quickly pack my things and head to the airport.
Now at home in Muir Beach, I am the only one foolish enough to swim in these freezing waters. I dive below and am shocked into stillness. I come up for air and someone on the shore bundled up in a coat, hat, and gloves says, “You’re really going to swim out there?”
“I’m trying!” I gasp.
I enter the ocean and hear my heart-beat under the water. The watery percussion sounds beyond time.
I have written “come home to my heart” in large scrawling cursive on chalkboard my wall.
I hear Thich Nhat Hanh’s words.
“Breathing in, I am aware of my heart. Breathing out I embrace my heart tenderly and smile to my heart. And stay with your heart for maybe one or two minutes. Maybe this is the first time you have come home to your heart and embraced it tenderly. In the past, you have not shown sympathy to your heart. You smoke. You drink alcohol. You worry too much. Now you come back to your heart with your full presence, embracing it, smiling to it, telling you won’t give it a hard time as you did in the past. If you do not succeed with your own body or feelings, how can you succeed with society or your family?”
I come home to my heart because there is no other place to go. I come home to the beauty and the ache. My heart holds an ocean and grief is the ocean. Getting to the end of it is not the point. Healing is not the point. I wade into the cold waters because it is the only sane thing to do.