Drowning in life, learning to swim.

tim and clare pics-page-001I would say for the last 6+ months I have been steadily driving faster and faster towards a brick wall with my own exhausting and complex lifestyle (which, ironically, does involve a lot of driving). I had been ignoring the building stress which was becoming increasingly painful. So life finally found the emergency brake for me.

Recently I visited a friend in Stinson Beach, CA. The day was beautiful and warranted a swim after a long drive. I went out into the ocean with a certain, definite, stride. It was, at first, a playful enjoyment. I felt confident and strangely defiant. I knew my strengths as a swimmer.

After a while, however, I suddenly began to notice the strong pull of the ocean, outwards, away from the shore, and that it was pulling me away from the shore with it. My feet started to only be able to touch the sand below intermittently, and less and less often. I found myself caught up in powerful riptides. I hadn’t realized there was danger out there until it was too late. Then I knew I was in trouble. And all this in a very short space of time.

I started to say out loud to myself ‘swim, swim, swim, swim, swim, swim, swim, swim’ with every deliberate, and effortful, plunge of my arms into the water, striving to reach the beach. I wasn’t making any headway. I started to panic. I waved to two women standing not 50 yards from me who didn’t notice, even though they were looking directly at me. I then noticed I was losing energy trying to get their attention so recognized I needed to focus 100% back on ‘swim, swim, swim, swim…’ arms plunging, plunging, plunging, heart racing, breath gasping. And still heading outwards towards the ocean, further and further away from the sandy floor beneath, long since kissed by my very own toes.

I thought I’d had it, that it was too late, that I had gone out too far and noticed too late. That I had made ‘the fatal mistake’. I needed help but no-one was noticing me out here, hidden, apparently, in plain sight. I suddenly knew this was a moment that I was about to regret forever, this not noticing of my own, that I had pushed beyond where it was safe, beyond the familiar… thinking that I knew the ocean, my long time love. I wondered what it would be like to drown. I suddenly flashed, in understanding, of what it meant to get too tired – and run out of the energy – to ‘swim, swim, swim…’ I figured I’d be finding out if I didn’t make one more effort to ‘swim…’

The last time I had this experience I was 14 and my mother had just died. My father and brother and I went to Cornwall to try to have a ‘normal’ holiday with our broken hearts, broken spirits, broken lives. I went out into the water, strangely confident and blissfully ignorant of its power. I found myself swept up so fast by big currents that I had no volition, could not get back to shore. My brother Tim noticed, heard my panic, and came out to try to reach me, stretching out his own arms. Then he got swept up too – we had no legs, no feet, no ground. Finally another man saw us and came all the way out to save us. We were pulled back in and went back to the hotel, weak and relieved, scared and grateful – this sea genuinely intimidating.

The first time this happened, I was a toddler. Turning over shiny little stones by the water’s edge, the Sea decided it wanted me and, before I knew it, I was tossed into her body whole, gobbled up and scrabbling to find the right way up for air. It was immediate. Sometimes heading in the wrong direction I efforted, and my fingers dragged and scratched along the shingle of small pebbles as each wave efforted to drag me out – a sound I can still hear as I write this – my little fingers determinedly digging sharp, sandy, grooves that the sea then casually filled. I used my whole toddler capacity and determination to drag myself in the opposite direction than the tide was taking me. I was wily and tenacious. Because I knew it mattered.

That toddler emerged, shaken, wobbly and shocked – much like the 50 year old on Tuesday. I walked up the beach to find my parents, who I found chatting and laughing on the sea wall with their friends. They were very social. I was very wet. They looked at me, I looked at them… I don’t remember the rest except my mother’s slowly collapsing face as she realized what had happened. I think a big towel came and swooped me up.

Now, we are looming on Father’s Day. And, given my complicated relationship to him – he is long since passed – I can’t help but feel these events are deeply connected in my currently swirling psyche. I am remembering them, feeling them again. There is a certain synchronistic metaphor to some overtly literal events in my life right now:

In my job there is a student accusing me of discrimination and creating a ‘hostile environment’ which has prompted an investigation into me as a teacher, which I will win, but which nonetheless renders me so very vulnerable, scared and full of self-doubt. It has re-prompted old thoughts of wanting to do other things now, for my happiness, for my income. In my home life there is change occurring – I found a beautiful house only to find the owner is very strange, creepy-movie strange and I have to let go of it, and all my happy imaginings about living in it. Where will I move to within the next week? Will I stay at all? And then there are the two intimate relationships I am exploring – both very different and calling for more of me, more than I’m used to giving and perhaps receiving. I know there are things to say in both of them. And I am nervous.

I feel it is time to further entrench on this earth, to find my own feet, my own voice, the truth of these moments. I am aggressively flirting with all these ‘next steps’; imbibing their salty breath, whilst people invade where I am living to puncture my sanctuary of solitude, planning their own new lives in front of me. I am, yet again, exploring something new, something unknown and scary. I am being pushed and pulled by the internal – and external – riptides of this ever-extending moment, to find my courage, my voice, my truth and my needs. Or I go out to sea.

I feel caught. There is rust. It is painful, and I am tired, feeling broken. Is the ocean my friend? Am I getting carried out on a current of fate? Where I have placed myself has suddenly morphed at will, unanticipated, into something big; scary big. The sand has disappeared again… and it makes me feel small.

I sense – thanks to deeply sharing with a trusted friend – that there is something here for me, the oyster in the sea bed, that has my name on it. But first I must breathe and, if I can’t find my feet, swim with the hope and force of she who can. Being determined sometimes is the only fallback to drowning. I saved myself at 2, got saved at 14, and saved myself again at 50. Yet I still am not entirely sure, did I do it on my own? Do I survive in spite of the ocean or because of it?

Think of the stories we hear about whales and dolphins saving us at sea. Perhaps they are speaking to one aspect, one movement with the ocean… of the ocean, as the ocean – it all as one, rather than saving us from the Ocean – as they are not separate, and neither, perhaps, are we. Those beings – those elements – are friends to us in these treacherous currents. Is it the ocean saving us – in its various formations – from ourselves, from our own lack of sight, our own stuck places, our own rust, drawing in the salty waters to heal? These elements work together, perhaps – conscious and aware. As I wade ever deeper into the ocean I am forced to have sight – to receive harsh lessons from a complicated teacher. At these times, I can be instantaneously and unceremoniously snatched away from the ‘safe’, the ‘familiar’, to places where I must automatically panic, reach, spin, delve and surrender. It harshly removes things which no longer serve, roughly bringing sight back to my salty eyes. I’ve noticed: If I haven’t been listening, life stops whispering.

I’ve lost that house I wanted, I’m confused by my relationships, nervous of what’s being asked of me and I’m not sure, cannot see yet, the shore of my future. And yet, I’m here, breathing, sometimes panting, panicking, reaching out my grabbing, scratching, hand to my sea-creature friends, and getting saved, thankfully, from drowning… whilst I learn how to swim.

Thank you for reading.

Clare Hedin is a writer, photographer, musician, healer, content developer and creativity coach. Please contact her at clare@clarehedin.com if you would like help with any of these.

The image is of Clare and her brother, Tim, at the shore – on a much calmer day – where she describes her first encounter with the ocean, as a toddler.

*Addendum: In the latter part of all this experiencing, I suddenly got a tweet from @consciousbridge (who I didn’t know I was following), and it said “What is your soul calling you to do? What is it that is yours to do?” I felt strangely relieved, somehow affirmed and so now I’m asking myself that question with the love that I feel they have. I feel hope with this kind of coincidence.