Of Angels and Deep Water

By: Bela Johnson

Jan 17 2012


Category: Hawaii, nature, Uncategorized


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When I moved to the Hawaiian islands over two decades ago, I shouldered a bit of cynicism and not a little buried anger. Living in a land of volcanoes was illuminating. Time and again, my feet were held to Madame Pele’s fire. Time and again, I tried to minimize her impact upon me. Goddess be damned! I rebelled. Still and yet, the earth kept shifting and rumbling beneath my metaphoric feet. Transformation was inevitable and profound.

Deceptions of a human mind unaware never fail to amaze me – what we think we know versus the facts materializing before our eyes. And although we have senses to guide us, too often we hear, see and feel only what we choose in any given circumstance. Some consider themselves brave, others boldly court hubris. Depending on the circumstance, I suppose it could be either. Or both.

Picture a brilliantly blue sunny day in Paradise. Variable tradewinds whip sand playfully on a two mile stretch of deserted beach. Sparkling turquoise waters and medium swells invite the initiated – this is a popular surf haunt, but only for the skilled. I have sat on the pali overlooking this location during winter with enormous banks of water rolling in, sounding for the world like a freight train chugging along miles of open track. This is not winter. Still, rip currents can arrive out of nowhere and the locals have warned me, time and again, to always wear fins. At least one. Never, they repeat, go out in the ocean without fins. Hell, I think, I grew up bodysurfing The Wedge in Newport Beach! I appreciate that you are looking out for me, but I know what I’m doing …

Out we go into these unknown waters, my husband and I. This is not our usual swimming site. And he’s not such a keen swimmer in the depths, has never really been. Loves boogie boarding – goes out into secondary breakers by a small reef to catch bigger waves at our regular spot. As long as he’s on that board with those fins, he’s a happy camper. I, on the other hand, prefer merging swells and body into one, as much as possible. I head out. He backs off. Out I go, where the waves are breaking. I mean, I really. Go. Out. At this point, it seems I have no choice. The undertow is severe. There is no longer sand beneath my feet. I flow with the ocean’s decision to carry me further into uncertainty.

Big waves, at least those large enough to surf, usually come in what are called sets. That’s why, in those surfer movies, you see lots of waiting. Sets arrive, boarders paddle out, wait for a ridable wave, joyfully cruise on in.  Six is an average set – really, a person is fortunate to get more. I grew up near the ocean; have studied wave patterns since my youth. Today all my knowledge and perceptions go out the window. There is no rhythm, only unrelenting surf. One by one, surfers return to shore. I remain out in the water because I have no other choice. I cannot return, no matter how I try.

Rip currents have swept me down and out, far from loved ones on the beach, further from any recognition of topography. Wave after non-negotiable wave assaults me; I dive under, and under, and under again – until I begin aspirating saltwater. I become afraid, something I rarely feel in the embrace of Mother Nature. In marked contrast to the familiar, Big Blue is thrashing me now, as I offer a silent prayer. To be faithful to the truth, I offer many. I ask, Am I going to die out here? In answer comes a firm No. (Gasp, gasp, dive, gulp, choke, surface into sunlight and blessed oxygen.) What, then, I query, Is happening? I hear – and believe me, I could not invent a more lucid, nor more vexing response – Rebirth.

Moments feel like hours and later, I notice a lone Hawaiian man on the beach, waving his arms in my direction. Someone has spotted me! Gesturing wildly, he points to a visible section of a large, mostly underwater lava rock outcropping blocking my way. If I get pulled closer to it, my skin will be torn to shreds. He’s now flagging me down, down and further down the beach. Far from others but closer to him, my port in this frightening storm. He’s the only one who seems to sense the depth of my peril. Still more precious moments later as my strength is waning, he signals. I glance backward and notice the waves are at a lull. I swim. And swim. Waves break, but carry me now. Landward. My feet touch sand for the first time in what feels like hours. The man rushes out and into the water. Staring at me hard, as if to assess my sanity, he asks, Are you okay? Weakly I reach out my arm, croaking Help. As he clasps my hand, I look into steel blue eyes. Once I am safely on the beach, he disappears.

I rejoin my family. They have no idea whatsoever of the degree to which I have just faced down mortality. I am perhaps a quarter mile from where I started. How independent am I, that no one questions my whereabouts? How many times have I refused help, just to prove my strength against all odds?

Weeks later, I am still querying residents of this very small island about a blue eyed Hawaiian. The locals just shake their heads. There is no such person. Not here on this rock. If there were, we would know. My good friend, a kindhearted street fighting big braddah offers, It must have been an angel. 

To this day, I wonder.


Popohaku Beach, Molokai

20 comments on “Of Angels and Deep Water”

  1. What an extraordinary experience. You were destined for more wonderful things so you were saved. That experience would have made you look hard at things in your life. As hard as your angel looked at you.. wow.. c

    • You are right Celia – I may have thought I examined my life scrupulously before this encounter, but in retrospect, the intensity of self examination increased over time. And I am pretty certain this brush with death, as it were, nudged me along a bit.

