Love your Neighbor

Report on a Near Drowning, and a Love Note to Self-Loathers

I was swept off my feet a few days ago. By the massive cold hand of a wave—an ocean wave twice as big as its brothers. I was there on the beach beside my house with camera in hand because of a certain desperation. A certain hate of the familiar.          

Rain and snow had lashed our houses and windows for days on end, which is usual for this island, no matter what the season. I was past weary with it. Along with the weather, I had a stupendous bout with self-loathing, which is much deeper than despising the merely familiar.  And If you are here on this page, I suspect you've had a bout or two yourself. At least I hope so. I do wish it upon you, even now, this week when all the world seems lost in fetes of chocolate and roses and romantic celebrations.  I am not of the cult who instructs people to begin their days standing in front of a mirror wrapping their arms around themselves chanting, “You are Beautiful! You are perfect!” (I have an article  in my files from a pseudo-Christian magazine urging just such a routine.) 

 I won't confess the details, but for a few terrifying hours, I saw into my cracked, pathetic heart and I was slain. I was stripped of excuses, the usual cover-ups. I was selfish, callous, a Cad without the “bury” to sweeten it . . .  I was pretty rotten.

In that mood of truth, and tired of cowering from the elements, I took to the beach behind my two youngest sons, 9 and 11, in a freezing rain. With winter coat, boots, hat and hood I followed them out to the black gravel beach a minute’s walk from our house. The days of storm and wind had brought massive waves, a thunderous surf crashing to our black shoreline.  

They had come to play. With my new camera in hand, I had come to work. They stood on the rocks and as each wave pulverized the shore, they lifted their faces to the rain and their arms to the wind and spray, as if flying. When tired of that, they played wave tag, me following them with the camera, snapping their joy in the relentless storm, a marvel. What brings me fatigue and despair brings them delight.

Then it hit. The boys warned me as they ran to the higher rocks. But I didn’t hear in time. The wave hit my knees, knocking me to the beach. Splayed and aswirl in seawater and kelp, I thought only of my  new expensive camera, and rolled over to my side in the water to hold it aloft. Imbalanced, and all my clothing immediately sodden, I couldn’t get up. The wave, retreating back to the water, began to drag me with it. 

“Mom!”  the boys cried, watching with alarm. 
“Abraham, help!” I called to my 11 year old, who stood too stunned to move.
“Help me!” I cried again, my voice weak in the roar of the foam and the wind. 
He ran toward me and held out his hand, eyes huge. As the wave receded, I heaved myself to my knees, grabbed his hand with my one free hand and stumbled to my feet.      

 My boots were full of icy water. I was dripping from the waist down and littered with pieces of kelp.  I knew I would be shaking soon. But home and dry clothes were nearby.

It was the best thing that happened that day. Swept off my feet by the familiar—the familiar grown strange and dangerous. I knew that beach so well. How had I forgotten? Like my own heart. How had I forgotten the danger there, the darkness, the force that can slay others, slay myself, when I see it true?

I was swept by another wave just two days later.  On Sunday I was part of a troupe that dramatized “The Love Chapter,” the most beautiful and most famous words about love ever written.   “Perfect love is not proud, it is not self-seeking, it does not boast, it does not envy, it does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth  . . . True love hopes, believes, endures all things . …”   

 As I spoke and enacted these words on stage with others---giving food to a hungry man, bending down to tie a boy’s shoe, giving another my coat, I was nearly drowned with the simplicity and hope of this love---a love that pours from a heart that must first know its own darkness. 

"O stand, stand at the mirror
 until the tears scald and start.
You shall love your crooked neighbor
 with all your crooked heart." 

This is all I have, a crooked heart. This is all any of us have, a crooked heart. Knowing this, we can drown in our own salt tears---or we can run to the one who has fallen, and offer our own shaking hand.