Is a wave still a wave after it throws itself onto the shore, and then recedes, flattened, back into the surf? The water is but a few inches deep, and on this particular day, filled with foam. It’s early November, almost noon. We are walking on a state beach at low tide. The sun has come out. It’s almost 60 degrees. The dogs have had gleeful exercise and orientation to our new surroundings. The spent waves have left piles of sudsy foam on the wet sand, high above the water line. My daughter-in-law has taken her boots off and started walking in the suds. She says they are soft and feel good. Though I’ve been juggling a bag of dog poop, two dogs on leashes and a jacket now tied around my waist, I decide to follow suit.
We, the dogs and I, traipse up to the rocks at the edge of the beach where I can sit down, untie my shoes and peel off my socks. I stuff the socks in the pocket of my raincoat that will hold the whole coat inside of it. Then I work to stuff a billed hat in with them since it is no longer drizzling. I somehow get them all in and close the zipper. Then I tie the raincoat around my waist.
The sea suds are everything my daughter-in-law promises, and even more. They are soft, almost luxurious. I have visions of a small bunion on the outside of my right foot simply dropping away, since I’ve noticed before that salt water from hot springs softened it right up.
I wander up the beach stepping on sea suds. My son takes a picture of my feet covered in sud shoes. We all laugh.
The sun hitting the bubbles makes them burst into luminous colors, rich pastels of aquamarine, green, pink, deep blue. I am mesmerized. I want everyone to come look from the angle I am looking.
There are many people out, dogs too. Everyone is in a good mood after a day of heavy rain. We walk past the access point. I feel like I could go on forever. It’s hard to believe that my bare feet aren’t even cold.
At first the sea suds I walked in were far above the water line. I don’t seem to notice that my search for more sea suds is leading us all farther down close to the water. Some children are standing out in the surf, some almost up to their knees, which makes it seem even more benign, though I wouldn’t choose to do that.
After the scare with Cotton freezing in place when he first encountered that water a couple of weeks ago when he decided to veer after a seagull while in full run, we’ve stayed for away from the waterline. With the help of a trainer who specializes in self-directed service dog training, I’ve been teaching him recall when running free, and not to rush in, perhaps unnecessarily, because I notice he moves himself out of the way more quickly than I do when a foamy broken wave rushes up the sand.
All of a sudden I see the broken edge of a wave rushing toward us. We start running to avoid it, all of us—my daughter-in-law, me and all the dogs– but I am knocked flat, as if someone pulled my feet out from under me. I try to get up but instead find I am spinning in the sand and shallow water and can’t move, let alone pull myself up. I cry out instinctively in surprise and alarm—just a single sound—no words.
Was this one of the famous “sneaker waves” posted about on all the signs along these beaches? It hardly seemed like a wave at all, and yet when I look at the scramble of the video I see that the foam from it is at least 6 inches high. I see it had the force to turn my whole body clockwise in a 180 circle, as it moved the sand under me along with it. And it brings me into a reflective silence tinged with shock.
Back on the beach I looked down and realized the shoes I had been carrying in the crook of my arm are completely gone. New shoes, vegan and made for traction on wet rocks and sand. Lightweight, like being barefoot. “My shoooes!!” I wail. How will I get back to the car without them? But then I remember to be thankful I am standing up, out of the water, wet, but alive. And so are the dogs.
One shoe is visible in the wet sand a few yards to the south after the wave receded, but we don’t see the other one. Kelly lost one while hiking across a creek in Montana last summer and we think I might be joining the one shoe club. But then Mike looks up the beach to the north and says he sees something blue. To me it simply looks like an interruption in the sand that could be anything. It’s perhaps a good 25-30 yards away, maybe even 50. Mike runs down to investigate before another waves comes in. It is, indeed, my shoe.
This incident could probably not have happened under more safe conditions. My two dogs were with me. My daughter in law was just a few feet behind me. My son was another few yards forward toward the shore. He says he was about to film my sudsy feet getting covered in the water when all of a sudden I fell over. So the iphone video camera was on, at a strange angle, in the first seconds this happened.
Yet the fact remains that I got knocked over, when children were standing up fine many feet farther out. Startling, humbling, and little embarrassing. And pretty darn cold.
Hours after, and even the day after, I keep feeling what it felt like to be knocked down from behind, by the force of what was left of a wave. To be giggling one second and the next be down in the water. How did Romeo get so far away? Why don’t I remember dropping my shoes or that Cotton was right beside me? Is it because I had my coat tied around my waist with all those objects in my pockets that I couldn’t get up?
In some very essential way these mundane questions are irrelevant and I don’t spend much time on them. What I think about instead is how I’ve read what surfers experience when they get pulled down by waves under the water. We think of the wave as what we see on the surface. But all the way down to the ocean floor a wave can have the power to move boulders along with it. Maybe even on the shore, the force of what creates the barrel of a wave is still in effect, though invisible, pulling on itself back toward the water. I was not facing the water, rooting my bare feet and bracing myself to withstand the swirl, as some of the children in the surf were doing, even farther out than we were (thank goodness mothers were watching). Instead I was starting to jog away, thinking I could beat it. Perhaps one of my feet was not even on the ground. Perhaps I hit the sand first on my right knee, which is a bit more sore than everything else.
