Friday, April 6, 2012

Big Waves

Sometimes you are going along, living your daily life with all its small joys and small sorrows, and in a moment, in a split-second, everything changes. The earthquake, the tsunami, the moment of violence, one of the infinite forms of the shockingly unexpected breaks over you; your world pivots on its axis, and when you look up, your life is no longer what it was.
Last Friday I was at Tennessee Valley Beach, north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, California. As you approach the beach through the gentle rolling hills that flank the valley, it looks placid, even a little dull. But at the last moment, where the path shifts to sand, the view opens up to magnificent, cormorant-strewn, awe-inspiring cliffs, as stark and uncompromising as the rugged cliffs of the Scottish Isles. I walked with a friend through the gray, foggy valley, and when we arrived at the beach, the waves were big, thundering up against the cliffs, the wind catching the crests and blowing the foam back like the manes of giant white horses.

Each wave had its own signature, as it encountered the coastline, each one shaped by wind and current into a unique form. I could have watched all afternoon, taking photographs of the beautiful meetings of rock and ocean. My friend wandered off toward the hills, and I stayed on the sloping beach twenty feet or so from the waves, camera in hand.

Then, in a moment, everything changed. A wave, one that seemed just like the others as it approached me, came on to the beach - and kept coming. I looked down and saw the line of foam coming my way, and then I turned and ran toward higher ground, laughing a little to myself. But the wave was faster than I was, and reached me just as I stepped into a patch of saturated sand that caught and held me as I sank into it. I fell to my knees, no longer laughing, and the wave came over the berm and surrounded me, filling up the lower area of the beach where I was.
I scrambled up, holding my camera above the water, soaked to the waist and frightened, realizing that no one could see me on this part of the beach, and that I must find a way to get out of the water before the wave turned and headed back oceanward, carrying me with it. I made it to a higher area and then watched the water continue to fill where I had been, turning the moments-before bare sand beach into a swirling, deep pool. Then, as the wave retreated, its force was strong enough to erode the area where I stood, and I had to move still further away as the wave ate away at my refuge.
Photo by Paphio, Flickr
Afterward I stood and watched the waves again, and they were as they had been before, breaking many feet away, acting just as one would expect waves to act. My friend returned and I explained what had happened, though it must have seemed unreal, a story from dream or nightmare. I had heard of "rogue waves," but had never really believed that people could be swept off beaches into the ocean by a wave they never saw before it engulfed them.
We watched for a long time, and no wave came up the beach and over the berm again. I was wet but fine. Nothing much had happened, but my body knew that it had felt a moment where everything could have changed, when a great force meets an individual life and wrenches it, irrevocably, into a new story, or the end of the story.
*     *    *    *
I have another friend who spent years as a climbing guide in Nepal and South America, but later returned to his hometown (and mine) in Indiana. We try to have adventures together, every once in a while. Our best one was a few years ago, when we spent a joyous few days climbing together in Joshua Tree, sleeping out on big slabs of granite, walking the sandy washes, laughing and joking and eating camp food. My memories of that trip are still vivid and sweet. 

