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What We Find in the Sea

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it's always ourselves we find in the sea

- E.E. Cummings, "maggie and milly and molly and may", 1956

I am not a person who feels a powerful connection to geography.

I haven't visited the town I grew up in over a decade. None of the other places I've lived, from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest or Kentucky and Virginia, are especially meaningful to me, either.

As I reach my middle years, though, there is one place on Earth with which I've started to enter a spiritual connection.

For years, we've taken the kids on a summer vacation to the beach that meets about every definition of the middle-class American lifestyle. Where we go isn't important. We've established our traditions and routines. After more than half a decade of these trips, we spend as much of our time at the beach remembering past vacations with laughter and joy as we do going about the activities of the current vacation. These traditions are silly and they are sacred.

Waves approach a beach at dusk during low tide. Pink sunset illuminates clouds against a darkening blue sky. In the background, some people sit in beach chairs.
Atlantic Ocean Sunset, June 2022 [Photo by Author]

The past few years, I've found myself making a point to spend time by myself in or near the ocean. Sometimes my moment happens after the kids are too tired to swim anymore, other times it's early in the morning before everyone else gets up.

This year, we came back to the beach at sunset to look for shells. S combed the beach while Kid A danced around in her new summer dress and Kid B stared in wonder at a lone sea turtle nesting in the wet sand as the tide pulled out.

I stood beside the sea and disappeared into myself.

I look forward to this moment each year, when the boundary between me and the ocean is erased for just a few moments, as though I no longer exist apart from the waves and the water that stretches as far as I can see.

When we started coming on these trips, the kids were little, married life was tough, Army life was tougher, and I was just starting to awaken to the great and weeping wounds that my time in Iraq and Afghanistan had made in me. At the time, it felt like the pain was bigger than anything in the world.

When I stand next to the sea, or wade into its salt water, I feel a perspective shift. It's a kind of magic. I enter into the unforgiving and unalterable rhythm of the surf, the lapping conversation between the waves and the moon. I breathe in the hugeness of it all and recognize that, whatever shame, hurt, guilt, fear, failure, love or pride I bring to the shore, the sea does not care.

The sea is too vast to give a shit about the wounds I carry, my vain ambitions, or my brokenness. The sea remains as it was a million years before, as it will be a million years from now, long after the instantaneous blink of my little life is snuffed out.

Yet, as inconsequential as I am to the ocean's great story, I can walk into the waves and feel the salt water heal my skin and my soul. I am cleansed by minerals scraped from the Earth's great mountains before the first human walked on solid ground.

Surrounded by the waves beating eternity's clock onto the shore, I can hear the great and living breath of God.

This is the one place on earth I can be still and know something of the mystery of what it is to be alive: that I am small and brief and mortal, but I am also loved.

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