One surge at a time

The sun sets over a restless sea, Captiva Island, Florida, January 2013.

The sun sets over a restless sea, Captiva Island, Florida, January 2013.

“The waves rolling in from the Atlantic today were high and white and threatening.  Then, later in the day, the ocean was suddenly very quiet again, very much itself and at peace with the world. I couldn’t help thinking what a life lesson there is in that kind of undulation, in that kind of natural upset…peace is not a state of lifelessness…Peace is what comes to us after we negotiate the roiling, pounding waves of life lived one surge at a time.”Joan Chittister

When the stormy times hit, one of the best emotional survival strategies I’ve learned over the years is to focus on a mental picture of riding the waves as they rise and fall, concentrating on keeping my head above water and avoiding over-reaction or panic.

It’s a sensation I experienced during my college years when I foolishly agreed to try body surfing with friends at Jones Beach, New York, the morning after a hurricane.  I have no idea why a lousy swimmer such as I would go into rough waters. I suppose I felt safer because two of our group were lifeguards who were off duty.  Good thing, too; it took me no time at all to get into trouble out there.

When the guys noticed I was floundering, they swam alongside me, one on each side, and held my upper arms, coaching me through every wave until we got back to shore.  I was freaking out at first, but they would warn me as a wave approached, and reassure me as they held fast to me, lifting me up and and helping me stay with it while it passed. By the time I was safely on dry land I had learned a few things, one of which was a healthy respect for the power of high waves.

I don’t think I’d ever intentionally put myself in that position again, but I have thought of that day many times as an analogy for the psychological aspects of the most harrowing moments of my life.  When such moments come, I try to focus on staying as calm as I can while I wait for the worst of it to pass, as it inevitably will.

Yes, usually there will be more waves to deal with, “high and white and threatening,” but Sister Joan wisely reminds us that we can– and must– negotiate those waves one surge at a time. And often, we will find the saving grace of support from friends who will ride the waves with us, showing us how to survive the storms.

Today, if you are in one of those blissful states of calm between waves, enjoy it! Relish the lack of pressure and the refreshing sound of silence.  But if you are riding a huge and frightening wave, take heart; it will pass.  I wish you the life-saving presence of many who care: folks who will lift your spirits with warm words, kind deeds and fervent prayers. Remember you’re not alone out here.


  1. Good morning, Julia! What a great analogy and lesson, and what a relief it is to know that your friends were there to help you through the whole thing. That would be so scary – I’ve always been afraid of deep water – and there is a LOT (not an understatement) of water in a churning ocean.
    I joined a photo challenge on Facebook, and coincidentally, yesterday my post on #challengeonnaturephotography was the coast of Maine during the winter storm that you (further south) experienced in January that dumped all that snow on you. Just think of how many people were helped by friends and neighbors during that storm.
    One thing about personal “storms”:
    Other people don’t always see them, or know that we’re going through them. So even if it seems a bit humiliating, we need to give a shout out, “hey! I need help!” I think that more people than we might suspect are willing (and even honored) to be of service during our storms. (Especially us folks that are slightly older, and have been helped through a few, ourselves.)
    And I agree with you again: the wave will pass.

    • Susan, you make an excellent point about those invisible storms, and our need to cry for help. Sometimes, we also need to be specific about what it is we need; I think uncertainty causes a lot of hesitation in those who want to help but DON’T want to be intrusive. I think when we need help it can be so hard to ask for it, for many different reasons. For some, it’s the fear of seeming needy or weak; for others, it’s the fear of rejection, especially when we’ve asked for help and not received it in the past. As with so many hang-ups, one or two really hurtful experiences can make us withdraw. But that’s a dangerous thing to do, whether it’s a physical or emotional threat that has us cornered. Thanks for your encouragement about the post.

  2. blseibel

    I love the imagery of friends helping us through the waves. So true. I am glad you had 2 such friends.
    I am thankful for friends helping me through the waves of boxes that need packing here…so many boxes and they keep coming but yesterday I stayed in after church and had one task – pack my desk. And some of that was done from the couch while watching movies by bringing drawers to the couch to sort into trash and pack. It helped renew me for the final 2 weeks of packing.

