Snorkeling Off a Cliffside
I had a close call, once, with a relative who could not get out of the water at a beach known locally as Two-Step. Perhaps the word “beach” should be in quotes, for most “beaches” on the Island of Hawaii are jumping off points made of volcanic rock. These are not cushy sand beaches where you lie out in the sun or wade in the shallows, admiring the sparkling water pulling sand over your toes. These are jump-and-swim spots where you’re immediately in the deep, never able to stand. There are some of the usual tamer beaches most people associate with that word, but the Big Island is young enough that they have not formed all around. The island has a wild, untamable heart and the ocean is as awe-inspiring as she should be. Often, that awe comes with a sense of sheer joy. If you’re not careful, like my relative here, that joy can overwhelm and make you feel protected in ways nature does not protect.
High tide came roaring in. Waves were crashing over the two steps nature had carved into the lava rock, which, incidentally, made it easier for swimmers and snorkelers to enter and leave the ocean. My relative was trapped at sea, but she didn’t know it. Such was her exuberance at having spent an afternoon playing with a pod of spinner dolphins, she wasn’t paying attention to the tide, the waves, the crashing. This was Hawaii. This was vacation. She was living in a cartoon. What could go wrong?
By chance, she made her way to the steps at a lull between ripping waves. She hopped up and plopped down to take off her fins right there, facing the ocean, dangling legs in it. I told her she didn’t have time for that, we had to move back further before the next set of waves. She didn’t listen. Still in childlike-awe mode from the dolphins, she felt invulnerable. And that’s when she learned a tough lesson.
Crash went a wave and out went my relative, swept back into the Pacific blue. Thankfully, she was still conscious and not in a blinding panic. She tried to climb out, but couldn’t. She couldn’t even make it back to the steps. It was like watching a woman being tossed around in a washing machine. Eventually, the sea spit her out and up onto the rocks, only to drag her back in with the undertow.
Curiously, she hadn’t been cut up by the sharp rock or knocked out cold. She was shaken but still determined. I called out, “Do you need me to help you?” She nodded, yes. A muscular French tourist stood there watching this. He said to me, “I would help you, eeeeeeh… but I do not feel safe.” He offered to hold my glasses. I jumped in.
I tried to maneuver her to the steps, but the ocean had different ideas. Before I knew it, I, too, had been washed ashore at the same spot my relative had—except I washed up so forcefully, I was left in a standing position. I hopped over to the two steps area and the lousy Frenchman. I was exhausted from this little bit; I couldn’t imagine how tired my relative was. I actually thought she was going to die out there. This was it. She was going to die, I was going to watch, and we were both helpless.
But then it hit me. An answer. I turned to my arch-nemesis from my schooling years: mathematics. I noticed how the waves were coming in, how the tide was curving them to the left at the last moment.
Of course! We can’t get to the two steps because we’re aiming for them!
I shouted to my relative, “Aim for the wall right here!” and pointed to the exact spot she needed to swim toward—a spot one would ordinarily avoid—in order for the tide to redirect her to the steps. Mercifully, she listened this time and was swept onto the upper step where I grabbed her and helped her maneuver to a safe enough distance that she could take off her snorkel mask and fins. She lived to swim another day.
This is a true story. On the surface, it is about how a rational decision involving basic science—observation, calculation, predictability, execution—saved the day. And it did, because those are the logical tools of the surface world. There is no going with the timeless flow on the surface of the ocean, at the juncture of land and storming tide. There is figuring out how A + B = C, or else. Both modes of being are necessary—obviously so, as they are a part of us. Knowing which is appropriate in what circumstance takes a level of discernment too many of us shy away from, in fear. For example, I have friends who didn’t believe in Western medicine to the extent that they refused to treat their ailing baby with it until the illness was so dire that they caved and had to be flown to another island for emergency medical treatment. Their baby left the ER in good health, which made believers out of them.
We’ve all likely heard that logic stems from left-brain thinking and creativity from right-brain. What happens when both halves of the brain are thinking? Curiouser yet, what happens when we’re coming from heart through the fully functional brain? What do we see? Do we act or react? Since an open heart invites relationship and relativity, do we come to a different perspective about life and death decisions? Do we see only us at the center of it, or a hidden hand, an invisible relationship?
When heart/brain interconnectivity is alive and well, do we find other meanings that are not superimposed by a brain contextualizing the situation, but are actually there because another intelligence is also there relating with us?