What if Time plays tricks? What if its seemingly dependable cadence could momentarily pause for a young child, while continuing in its normal pace for everyone else? I’ve always wondered if some magical metronome cast a spell on me so very long ago, a spell so palpable that the secret interlude has evermore been branded onto my soul.
It was summer, 1949, and, as usual, a cyclical metamorphosis transformed our family. Fishing poles saw the light of day and the lakes and streams nearby drew us in like magnets. I had become an expert on yellow-spotted salamanders and crayfish. Like most kids, I flowed rhythmically with the subtle effects of seasonal tempos, so when my parents mentioned that we were going to the ocean I cheered delightedly, knowing it had to be good. We crammed our bodies into Dad’s old Chevy with baggage plugging every available cavity. The initial excitement sustained me for a time. I could comprehend neither the challenges of an eight-hour road trip, nor the immense body of water that would be greeting us upon our arrival.
“Like a gazillion Deep Creek Lakes!” my sister had exclaimed. I knew she was smart. She was almost in third grade! But not being able to see land on the other side? No way! I could, however, picture the exploration of new uncharted territory and that was all the motivation I needed.
I peered out the rear window at lush green pines bracing each other skyward like book ends in a mountainous monastery with trails and tales hidden under dark limbs. Gradually, however, the quest-laden forests diminished into small rolling hills that eventually morphed into mile after mile of flat, monotonous lowland. Statuesque billboards guarded cornfields like stoic totems. Then tinier signposts, inorganic pillars of prophesy, intruded into the reverie. “HAVE---YOU---BEEN---SAVED?” my sister read each one aloud. She struggled then, with “REPENT!” and “SAL-VA-TION”.
“What’s that stuff got to do with the ocean?” I wondered. I began to have second thoughts. Were these small flashing posters of doom hypnotizing a small child, preparing her for her appointment with the hidden heart of the cosmos? A sad, whitewashed church in a moat of broken clam shells approached and then departed, filling me with an ache for home.
I nestled next to Aunt Irene and closed my eyes, lulled by the staccato of tires against mortar joints. Finally, however, a crescendo buffeted with the sharp squawking of sea gulls, hundreds of them. I leapt with excitement, banging my head on the tiny overhead light. We were passing small inlets where sleek, white winged creatures were diving for groceries in slaphappy currents. I inhaled vague, briny aromas and could almost feel the tummy bumps as I scanned the swell of sailboats and dinghies bobbing in the coves.
“Won’t be long now!” everyone shouted excitedly. Fishing wharfs sped by and boats in dry dock, road signs and more billboards of little sunburned girls with puppies pulling at bathing suits. Stalled traffic and beeping car horns made my dad’s neck blush, and like a thermometer, the inflammation rose up into his cheek bones coming to rest amid beads of sweat on his broad forehead. Mom’s pretend smile and her quiet humming did little to ease the tension till we finally crossed over the drawbridge connecting us to Brigantine.
“There it is!” Mom twisted her head around to point to the Atlantic Ocean, but that awesome, magnificent creature had spotted me first, throwing me into some kind of freeze-framed over-drive. Without warning, everything around me stopped as though someone had accidentally hit the planetary pause button. I found myself alone in a place of utter stillness and timelessness. A hazy vault-like separation stood between me and all outside sound as family faded into a misty blur. I was in a wide-eyed trance, staring helplessly,… longingly. The ocean before me was an enormous swelling of ripples and currents, calm yet commanding, breathing me into her, rising and falling, taking me deeper. My heartbeat and breath became entrained with this enigmatic hump-backed mariner of the deep.
I knew then without knowing, that life was communion. I was given a glimpse of a primordial essence that waits beneath the outer reality of things. The ocean was alive! The whole world was alive and so was I! It has taken a lifetime to even try to articulate what really happened to me that day. I had slipped through some thin vortex into another dimension, a universe beyond ordinary consciousness. I have no idea how long I drifted in that netherworld of silence where the breath was everything and everything was breath. I sensed that I was probably only one blink away from erasing the entire revelation, but it was Irene who drew me back. With her gentle touch she summoned me to her so Dad could again see out the rear view mirror. I had returned to “real” time with nobody even noticing that I had left.
That little girl and I still marvel at the ocean’s power on that glorious day. She had allured us like some pied piper, to enter into the realm of the mystic where all we had to do was appreciate our ability to appreciate. I want to believe that there are times when the great unknown speaks to us across time and culture of a longing we will never understand.
My vision of an alternate reality kindled in me a perpetual gratitude and I find myself smiling now just as the little girl in me smiled that day at Brigantine Beach. We entered the small community with its corner grocery stores and postcard apothecaries, where people with red faces and Noxema noses shuffled around in sandals and old shorts; where a child from the hills of Western Maryland could dash across a hot, sandy beach and cool her toes, playing keep-away with her new best friend, the Mother-Of-It-All, sharing her secret rendezvous with no one.
John O'Donahue, the great Irish poet, described nature as an incredibly sophisticated bible. "It's a library of books. The scriptures of nature are immense and profound and there's a faithfulness in nature on the one hand, where it doesn't seem to be disturbed in any way by longing yet on the other hand it seems amazingly imbued with primeval desire."
O'Donahue believed that the most profound prayer the human mind can say is when the human body walks out and feels the mountains by the ocean and the forest and enters into the stillness and the solitude that is found there. These kinds of experiences have the power to infuse us with more belonging than any prayer we could ever say with words.