    • Oh B, your comment brings back memories! Isn’t it amazing how much stuff we have when we start to pack it up? That’s a smart idea to bring the drawers over to sort while watching movies. I wish I could be there to help you, but I might not be much help, because I’d be asking nosy questions and/or making chatty remarks the whole time. “OOOOhhh, how pretty, where did you get this?” “Hey, I’ve never seen one of these!” “I need something just like this, where can I buy one?” or “aren’t you afraid that will break? Are you sure you don’t need more bubble wrap on that?” so maybe it’s just as well that I’m not there. I will say, we did all of our own packing this last time and it was much easier in the long run because I knew where everything was. I can’t believe some of the “horror stories” I’ve seen and heard about packers coming in and doing crazy things. One thing that really freaked me out was when some moving crew packed a TOILET PLUNGER inside my nice new (fabric lined) suitcase! I didn’t discover it until we arrived and I opened it up. EEEEEWWWW.

  3. Great metaphor for life. Ride the waves and they aren’t high forever. It does help if you have help out there.

    • Yes, the buddy system can’t be beat!

  4. Julia, my heart goes out to you, today and always.There are so many metaphors for life here. Arms around you.

    • Thank you, Alys! Your friendship and support mean so much. ❤

  5. Sheila

    Julia, I so love living by the ocean’s shore but not so fond of going in the water. I never mastered holding my breath, so ankle deep works best for me.Your description is a perfect explanation AND comparison of life and changing seas! Anyone familiar (or unfamiliar, even worse) with rip currents knows you can be caught, unsuspecting of them, and be overwhelmed. Much like life, I suppose. What a great post! Mr Carlyle would have loved it I feel sure! 💛 Love, Sheila

    • Sheila, now you know why I dream of the Verandah overlooking the ocean — nice and safe and dry! I had a co-worker at USAir who lost her husband, an expert swimmer, to just such a current. Really sad, and they had young children, too. Yes, I think Daddy would have identified with this post. I’ve mentioned it here in the comments before, I think, but Daddy and another man on the beach at the famous (or should I say infamous) North Shore (Oahu) saved a very young Matt in a similar situation when he got away from us and ran out into ocean. We had NOT planned to swim, just to sit and enjoy the beauty. Matt had other ideas, and before I could catch him he was swept out by a wave. Thank goodness for Daddy’s Eagle Scout and Navy training, and for that other man (whose name we never knew) who joined him to rescue Matt. Everyone got their clothes soaking wet! But we learned our lesson and Matt never had another close call at the ocean. Though there were other kinds of close calls, but those are other stories…

      • Sheila

        Oh, my! How frightening that must have been; quick thinking saved the day. So often, the tragic events that make the news here involve tourists at the beach. I wish for all a safe summer! 💛

        • Yes, I was the typical dumb tourist that day. We had not been in Hawaii very long at that time (Jeff was TDY in combat casualty training in Texas, so Mom and Dad were there to visit while he was away) and we were still malahini, not kama’aina yet. I imagine close calls in the ocean happen more than we realize. Thank goodness most of these stories have happy endings. Yes, SAFE summer to all!

  6. I recognize the parallels to more than one friend tonight Julia. I think it’s hard to be brave when it seems like you’re drowning, yet you seem brave to me. While you have a strong faith, I don’t really know of a good way to become centred and stay calm, I should undertake some consideration to that. Normally, if my brain is whispering, ‘stay calm’ the rest of my being is demonstrating anything but. It’s no surprise then, how helpless I feel to help you get to shore unscathed. No matter which way we swim, it’s bound to be rough. Over the years, true friends rescue each other, no one knows when they’ll be caught up in rough waters. I’m glad to know you’ll be there, I admire your strength J. xo K

    • Thank you K. It doesn’t really feel much like strength to me. It’s more like the Marge Piercy poem I love so much— “Strength is not in her, but she enacts it as the wind fills a sail.” For me, faith is the act of raising that sail to catch the wind. I can’t see the wind, let alone predict it or control it, but I know it can get me home if I keep my sails properly set. The strength is in the wind, not in the sail. And it certainly helps to have others working the sails with us! You’re a big help, whether you realize it or not. Thanks for being here.

      • I now see ❤ We are the wind, so dear. As always, you teach me something new. Big hugs xo

  7. Amy

    “Oh Trinity of love and power, our brethren shield in danger’s hour. From rock and tempest, fire, and foe protect them wheresoe’er they go. That evermore shall rise to thee, glad praise from air and land and sea.” You might recognize this quote it’s from the Navy hymn but it applies to everyone everywhere who may be in danger. As I was reading your post today I couldn’t help but think of “those in peril”. I pray that anyone who is fighting demons whether physical or spiritual can find a moment or two of peace and grasp on to the hope that will carry them through. This is my prayer for you and for all of us. My sea’s are calm at the moment and I pray they stay that way as I am not one of great courage. Love you.

