Catch and release

Last week was a tough one. Not hard in any life-wracking sense, just tough. No illness or tragedy or loss. Just one of those weeks in which your work seems maybe mostly futile, a game of whack-a-mole you’re never going to win, or a dike springing 10 times the holes you have fingers to fill. One of those weeks in which your to-do list becomes so much longer than your capacity to get ‘er done that you abandon any idea you had of being able to stay on top of things.

There’s a gift in that, you know. When doing All the Things is still within the realm of the possible, most of us push ourselves hard to do them. We give up such things as sleep, healthy meals, and time with friends and family. Because All the Things are Really, Really Important, and we want to do them. On Wednesday, however, I realized I’d crossed the border into the realm of the impossible (despite having given up all three of those things in the previous few days), which is why I gave myself permission to leave early Thursday afternoon for library conference starting early Friday morning at the Oregon coast. I mean, if I couldn’t get it all done anyway, there wasn’t really anything to lose, right?

I treated myself to a late lunch at a favorite spot, and I hit the road heading west in full daylight.

And when I got to where I was going, I saw this:

I wasn’t ready for my conference presentation on Saturday, but I did not hole up in my room to get ‘er dun. I threw on my sneakers and high-tailed it to the beach, clinging to the words my friend and colleague Heather had given me that morning: “Give it all to the waves. Let them carry it out to sea for you.”

That is a thing easier said than done.

I was a little melancholy, despite the glorious sun and waves and sand. Maybe, truth be told, because of them. There was a time when I would’ve gone to my conference with a companion, and it hurt to be in such a place alone, with no one to whom I could exclaim, “Isn’t this wonderful!”

There was a family on the beach, their little ones digging with shovels and laughing, their drawers droopy with wet sand, and I missed the children I once got to raise and take to beaches on cold, sunny autumn days.

There was a small dog racing in circles, his whole body quivering with joy, and I remembered how our now-geriatric dogs used to run in just the same way at our river, paws and sand flying.

It was all so gorgeous it hurt, and I started wondering (of course) if those children would have such beaches to stroll on 50 years from now, when they will be my age, or if they would be able to get to them even if they are still here, in the same ways they are now. I wondered if there will still be gulls crying in the air, and mussels clinging to rocks, the same tides going in and out. Even though I know the oceans will likely exist in some form long beyond any of us on the beach will, everything felt fragile and transitory and doomed.

That is when I saw it: A flash of pink in the distance. I took a deep breath (how many friends have reminded me in how many moments to just breath?) and kept walking toward it.

As I got closer to the pink, I saw it was a sprite of a girl, a dashing, dancing speck who clearly was not thinking of planetary change or the passing of things. She was chasing a seagull. Or, rather, dancing with one. It was clear that the gull did not mind her machinations, would flap its wings just enough to get beyond her reach–which was just enough to keep her thinking that maybe, maybe she might catch it.

When the gull flapped, her arms flapped, too, and her legs lifted from the ground, almost like the bird’s shadow or echo. I breathed, and watched the girl and the gull, and listened to the waves, and let it all go: the frustrations, the loneliness, the longing, the fear of future loss.

Heading back to my room and my presentation prep, I passed an older man, alone like me. He caught my eye, smiled, said, “Isn’t it a lovely evening for a walk?”

“It’s gorgeous!” The words burst from me. I am not a words-bursting-from kind of person, usually. I tend not to gush over gorgeousness. I knew the words weren’t just about the beauty of the sun or ocean: It was all of the evening’s beauty, and all of us in it, sharing it.

I was so grateful for that man, a fellow human who could see what I was seeing and who was in it with me, even if only fleetingly. My gratitude even included all the things troubling me; though I’d let them go, they hadn’t disappeared, and I could see then that all of dark, hard things were part of what made the beautiful parts as shiny as they were. There’s something about knowing that everything will pass–that the children will grow, the dogs will slow, the girl will become too self-conscious to dance in public with the birds, and that the man and I will die–that makes it all precious: It’s knowing we can’t catch and hold all the things we love any more than that girl could catch her bird, but that, like her, we try to, anyway.

And isn’t that, really, what the moles and dikes and all our frantic efforts with them are about, too? Trying to catch and protect and preserve what we find beautiful, feeling hopeless when we realize we can’t in the ways we want.

Today, Sunday, as I’m back at home getting ready for another week–the washer running and the counter filled with groceries that need to be put away–I can see that I didn’t quite understand what letting the waves have my worries would mean. I gave them by troubles, yes, but the waves didn’t carry them away. Instead, they washed them clean and tossed them back up on the sand–right where I could reach down to pick them up and put them back in my pocket again, which is right where they belong.

5 thoughts on “Catch and release

  1. Marian says:

    This post has stirred up many thoughts. It is, for me, yet another call to listen to the messages being given to us—both directly and indirectly—by children (and dogs?): slow down; be present; be real. That, and small things/small joys/small acts that come with simply being alive matter. It’s also a nod to what I’ve come to believe about most of the things we work at and strive for: that most of those things are, at best, benignly futile and useless, but that quite a lot of those things are futile and useless in an actually damaging way—to us as individuals as well as to the planet. It would be a really good thing, I think, if more of us could see that.

    This post has also stirred up some memories. Nearly 25 years ago, I walked on a beach in Oregon, only days after miscarrying. I remember all the things I was feeling, and that I tried to send my grief into those waves, hoping that the sound of the surf would drown out the voice in my head that said I would never have children. It didn’t entirely work; but it did remind me that my sorrows were minuscule in the grand scheme of things, which is always a comfort to me, and that at least gave me a momentary respite.

    Sending you a hug, Rita, and wishing you a better week.
    xo Marian

    • Rita says:

      I apologize for the delayed response. It’s a comment on the month, I suppose–and that I have not done a good enough job of slowing down and being present. Going to work on that, as we collectively ramp up for the busyness of the coming months. I want my holidays to be meaningful, not futile and damaging. I appreciate your words here very much.

  2. TD says:

    Dear Rita,
    This is such a lovely and poetic post. As I was reading it last night before bed, I could feel it all with you. Beautifully written down to the decision to reach into the sand to pick up your worries, placing those worries in your pocket again, which is right where you found meaning of the experience.

    I too get overwhelmed by life that I feel a desperate need to reach out to ask for help, but when I take that chance I find truly no one understands my worries other than me. I wonder if it is because those worries belong only to me (in my pocket).

    In the middle of the night, I woke up, petted my Yorkie a sleep next to me, and thought once again about your lovely poetic post. I feel asleep and had a dream of walking miles and miles in the white sand of an endless beach. There was a man saying something, but I don’t know what the man was saying as I cannot remember specifically. Perhaps the man was telling me to place worries in my pocket. It was a beautiful dream and I felt good about it all.

    I’ll think of you as I walk the sea wall, here.

  3. Kate says:

    I love your story and your pictures, Rita. I’m glad you found some rest amidst a too busy time and some peace during a time when it would be easy to feel anxiety and overwhelm!!

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