I fear the ocean. The waves, the unseen terrors, drowning, that salty taste that has always turned my stomach, the sand — it all combines to burrow into my mind and pushes my big red mental DANGER button. My wife, on the other hand, can’t get enough of it. And because I love her, I swallowed my oceanic disdain.
We went kayaking yesterday. Walking to the beach in our life jackets and helmets brought vastly different reactions. MJ was drawn to the sea like a magnet, as if being beckoned by an old friend. She practically galloped toward the waves and let her toes feel the water. As for me, I saw frenzied foam fingers of the deep crawling up on shore to claim me, as the ocean inevitably retakes all things.
We paddled out head-on into the waves in an attempt to get safely past the break. It didn’t work. A 5-footer crested at the wrong time and knocked MJ out of the kayak, which left me and my considerable weight in the rear to tip over backward. The current caught me and for a second my feet couldn’t find the bottom. I panicked and began mentally writing my own obituary until I saw MJ floating nearby. Laughing. Smiling. Literally soaking it in. My feet found sand and my hands grasped the kayak and paddle. I flipped it over, got in, and tried again. Success.
The undulating waves soon made me nauseous but MJ was glowing, so I paddled. We saw cliffs with ancient striations and layers that prove all paths eventually lead to the sea. We saw the house where Dr. Suess lived and the nearby mountain that inspired the home of the Grinch. I silently wished I was in such an apropos place. We saw ocean caves carved by water, time, and pressure. But nothing prepared me for what we saw next.
A sea lion popped up next to our kayak. It looked at me and I back at him in stunned silence. It was close enough to reach with my paddle on my right side and slightly behind me, but I didn’t move. I didn’t even tell MJ. We just looked at one another for a few seconds and then he was gone. And I was moved, although I’m still really not sure why.
I didn’t have time to ponder it much because suddenly the water in front of us was filled with dolphins. A pod headed inland with fins slicing through the water’s surface in between all the boats. A baby dolphin jumping a couple of feet out of the water right in front of us, like it was a planned show. In my amazement, all I could say to MJ was “Wow. It’s like they did this on porpoise.”
She scrunched her face up in a disapproving manner at my pun, and turned back toward the dolphins. I’m not sure why I couldn’t admit to being amazed — to being moved — in that moment. Perhaps because we were far from land and the waves were getting bigger. Maybe because I’m not quite ready to realize all the wonderful things I miss by never losing sight of the shore. After all, I’m the man who has never lived outside of Massachusetts or traveled outside the country. Who has never had a passport. Who has a nearly debilitating fear of airplanes and boats. Who loves familiarity more than anything.
Yet aren’t I familiar with dolphins and sea lions now? Not ones in the aquarium, but in the wild. Far from shore in a plastic kayak pitching all over the place and making me sick and uncomfortable. But without discomfort and trepidation, I wouldn’t have this new experience. Any experiences. How do you know yourself if all you’ve known is familiarity?
On the way back to shore our guide told us to stop and grab some kelp. She urged us to take a bite, saying it tasted like salty lettuce. Caught up in the moment, I took a bite. It was disgusting. But now I know for sure it’s disgusting, because I tried it. I don’t have to guess. I lived it out there in a place I didn’t want to be and never would’ve gone without a nudge.
We capsized on our way back to the beach too, paying the chilly price owed to the sea for beholding its bounty. But this time I smiled more than I grimaced.
The sea is deep and frightening, but it also holds beauty and treasure that can only be seen by those willing to paddle out of their comfort zones. I’ll never be a professional sailor, but losing sight of the shoreline every now and then is a new life goal.
I’m almost 40 and just realizing I may not know myself at all. That’s scary. But then again, imagine how much I don’t know and haven’t seen.