Whatever the logistical reason, the power of that water to toss me and my belongings around is what stays. To feel that power, to be in it with nothing to do about it, if only for less than a minute, will stay with me forever. The motion of the sea that I’ve stared at, walked along, wondered about, painted, drawn, photographed and collected from is now a memory in my cells.
I’ve seen how the ocean can expose long buried tree trunks, toss or cover large rocks and throw logs big enough for 4 or 5 people to sit on around a campfire up and down the beach. I’ve seen it and marveled at it and even shivered at it a little but I’ve never felt it until now. Days later, I will learn from neighbors who have lived here their whole lives that it wasn’t necessarily this wave, but the current of a rip tide pulling itself back out to sea under the wave. That makes me feel a little bit better about how helpless I was, but not any less vulnerable.
Days later, another neighbor mentioned the rip tides and currents on this stretch of beach are considered the strongest on the Oregon Coast. That’s perhaps due to the fact that there’s a very big drop just beyond the waves—a continental shelf that drops deep enough for the gray whales to come close, which is why we don’t need binoculars here to spot them.
In the days after my mishap and then the presidential election, I do a lot of staring at waves and reflecting. For several days we have high water levels and there’s literally not enough beach to walk on safely. So I get a chance to watch the receding water from above it, and under the foam that remains after the water begins to recede, I see the edge of the rip tide rushing back out in a diagonal direction under and between waves, the same direction that turned me halfway toward the ocean in just a couple of inches of receding water.
I have since made it back down to walk on the beach. On the days the water table is low and the tide is low during good daylight hours, there’s plenty of room for the dogs. But it’s still a far different beach than it is in the summer. I think of Cotton again, soaking wet that first day, stunned by what he encountered. I feel grateful all over again Mike decided in a split second to wade in and pull him out, and both were fortunate enough to be spared anything more than wet fur and wet jeans.
A surfing instructor in the neighborhood told us that people freeze all the time when they first encounter the sensory overload of being in the water. He has to lead them out. But now I wonder, too, did Cotton feel the rip tide? Did instinct tell him to stay still, his strong feet planted, until it passed? I’ll never know that, but I’m grateful we’re both learning to pay even closer attention to how to be safe in a very beautiful yet potentially dangerous place.
All my life I’ve been subject to answering calls from deep within that say “time to go.” The first one came as early as kindergarten, when I had to leave the support of my classmates to begin Catholic school. Later I departed from my classmates yet again and went to a different high school. These early departures were certainly engineered and influenced by the adults around me, but in some way they were just instruments. Often these promptings or changing circumstances seem to make no sense, or cost me money, trouble, confusion, or loneliness. But always, they put me in the right place at the right time, so I have learned to listen and to trust.
My latest “assignment” seems to be here, out on the very edge of the continent, where that edge is being reshaped daily by forces which make the calendar and all human ambition seem ridiculously irrelevant in their scope and scale.
I don’t know for sure, of course, beyond that it definitely feels like where I’m supposed to be, close calls included. But I also remember something I used to say, only half jokingly, when I was moving from Southern California to Northern Idaho for a teaching job over two decades ago, uprooting my son and the life we had known.
While today everyone fears the Cascadian Earthquake and Tsunami scenario, at that time, everyone was talking about “the big one” along the San Andreas fault that would someday plunge California into the ocean, or at the very least schmoosh it up against itself so that what was left of Los Angeles and San Francisco might be very close to one another. So I would maintain I was moving to Idaho to anchor California with a silver thread of connection between all my friends and me to the older earth on which Idaho stands–a kind of cosmic sewing project. Every time someone from California came to see me I’d say they were helping out. And every time someone from Moscow went to California, same thing. Meanwhile, I stayed as that anchor for over 20 years, the longest time I have ever stayed put in one place.
By stark contrast, in the last two years it’s been “time to go” rather often, as if time itself has accelerated. And now, here I am, on the precipice of a literal continental shelf. I hadn’t thought about the cosmic sewing project at all until my friend Gillian came to visit this past week all the way from Moscow, as part of a trip down the Oregon coast to commemorate where she once landed decades ago after coming to the US from Singapore. While a few of my Moscow friends have made it Portland (and now, come to think of it, even an old California friend or two), Gillian is the first from Moscow to make it all the way to this edge to see me.
I know it sounds kind of crazy, but the more I write about this the more threads I see connecting us all through love and the exchange of light over the years, the miles and the decades.
It’s been stormy off and on the last several days I’ve struggled to write this post. As I struggle now for an ending to it, the sun breaks through the clouds momentarily, streaming through the open slats of the blinds, and lights up my keyboard, my fingers, the drawing I finished, and all the objects littered across my table at the window where I can look out and see a small piece of that powerful ocean.
So I guess I’ll leave it at that. Like so many of us have quoted in the last few days, I’ll end with Leonard Cohen’s beautiful words from the song “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
At this season of gratitude, mixed with danger and sadness, I am grateful for what Cohen so plaintively names the “cold and broken hallelujah” of love—and of the ocean, and all the invisible silver threads.
My family, my dogs, my friends, and my readers–you all help me follow the light through my cracks, and stay in love with the world.