    • I love that song! It was the theme song for our (public) high school, because we had a nautical mascot. Thank you for your love and prayers. Your courage is marvelous. Like the lion on the Wizard of Oz, you are the bravest one but just don’t realize it. I think your prayers are being answered. Yesterday was so great, like a mini-vacation to another world. I had such fun showing Jeff the books I bought. He and Matt are going to read the dog book you loaned them next, I think. Thanks for being here with us!

      • Amy

        WOW how cool that that was your theme song. I always figured I was the one without a brain thereby too silly not to rush headlong into trouble. I had a wonderful time on our little journey. I may need to go to Blacksburg on Monday and spend the night if you care to tag along. If possible for Wrecker to go with me I will go over the weekend but if not I will have to wait for Stephen to return from his camping trip. Hope the boys enjoy that book and if not I hope they will put it down. I haven’t started Unsaid yet. I will let you know when I do. Thank you for being there all these years for us. Love ya. A

        • I wish I could go with you but alas! too much other stuff to do. I think the boys are looking forward to reading the book. I’m so glad we’ve been there for each other all this time! I often wonder if the young women/wives/mothers that we were when we first met would recognize us now. What a long, strange and mostly wonderful trip it has been. Not that you are as old as I am, but still…

  8. Julia,
    I suppose it’s true then: That whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
    I’m happy your lifeguard friends were there to guide you in. If not, we would all be the less in your absence.

    • Aw, thank you Alan. 🙂

  9. Jack

    When we were kids, we vacationed on the Georgia shore. In the afternoon, we’d go out to the beach in the late afternoon when the summer squalls were rolling in and ride the waves until it got dark. The norm was to get slammed to the bottom; if you didn’t come home bruised and battered, if occasionally you weren’t afraid that you were about to be ripped out to sea, you weren’t catching the big ones. I marvel today that my parents, decent, loving, attentive, would allow me at 10, older brother at 12 to do this unsupervised. But I think they knew something then that we disavow now. To keep a child sheltered from all risk is to deny him the invaluable lessons of both success and more importantly, from failure. Hard teachers indeed they both are, but who wants to play it safe?

    • Jack, I too am amazed at what my parents allowed us to do, and like you, I have no regrets. I plead guilty to having been WAY too over-protective of my own kids. In part, it may have sprung from my own childhood status as one of the middle kids who got less attention (or so it seemed to me) than I would have liked. I showered my sons with attention, which can lead to being over-protective. Plus I think our generation just tended to be more anxious about our kids than our parents did. Still, we did let Drew traipse off to Guyana three summers in a row during his teens, and that was hard to do, even with a trusted physician and other adult friends along with him– but I’m so glad we did let him go. As my Daddy wisely pointed out to us when we almost got cold feet about buying an expensive home, NOT doing anything carries risks of its own. “Playing it safe” is really, in the final analysis, kind of impossible. You’re right about your parents: they had a wisdom (and the nerve to back it up) that most of us haven’t quite mastered.

  10. Beth

    I’m far behind with a comment! Perhaps the Callaway Gardens picture you posted made me remember the lame duck we pedaled on the lake. What I remember most is laughing so hard that my face and sides hurt. “help! We’re stuck, our duck won’t pedal” A surge didn’t exist on the mirror calm of the small lake, but the memory of that gloriously fun day is a welcome precious memory.

    • Beth, I’m far behind on answering comments, and you don’t even want to know about my email 😀 so that makes two of us. Maybe I should change the name of this blog to Defeat Delay. Oh well, hopefully better late than never. Wow, what a funny memory you brought back about being stranded. There’s a photo of us out there on the lake that I haven’t yet digitized; I saw it when I sent the other one to you recently, but I had totally forgotten about how we broke down right in the middle of the water. How long were we out there? It seems like our parents should have demanded a refund or something. I don’t even remember how we got back. But you’re right, it makes a funny memory. I think it took everybody else awhile to figure out that we weren’t just being lazy or trying to stretch our rental time out. I’ll try to get some more of those photos digitized to send to you. Some of them are classics.

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