Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thoughts in an Undertow

In my mental reference library is a book of dreams. Most of the time, truths in my life percolate to the surface during sleep. Interpretations fall into place during my waking hours. I have an open mind about predictive dreams, but no experience with them.

There is one incident in my life that is inscribed in my mental book of dreams. The only thing is that it actually happened, when I was about 9 years old. It was an unseasonably cool day of summer, the sort of day that would have inspired an Andrew Wyeth painting. My father took my sister and I to Horseneck Beach in Massachusetts, which is on the way to Cape Cod. The day was windy. There may have been undertow advisories. My father had mentioned undertow. I had no concept of it. To me it was a giant toe under water. It seemed vaguely funny.

When we got to the beach, I was unenthusiastic about swimming. I wanted to get a 75 cent mini pizza and a soda. The smell of trashy beach junk food always has made me hungry. It certainly did back then.

But I went in the water, a few inches above my knees, and looked back at the beach, the sand was tickling the soles of my feet, gently massaging them. It was a pleasant sensation. It felt like I was sliding backwards. I looked at the shore and noticed that it was becoming more distant. I felt like I was on a conveyor belt, like a jar of spaghetti sauce in a grocery or a passenger in a large airport. When the feeling of distance from the shore became more pronounced, I looked and saw my father, who was frantically waving a red bath towel that was one of my favourites. I thought he was worried about my swimming too far out, even though I wasn't really swimming.

Then a thought flashed through by mind. "Undertow... Not undertoe. Undertow means that the water is towing me out to sea. Hey, that's what's happening! This is an undertow. This could be dangerous. If this is an undertow, I have to stay away from the water underneath."

At that point, I flattened myself on top of the water. I swam as quickly as I could back to shore without putting my hands or feet back down. At this point, a lifeguard was coming towards me in a rowboat. I kept swimming until the sand was within reach of my arm. The rowboat was close to me, but I ran to shore, not out of fear but out of a desire to exceed the speed of the undertow. I was a bit disappointed that I didn't get to ride in the rowboat.

The experience was instructive. Analysing vocabulary and language was important in extracting myself with G-d's help from a life threatening situation. A tendency to be extremely calm when facing grave danger also worked in my favour. What was most important was reacting to my father. I was enjoying myself. The feeling of standing on a conveyor belt, the tickling sensation of the sand felt good. There was a thrill when I realised I was actually moving. My first reaction was annoyance. My father didn't want me to have a good time. He thought I was a baby. Although it was a rarity for me, I decided to consider his opinion.

"If he thinks I am in danger, maybe I should consider it."

The thought occurred to me with a sense of detachment. It was the sight of him that triggered my analysis of my aquatic surroundings and the meaning of undertow. I don't know if critical moments would have been lost had I not seen or had I ignored my father.

I have always been a nonconformist in attire and in thinking. It is difficult for me to conform, even when I want to. But a lasting lesson of that early afternoon on the beach is the idea that one should listen to authority, one should listen to majority opinion. Obeying authority and conceding to societal consensus remain a matter of free choice. But there are times that the voice of authority is right. There are times that the masses have wisdom. This lesson has repeated itself many times in my life. From anger management to diet, from good study habits to dressing for success, the lesson remains that I should pay some attention to what others think.

There was a dream like quality to that day at the beach. At a visceral level, I never felt that I was in danger. I felt detached from the water, as though I was observing and advising myself. I interpret that afternoon at times the same way I do dreams, extracting a fragment of meaning from an image or a word. Years later, that incident has guided me. It is a sequence In my book of dreams that has aided me in coping with life and in knowing myself. Sphere: Related Content

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