Over the years I have tried to talk him into finding a way back to the mountains and wilderness, but until recently he could never figure out a way to make it happen. But, finally, over the last year, he had fallen in love with southern Colorado, and he was getting ready to move. I was so happy for him.
Although I didn't know it when I encountered the wave on the beach, that same morning my friend was attacked, caught in another kind of rogue wave. He was back in my hometown, working on his house, and he had been arguing with some teenage boys about littering in the alley. They had sworn at him and threatened to "get him." Later he saw them a block away, and several boys surrounded him. He fended off blows, and then one of the boys hit my friend in the face. He fell, knocked unconscious by an enormous, unexpected blow, the tsunami, the earthquake, the pivot. When he came to consciousness, blood everywhere, unable to see clearly, he saw the blurred form of the boys, running away, and laughing.
They had focused only on his face, using some kind of weapon - brass knuckles or something else. They had done enormous damage. It had been deliberate and violent, sadistic, intentional. He was rushed to the local hospital, and then to the trauma hospital an hour and a half away. A few days later he underwent face reconstruction surgery, more than eight hours on the table while three surgeons painstakingly rebuilt bone and cartilege. And my friend does not have insurance.
And the frightening "boys" who did such damage, and who laughed as they ran away, have not been arrested yet.
I found out about the attack on Saturday, as I was preparing for a potluck birthday party - my own birthday party, as a matter of fact, a couple of days early. And I felt my life pivot too, with grief and sorrow. Suddenly a celebration no longer mattered, was no longer possible. I cried  - for him, for everything that had changed with the attack, for a world where this is possible, for the strange fate that had brought him under those fists, in conjunction with those murderous boys, just as he was preparing for a new life. Every day these things happen to strangers in unfamiliar places, and we read about them in the newspaper, but I knew the exact place my friend had been attacked: I had grown up just a stone-throw away, played in the alley where he was surrounded, intimately know the houses and streets around him.  I knew his face, his smile, his laugh.
Always, when these things happen, there's a desperate longing to go back and make it happen differently: don't go down that alley, don't argue with those boys, don't stand on that beach. But time seems more irrevocable and implacable at these moments than it does in ordinary life. There is no going back.
I remember realizing, in my early twenties, that I tended to think of life as basically stable, and accidents or disasters as some kind of mistake, some wrongness intruding into the peace of "just living." But of course, disasters are as much part of life as any other moment, and just as inevitable.
A few years ago I saw the documentary Riding Giants, about the guys who ride the largest waves in the world. When everyone else retreats from the beach, these guys go and meet thirty-foot waves and launch themselves into them. There's no second-guessing and no turning back once they're committed. To turn back or hesitate is to be pulverized by the wave.
Photo by Rick Bucich (Flickr) of Zach Wormhoudt, Maverick's Surf Competition 2010
I was mesmerized by the film. At the time I saw it, I was grieving the violent death of a beloved cat, and struggling with a chronic illness, and I felt caught in the waves of my life, tumbled around, lost and gasping for air. But what I saw on the screen was a radically different approach: a willingness to play in the big waves that come our way, to ride them, to let their power carry us, to not turn away.
Several days after the attack I had a chance to talk with my friend (amazed that he could talk at all, given his injuries) and I saw the same quality of willingness in him that I had seen in Riding Giants: he was riding the giant wave of what had happened to him, not fighting it, not being pulverized by it. Maybe it's due to all his years as a climber on the high peaks of the Himalayas, facing disaster with every rockfall and avalanche, but I heard not one whine from him in our conversation, and I was talking to a guy who had every reason to whine, every reason to be completely freaked out. But instead, he was clear and calm. He calmed me, which was a little bit embarrassing.
At the end of our conversation I realized that I had my own story backwards. I had been feeling sorry for myself - all these disasters ruining my birthday - when actually I had been given the finest birthday present of all: my friend was alive.
I think perhaps this is a big part of the reason that I practice Zen, sitting on a black cushion every morning in front of my altar, spending big chunks of my life in silent retreats. I want to learn to ride giants, to cultivate a mind steady enough to turn toward the wave, for myself and for others. When a surfer rides a really big wave, and gets caught, his only hope is to be rescued by his friends, who go in on a jet-ski, risking their own lives, to pull him out. They know the next time may be their turn.
Photo by Rick Bucich (Flickr), Maverick's Surf Competition 2010 
I'm not naturally very tough or very brave - not like my friend - but I figure that every moment that I can bear what's going on in my mind and body as I sit in silence, even if it's only a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit unbearable, I am cultivating a tiny bit more capacity for the waves. Maybe one day I too can ride giants, play in the rogue waves when they come rolling in, and learn to surf the big mysteries of life and loss and death. That's my wish, for myself and every one of us. 
And if it gets to be too much, I hope all of us have friends who can go in there with us, reach out a steady hand, and bring us to shore.