Lots of people I know like to go to the beach but won’t get in the ocean. Things with teeth live there where you can’t see them, they say. Or things that sting or pinch. The undertow, the waves, the rocks beneath the breakers. All true.
I was in the ocean in North Florida with my brother one time when he scooped up a harmless clump of floating seaweed and proceeded to shake it. Out came a handful of living creatures that had been hitching a ride—tiny crabs, translucent shrimp, and unnamed life that quickly swam away. I was stunned and a bit startled. Who knew?
There’s a lot out there in the vast blue camouflaged as simple ocean. One of my sisters used to collect beach glass, storing it for some unknown purpose in jars in her bedroom. The misty shards of green, blue, and brown had been tumbled, tossed, and polished by the sea for who knows how long before her long fingers plucked them from the sand where they’d washed up amid the crush of shells.
Every year in the world’s oceans thousands of accidental container spills occur from rogue waves or storms that hit cargo ships. As a result, beachcombers have run across some odd items that have washed ashore: thousands of bags of Doritos, Nike shoes, unripe bananas, rubber ducks. Not to mention the unique and haunting debris that is still washing up on beaches from the tsunami that swept over Japan in 2011.
These things, like the living villages of seaweed, are out there just following the currents, sometimes for years, before they’re deposited on a stretch of sand somewhere. I’m fascinated by movies about people drifting at sea like Unbroken, Life of Pi, or Castaway. Out there on the infinity of ocean, wouldn’t it be surreal to feel your trailing hand bump something in the water only to find that it’s a drifting flock of hundreds of yellow rubber ducks?
I’ve been trying to take a more positive outlook lately and focus on the gifts that arrive at my shore unbidden instead of the things I suspect are lurking under the waves. Children are always good teachers in this respect. For them, everything is a gift, a joy to be explored. Even the weird purple jellyfish quivering at the water’s edge or the battered driftwood and crushed shells (these make lovely sand castle decorations).
Yes, there are Things With Teeth out there. But there are also starfish and sand dollars and bioluminescent plankton that sets the sea aglow at night. It’s so easy, habit, instinct to focus on the shelf of rocks under the waves, the undertow that some days seems to relentlessly drag me under. But then fear wins.
This year I’m determined not to let fear win. It’s such a niggling little parasite, sucking the joy and life from the best moments, and it doesn’t deserve my attention. Especially when, look, there are so many gifts, if I’d just see, washing up on shore to be treasured.
At the beach this week, I watch these small children play and laugh. They chase the seagulls because no one has told them they can’t be caught. They built castle after castle in the sand because no one has told them they will be washed away by morning, and the joy was in the building anyway, not the permanence. They shriek and dance, running from the cold waves onto the safety of shore, but before the day is out, they will always, always be waist-deep in the water, no longer afraid of the rush or crash. When did I decide I would give in to fear? Was there a single moment, a mark-able before and after? More likely a long, steady neglect of the tide’s treasures and a gradual habit of tired defeatism.
Many of us carry around the weight of fear like a slimy fish freshly caught, slapping against our legs as we walk, causing our steps to falter. Fear of letting go. Fear of opening your heart to love. Fear of doing that thing you’ve always wanted to do. Fear of stepping out in faith. Fear of forgiving someone and losing the kernel of resentment and anger you’ve held onto. The reasonable thing to do would be to toss that fish on the bank and leave it lying, flopping and gasping for air. Because we’ve carried it so long and so faithfully, it somehow seems cruel to cast it aside.
Finding Nemo is one of my favorite movies. There’s a scene where, in their search for his son, Marlin and Dory are stuck inside a whale. The water is going down and, as far as they know, they are in danger of being swallowed. Dory tells Marlin to let go. It seems like the right thing to do. Marlin, fearful from the start of the movie, screams, “How do you know something bad won’t happen?” Dory replies simply, “I don’t,” and then she lets go and slides down the whale’s gullet.
We are never guaranteed freedom from bad things, things with teeth. But if we never let go, if we never toss aside that slimy fish, we are most definitely guaranteed freedom from discovery, joy, and the treasures that wash ashore.
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