When I moved to the Hawaiian islands over twenty-five years 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 metaphorically shifting and rumbling beneath my 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, pounding oceanic swells. 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 what’s 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 a’a lava 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.
(republished from January 2012)