Image and video credits: Rachel Claire, Pexel
Published 21 June, 2022
Like many Australians, I experience life in orientation to the ocean. This is largely my father’s influence, whose family’s affinity for the ocean is only exceeded by their reputation for recklessness. His surfing ambitions were thwarted by a serious car accident in his youth, but his love of the sea never diminished.
Family lore tells of him taking my six-month old half-brother into the surf and losing him, fortunately retrieved none too worse for wear. Some years later my mother – pregnant with me – watched him sink a sailing boat off the South coast of Western Australia. Family driving holidays along the East coast were peppered with stops at sentimental surf beaches for him to comment on sets and fetch, and all too often throw himself into the chundering swell.
Although my own childhood featured a great deal of swimming, snorkelling, sailing, canoeing and even lifesaving certifications, my father’s relationship with the water often left me wondering if I would become half an orphan. I’ve never really trusted the surf.
This love-hate relationship with ‘big water’ is perhaps partly why I find Judy Sorum Brown’s beautiful poem ‘Trough’ so evocative, but I suspect there is something for anyone who has experienced the ocean.
So, I invite you to be brave with me. Dive in and join me as we remember the power of the ocean and the power of our choices.
“There is a trough in waves,
A low spot
Where horizon disappears
And only sky
Are our company…”
Out of my depth
I don’t tend to go out in proper swell, but I am reminded it doesn’t take much to lose the horizon. Enjoying the waves on a summer’s day, a little bravado combined with unexpected undertow, and I am suddenly deeper than I realised. Without the benefit of solid ground under my feet I am literally and metaphorically out of my depth.
Adrift in the waves, I am forcibly reminded that the ocean has its own rules of engagement. With a perspective now only inches above the waterline, I feel small and vulnerable in this shifting, liquid domain.
Where in your life have you lost sight of the horizon?
Are you currently in a trough in the waves?
What does it feel like to be swept out of your depth?
“…And there we lose our way
We rest, knowing the wave will bring us
To its crest again.
There we may drown
If we let fear
Hold us within its grip and shake us
Side to side,
And leave us flailing, torn, disoriented…”
We lose our way unless we rest
Judy’s metaphor simply speaks of waves, but here in Australia we are familiar with an even deadlier type of ocean force – the rip current.
As part of their initiation into the ocean, kids are taught to never swim against a rip. Panic is deadly. Instead we are told to stay calm and conserve energy, waiting for opportunities to signal for help or simply accepting what is until the grip of the current has eased.
Even experienced swimmers will attest to how difficult it is to resist that instinctive reaction to fight the ocean – the pull of forces taking you away from the safety of the shoreline is scary. And yet the truth remains that we need to rest, to be with, and to keep our energy if we are to survive.
What do you notice about your response to those powerful currents that pull you from familiar ground?
When all you can see is sky and water, what do you do?
How does fear hold you in its grip?
What in your life is calling for you to rest?
“…But if we rest there
In the trough,
The low part of the wave,
Our energy and
Noticing the shape of things,
Noticing the shape of things
The emotion of fear generates a neurobiological response, intended to ready our body and focus our attention for survival. Yet this chemical cascade can also be a deadly gamble, excluding peripheral information which could in fact offer an alternative route to safety.
Instead of panicking when the horizon disappears, what if we could take a moment to rest – to be with ourselves in the present moment and notice with softer gaze? We would find that the shape of the wider whole and our body’s experience of being in the flow contains vital information – that this trough we are in becomes the next crest; that the rip current has eased and we are now free to swim away; that we are less alone than we thought.
In this way, the acceptance of uncertainty leads to a deeper sense of assuredness that, as John O’Donohue says, “time will come good”.
Where might your need for certainty be narrowing your gaze?
What are those moments of inner stillness trying to communicate that is vital for the flow of your life?
Who are the people that help you notice the shape of things?
“…Then time alone
Will bring us to another
Where we can see
Horizon, see the land again,
Regain our sense
And where we need to swim.”
‘Trough’, by Judy Sorum Brown
There are things we can watch and learn from dry land. But it is the understanding generated through lived-experience which brings us to another place. As crest follows trough follows crest, likewise it is those cycles of disorientation and sense-making which ultimately help us regain our sense of who we are, where we are and what we need to do. And sometimes – like waiting out the rip – all we can do is accept and hope “time alone will bring us to another place where we can see horizon”.
Remain in these waves long enough and we may even recognise that this place of watery uncertainty is in fact a source of our own power – Rebecca Solnit says, “in that spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act”. We can choose our response to the waves, that “last human freedom” Viktor Frankl famously stated.
But Judy’s poem also invites us into a right-sized relationship with the power of choice – not so small that we give up before we have even begun, but equally having the wisdom to know we cannot swim against the rip.
Floating, waiting and noticing are choices that will give us the information we need to in order to transform anxiety into creative energy, helping us determine when to strike out and where to head.
Where are you in these waves?
Is it time for you to rest or swim?
Notes and acknowledgements