My love affair with the water began when I was very young. My grandparents had a lake cottage just an hour and a half away in North Webster and in the summertime we would spend nearly every weekend there with them and my cousins. Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are from my time at the lake cottage in the Epworth Forest neighborhood where we swam from sunup to sundown, rain or shine.
My parents found it difficult to keep me out of the water unless by some chance I had an opportunity to go out in the speed boat and go tubing. My grandpa called me his little amphibian and gave me permission to swim whenever I wanted to, provided there was no lightning, and he or one of my older cousins were with me. I’d swim all day, and as the sun went down, I’d climb back up onto the pier, all pruny and exhausted, yet happier than I’d been when the day started.
In the evenings, we often played putt putt golf, walked down the street to the amphitheater for local entertainment, or went fishing. Sometimes we would take a ride around the lake on the Dixie Boat, a large steam-driven paddle boat that toured the lake every evening.
Sundays, we would walk down the street to church and stop by Cokesbury, a bookstore/ soda fountain, for cherry Mountain Dews on the way home while Grandma would go finish lunch. Sunday afternoon came too quickly. I wanted to stay at the lake forever. I couldn’t imagine anywhere on earth I’d enjoy better.
When I was eight, my grandparents took my older brother and me to visit my aunt in southern California. Her family lived in Torrance, and their house was about a mile from the ocean. One afternoon, my aunt packed a picnic lunch, and she took my grandparents, me, my brother, her two kids, Douglas, who was three at the time, Christine, who was almost five, and the neighbor boy, Tim, who was fifteen, and packed us up and took us to the beach.
I was truly overwhelmed. The ocean was noisy, yet soothing at the same time, and the waves were larger than I’d ever seen. I stood at the water’s edge and breathed in the salt air and thought my lungs were going to burst. I was so excited, yet I couldn’t go into the water further than my ankles, because my mind was spinning.
My grandpa stood next to me and made this clicking noise with his tongue and teeth and said, “Tater, what do you think?” (I will explain my nickname at another time, but until the week before he died I would have sworn he never knew my real name).
I remember I had tears in my eyes and I was squinting. “I can’t see the other side, Grandpa.”
He held my hand and even now I tear up when I think about him. He was 6’3″, about 180 pounds, with snow white hair and dark glasses. He had the kindest blue eyes I’d ever looked into and for the first 18 years of my life he and my grandma were the calm in my storm.
We stood there for an eight year old eternity and then he said, “God is bigger than the ocean.”
And my mind exploded. I couldn’t get into the water fast enough. I wanted to be a part of something that big. The only other part of nature that has made the hair stand up on my neck like the ocean does is when I get the opportunity to lay in the grass and stare at the stars in the night sky.
My aunt watched as I played in the water and my two little cousins built sand castles. She warned me not to drink the water and warned me twice about the undertow and not to go out too far. Tim was teaching my brother, who was eleven, how to boogie board on the waves, taking special care of him while keeping his other eye on me. My grandparents had retreated back to the house with my uncle, who would bring back our picnic dinner.
I played for hours. I was covered in salt water and sand I was in heaven. I had no boundaries, no walls, no inhibitions, I was in my element, and I was happy. I believe it was the first time I felt true joy.
Then it happened. The undertow caught me and before I knew it I was being tossed and turned and I had no idea what was happening, only that I couldn’t breathe. Though I was a strong swimmer for eight years old, I couldn’t right myself. The undertow was stronger than I was. My lungs felt as they would burst at any moment and I remember thinking I was going to die in the biggest expression on earth of the size and depth of God.
Then this hand grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me out of the water. Tim turned me right side up and handed me to my aunt who took me to the showers and washed off all the sand and wrapped me up in a blanket.
I was finished with the ocean. I let myself get caught up in the moment and I nearly got myself killed. No way was I going to do that again. No way was I going near the water again. No way was I going to let myself be vulnerable to danger. Never. Ever.
The next day, we went to Disney Land and the following day we went back to the beach again. This particular beach was enclosed, made for children, a little bit more user friendly for me. My aunt coaxed me to try again, so I did, but it wasn’t as exciting as before. It was safe, there was no danger, and the real ocean was behind a fence. I didn’t like the safe ocean, either. There was fun, but no joy there.
At Marine Land, I saw examples of many of the creatures that inhabit the ocean. Whales, seals, sharks, stingrays, butterfly fish, manatees, and starfish. Eels. Sea horses. Many other species. Again, my mind exploded. I had never seen such wonders. These fish were at home in the ocean, they were made to slide through it and thrive in it. They weren’t afraid.
I decided not to be afraid of the ocean anymore. So, every time I get the chance to go to the beach, I go. I let the ocean calm me and soothe me, excite me, and woo me back to a place where I felt joy — to feel alive from my head to my toes.
I was sitting at church tonight and for some reason these memories came flooding into my brain. I’ve been facing challenges in the ocean of my life. I’m in the water, minding my own business, enjoying my life, and then it happens – someone or something drags me down in their undertow. I get turned around and upside down and I can’t right myself. Then God reaches down and pulls me out and I retreat to the beach… and I’m done with the ocean. Never going back in. Never. Ever. It’s not worth it.
I sit and I tell God I don’t need that kind of heartache. I don’t need that kind of pain. I don’t need to hurt that badly, be that confused, or be that disoriented. I don’t need it. Never. Ever.
Then I find, though my life is “safe,” it is joyless. I cannot have joy without pain or heartache. Though at times I may need to retreat to the beach to get my bearings, I cannot stay there. I must learn to swim in the ocean of my life and take the bad with the good.
I stand at the edge of the water and I must decide what joy costs me and if I’m willing to pay it. I realize that I cannot control the ocean or what it does to me. There will be days I sit on the beach wrapped up in a blanket, crying, wondering if it’s all worth it, but I must be willing to keep trying, to keep learning how to navigate the water of feelings, of pain, of joy.
I could easily live without joy, but I would be cheating myself of life abundantly. I cannot love if I cannot feel. I cannot truly be all that God wants me to be if I don’t trust Him to heal the hurts life will cause me.
“God is bigger than the ocean,” he said.
And my mind exploded.