Part One: Changes in Latitude...
This summer my family packed up for our annual drift south into the Florida Keys. The anticipation leading up to this trip had us all thinking. We were headed to the same islands we had been before, but would be trying different places to stay and would be taking a different charter out of Key West. Some dinner-table discussions revealed that we all shared the same concern: Would this trip measure up to our last?
I began watching the weather forecast like a fanatic, trying to will the sea, earth, and sky into the same cooperative that we had last year. Our sail/snorkel charter was highly rated online, but we began to worry too much about the effects of weather on our experience. What if we had too much wind? The snorkel part would suffer, but the sailing would be good. Should we book the trip for the morning, in hopes of a calmer sea? Leading up to our departure there had been some afternoon thunderstorms in Key West. Would an afternoon charter get rained out? I pondered these details right up to the point where we were loading the van with snorkels and sunscreen.
Of course, a lot of anticipation can lead to even more disappointment. I should know better than to map out so many uncontrollable details. This trip would unfold just as it was meant to.
It occurred to me afterward, that, as with any adventure, the quality of your trip splits quickly into three bodies: There is the experience you expect to have, the experience you actually do have, and the experience you remember. Sometimes these are all quite different, but by letting go of a few expectations, we open ourselves up to something new and lasting, and allow these three to merge into one. For example: If you travel somewhere worried about crowds of people, then any size crowd will bother you when you get there, no matter how small. Simple, right? Then why do I have to remind myself?
The weather in Key West, as it turned out, was perfect as we walked towards the docks and our waiting charter. While I uploaded photos to Instagram, the text messages bouncing back from friends and family at home were flooded with the phrase "raining all day". I felt bad for the folks back home. The remnants of tropical storm Dorian were soaking the tip of the mainland from Miami north. While they watched the rain come down, we boarded the sparkling-white, 60 foot ketch, the Floridays, and the sea was calm and windless under a brilliant summer-blue sky.
Windless. This meant that the Floridays two-woman crew could not raise sail and had to motor the seven miles to our reef-side destination. The crew apologized sincerely. I think they really wanted to sail for us. But the disappointment of not sailing calmly slid past us when not one, but two, pods of dolphin appeared ahead. They changed course to meet Floridays and spent a short time surfing our bow wave, rolling on their sides to look at us as everyone rushed forward, camera phones in hand. All aboard were beaming, including the crew. Apology accepted.
The reef we visited, Eastern Dry Rocks, is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and is as pristine as I have ever witnessed. It looked like a pre-planned underwater garden. The waving purple sea fans were flawless, and there was not a bent, or broken, or disturbed anything, anywhere. I didn't want to return to the boat. I didn't want to leave the clicks and pops and the sound of the air bubbles glug-glugging from my snorkel as I dove down again and again. I wanted to stay underwater as long as possible. I did.
Part Two: Changes in Attitude
We had barely unpacked and again were loading the van with surfboards and sunscreen. The next stop: a Cocoa Beach weekend with friends and family (the second one of the summer, the first Cocoa trip was in June). I hadn't quite learned my own lesson about expectations, because I was checking the surf forecast daily leading up to this next part of our summer, even while I was in Key West.
Surf forecasts are only so good. You ultimately get what you get, especially in summer, and we were lucky to get anything at all. Cocoa Beach, however, surprises me every time. While a two-foot sea at home may be unrideable, it may be a lot of fun in Cocoa. So off we went, surf wax and all.
I have fond memories of Cocoa Beach. A large part of my childhood was spent there, and returning to that beach again and again is good for my soul. My parents took us there every year and we shared the beach with friends then, too. The stories from these trips are still passed around at get-togethers; they are the lore of our clan. (The infamous "Catfish Story" is from one such weekend. You can read it here.)
When the waves don't cooperate completely with a planned surf trip I usually shift my attention. Surfing, as I have written before, is a solitary and self-centered activity, but is also better when shared. This time, because I wasn't trying so hard to surf for myself, I put more energy into sharing surfing with some of the kids. I thought I would be doing one thing when I got there, and ended up doing something quite different. I think I actually had more fun.
I watched the ocean's personality change three times over the course of our three-day weekend. In the morning, on the day we arrived, the smooth Atlantic was offering up a knee-high swell from the south— small, somewhat rideable. By afternoon the wind came up hard from the southeast, chopped the ocean up a lot, and the surf turned into knee-high south wind swell; an approaching frontal system was rolling in from the northwest. It rained hard that night, the next morning the wind was offshore, and the air was dry, clear, and full of dragonflies. It rained again that afternoon, and on our last morning there, the wind was gone and the ocean was almost completely flat.
Three different oceans, same beach. Watching the Atlantic change and welcoming my own shifting expectations helped me to see a bigger, more important path to happiness. Memory changes us, and good memories mold us into happy people. We create our own good memories by being open to change, and in the end we are what we remember.
Back on the beach, local sea turtle volunteers came by to check on a nest that had recently hatched. They found a small loggerhead struggling to get out. It was very hot, the tiny thing was exhausted, and so the volunteer brought it down to the water and set it in the wet sand. I wondered why she didn't just put it in the water, but I learned that, for turtles, the journey into the sea defines them. They need to swim out on their own, it's part of the imprinting process. If it survives, this little creature, no bigger than a chocolate chip cookie, will return to this same beach weighing almost three hundred pounds.
The baby loggerhead started to make it's way into the foam, but was repeatedly swept back past giant human feet. Then the seagulls saw it. The volunteer quickly scooped it up and held it close. She explained to us that it would be given a chance to rest up at their facility and would be given another try.
The little turtle was carried off to an indoor tank somewhere, and we returned to the shoreline. The SUP (stand up paddle-board) was shared, the boys learned new surf skills, skim rides were given, and I took a few photographs of the memories forming before me, all the while thinking, "Baby turtle... Huh, didn't see that one coming." That experience was a sea-change for all of us, I think.
William Shakespeare wrote about the depths of sea-change in The Tempest. Ariel sings a song of comfort to the mourning Ferdinand, whose father has drowned:
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange...
(Good old Shakespearean imagery, way before Captain Jack Sparrow came along.)
When I checked my pictures after this trip, I saw one I didn't remember taking: the image of a tiny new turtle crawling past the arthritic feet of an elderly woman. For me, that image points to the place I want to inhabit in the natural world: There is the ocean I envision, the ocean I see, and the ocean I will remember. And there is the ocean I will return to when I'm ready for change.
Photos (from the top): Dolphin -Haven Dietrich, Me snorkeling underwater -Marina Dietrich. All others by their Dad.
August 18th, 2013