  2. I love this! (not the fact that you nearly drowned but that in your moment of peril you sincerely asked a question and were answered – by whom? from where? It’s amazing). I have experienced only a few times in my life very sincerely asking such questions, almost an involuntary prayer, and been answered – I actually hear a voice. The answer is always correct with hindsight and those experiences still fill me with awe. Just stumbled upon your blog and realy admire your writing style… am wishing to emulate!

    • Why thank you so much for your praise. I appreciate it, and glad you dropped by!

      Yes, this is pretty much the unvarnished truth, right down to that prayer and its response. Even now all these years later, I discover more insights into the event. In truth I’ve always ‘seen’ things, but hearing voices is not my forte. And it wasn’t as though I had time to monkey mind it – I was at a point of utter surrender, getting too tired to fight anymore.

  3. Wow, amazing! I always feel like it is in the moments when we feel like we have nothing to live for that we are reminding of the things that make life worth living.

  4. Bela,
    I thought of you this morning when I heard this poem on The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor:
    New Year’s by Dana Gioia
    Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
    Eternity has festivals enough.
    This is the feast of our mortality,
    The most mundane and human holiday.

    On other days we misinterpret time,
    Pretending that we live the present moment.
    But can this blur, this smudgy in-between,
    This tiny fissure where the future drips

    Into the past, this flyspeck we call now
    Be our true habitat? The present is
    The leaky palm of water that we skim
    From the swift, silent river slipping by.

    The new year always brings us what we want
    Simply by bringing us along – to see
    A calendar with every day uncrossed,
    A field of snow without a single footprint.

    On the Writer’s Almanac website, it’s mentioned that this poem is from “Interrogations at Noon.” Graywolf Press, 2001

    This poem fits in with your miraculous story and reminds me about how much I appreciate the mundane. It also brings to mind your recent post about the New Year. I liked the imagery of the “future dripping” into the past. Your posts are full of beautiful images. I also like the imagery of the field of snow without a single footprint. In your case it would be a fresh patch of sandy beach without a single footprint!

  5. How sweet of you to share that poem, thanks. And thanks for your kind words.
    I can visualize you now, more in your former Orono digs, walking through those open fields of snow. I sincerely miss New England and can get very weepy about it. I miss you all. And yet I can’t live in that extreme cold anymore. So I guess the beach will have to do 😉

  6. Wow, Bela!

    “They have no idea whatsoever of the degree to which I have just faced my own mortality! …. How independent am I, that no one questions my whereabouts? How many times have I refused help, just to prove my strength against all odds?”

    You have recounted this experience with such beautiful insight. Are the answers to the your questions above different now?

    • Thanks for noticing that part 😉 Yes, my answers are different now – that was a huge wake-up call for me! From that point on, things began to shift. And continue shifting. Lifelong patterns (karmic patterns?) are tough to change overnight. But at that point, I surely “got it.”

      On another but similar note: A couple of years later, it seemed everyone I met gave me gifts. My friends, clients, kids, husband – almost everyone I met. It was indeed strange, but would have been stranger had I not noticed! I have always been such a giver and it felt very awkward to receive. So that was my year of learning to allow others the joy of giving, which up to that time, I had unknowingly horded for myself.

      Ah, life – gotta love it!

  7. Bela, when you said my post, “Rubber Tubing” gave you and idea for an almost drowning story I had no idea how beautiful a story it was to be. Congratulations on the poetic quality you bring to your writing. It is always a treat to read your work.


    • Ronnie, I am deeply touched that you feel this way about my writing. I love your style as well – very approachable, always bringing back visual memories for me of days gone by. Thanks so much for your comments!

  8. Bela – I do believe that you were rescued by an Angel. This is an amazing story and thank you so much for sharing. By the way I have seen an angel and it was in the comfort of my own bedroom – not in the ocean!:) Perhaps a little different in appearance from your ‘human’ looking one – mine was of the luminous variety complete with wings. And yes I was wide awake at the time!

    • Yes, I think angel spirits come in different forms, for sure. Some come in the bodies of dogs 😉 Some in plants. Some as phantasms (like you saw and many do see). Some enter humans for that brief moment they need to intercede – such was my experience. There is much in this world I still haven’t witnessed, and am apt not to see before I leave it. But the world of the unseen is so vast, one can only imagine miniscule fragments of it. Consider the size of the atom! Aloha, sweet Marie ❤

      • Mine came with a message of reassurance that someone I was worried about was fine. The message was symbolic rather than words … something I won’t ever forget. And yes, there is so much mystery that surrounds us …Aloha dear Bela❤

      • Yes, rarely do I get words. Rather images that, over time, I’ve learned the words for to string into meaningful dialogue 😉 xoxo

  9. I was going to leave the messages there Bela, but I couldn’t help noticing the time that you sent this – 12.44pm! It’s funny because I keep seeing the number ’44’ repeatedly. I don’t know if you have an interest in numerology at all, but seeing ’44’ and ‘444’ are supposed to indicate that your angels are with you at this time! Funny that as we have been talking about that subject! :)xx

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