The Anatomy of a Wave
“Wave anatomy is very simple. The highest surface of a wave is called the crest, and the lowest part is called the trough. The vertical distance between the crest and the trough is called the wave height. The horizontal distance between two adjacent crests or troughs is the known as the wavelength. … But wave behavior is a complicated dance, choreographed by the forces that cause them and the ocean around them.” –National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
I’ve been on Martha’s Vineyard for over a week and I still haven’t found a place I love to practice. After dropping my son Simon off at camp, I spent an hour or more snarled in errands, in part arising from a minor car accident the previous week. I decide to try South Beach in Edgartown, and discover that it is just 11 driving minutes away. I find the sea spectacular, but the beach crowded. I look west and see open space, so I walk in that direction. I get happier and happier as I walk along, thinking I have finally found my place, how wonderful, how blessed. I am pretty much skipping. Then a bellicose man with grey teeth drives up to me on an ATV and tells me I have to go away, this is private property. “Don’t worry,” I say, wide-eyed, “I know I can’t go above the high tide line, and I’m not going to put down a blanket or anything, I’m just here to find some peace.” “You can’t be here. This is private property.” “But you can’t own the sea! The law says…” “I know the law. Are you saying you’re not leaving then? Do I have to call somebody?” I think about pushing it but instead say, “I’m leaving for today, but I’m going to do some research; and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“The wind not only produces currents, it creates waves. As wind blows across the smooth water surface, the friction or drag between the air and the water tends to stretch the surface. As waves form, the surface becomes rougher and it is easier for the wind to grip the water surface and intensify the waves.” –National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
In the morning I do a yoga class and it pours heavily, visible as white lines in the space of the air through the big window of the studio. I decide it is a perfect day to dance on the beach.
The loose sand of high tide gives me sore calves as I dance in Flowing. I move with the cresting and ending waves, rushing back under, folding into the next, curving to block. I try to hold myself in each of the rhythms a little longer than feels intuitive to stretch out my practice and give myself time for the rhythms to act on me. Staccato moves me quickly, still the thick sand crowds my ankles. My outbreaths are audible, rushing. I am not totally alone anymore but I can still move, letting the head go letting the diaphragm go, avoiding eye contact in case the family that just arrived thinks I’m crazy. Lyrical is the rhythm that most calls me today, though even when I feel light and my gaze lifts upward with the soaring sea birds, I still have no lift owing to the soft sand that doesn’t offer a foundation to leap off of. In Stillness, arms around, curving, gliding hand-to-hand and arcing up.
After Stillness draws to a close I practice sitting meditation for 20 slightly-distracted minutes, then have a brief swim in the swelling waves.
“As the waves close in on the coast, they begin to feel the bottom and their direction of travel might change due to the contour of the land. Eventually, the waves run ashore, increasing in height up to 1.5 times their height in deep water, finally breaking up as surf.” –National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
At Norton Point Beach in Edgartown. Black sand with striated markings like german shepherd fur. It is high tide again and my feet sink into the coarse sand. Two children are making a sandcastle when I arrive. It is huge, spanning 10 feet or more. They are using the same tools that are used for demure, small castles, but the open ocean and big waves seem to inspire things on a grander scale. In heavy fog, I walk out of sight.
There is no horizon. Flowing is the waves washing back being subsumed again to the ocean, form washing away, the backwash and the sea’s depths and their connection. I let it catch my back and pull and dip me, feeling the wide sea, deep and heavy and heaving. I could do this forever, I think. My legs too tired in the deep loose sand, a big hill of black sand dipping down to the waves. Staccato is the waves as they barrel toward shore. Staccato and I take forceful breaths out, deep and low, elbows bent like a destructive goddess, fire exhalation, the sand still deep. Chaos is the flowing backwash crashing into the staccato wave, the collision, the twisting, sometimes the diminishing of the big wave – cresting to end, sometimes they multiply each other, sometimes they crash and collide. Chaos and I let my head go. I have an audience now I try not to care, I want to be seen and I don’t at once, I keep giving myself permission to let go, let go, why such constraint and pessimism when life is so short, so infinitesimally tiny. Ferocious heartbeat, sweat between my breasts, my strapless dress drifts down becoming a skirt, a wave reaches us, saturating its hem. Fine mist kisses my exposed skin. I no longer feel limited by the deep sand. Gliding down the little sand cliff, finding suspensions with the uphill side of me, looking toward the fog-obscured horizon, for the first time seeing the birds, gliding, skittering, flapping, coasting. I am on and off the sand, on my knees, arcing up and around, to a knee then up in one powerful gesture. In Stillness I bow forward toward the sea in a reverent curtsie. One hand creates an arc drawing in the sand in front of me, then the other, from the other side, then the other again to make a little rainbow. I bow lower, then end standing with knees bent out to the sides, arms bent at the elbows, up and open – receptivity fused with strength.
I spend 19 restless minutes in sitting meditation, trying to force myself not to look at the timer on my phone.
“After the wind begins to blow for a while, the waves get higher from trough to crest, and both the wave length and period become longer. As the wind continues or strengthens, the water first forms whitecaps and eventually the waves start to break. This is referred to as a fully developed sea.” –National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Hoping to get to another beach with surf, I type Long Point Beach into the GPS. It leads me down what seems like an unpaved cowpath, but seems to have expensive private homes set behind thick brush comprised of pines trees, shrub oak and tangled vines. I come to a gate, deep in the pine wood, and decide to continue forward into what appears to be a Wildlife Reserve. After 20 minutes of slow driving over ruts and rocks, I park and head up a path over a dune to the beach. Descending the dune, the waves are impressive, four feet or more, crashing with great force. I look to my left and see empty beach, so I head in that direction.
Before long, a sign announces that the area is not accessible because of wildlife preservation. Though I am tempted to continue on, I stop just before the sign, still in view of the beachgoers near the path, but far enough away to feel relatively alone.
Beginning to move in Flowing, I let the waves drag me into curves, attentive to the undertow – to the lacy, diagonal layers of swash – my feet sinking into the deep sand. I let my head release down, spine spiraling into gravity, into the coiling ended waves. As an ended wave rounds back into itself, I turn my body around, low, low, weight in my thighs, in my calves, in my feet, arms extended down from the shoulders. A cold breaking wave touches the skin of my feet and I move again toward the sea, feeling the magnetism of it, its pull. I consciously choose to stay in Flowing a little longer than I want to. It has a hint of inertia to it, and I am eager for the more vigorous energy of Staccato, which overtakes me soon enough. Now, I lift my gaze to the four foot waves racing toward the beach, piling one on top of the other. My arms come alive, as my feet are still in coarse, unpacked sand. Sharp angles and exhalations arise as the waves draw up, I draw my arms up too, arching my spine, deep into the back of my hips. As the wave crashes I arch forward, drawing my fists into my belly and rocking my pelvis. Bending my knees low, then lifting my legs one at a time, I start to gather energy, sweat on my skin, audible breath, strong heartbeat. At times my feet are still moving to the undertow and its curving pull, while the rest of me is arching and crashing. Chaos comes and goes quickly. As I start to release my head into it, a little current of Stillness flutters by and I honor it, pushing behind it with both hands in a plane. Then, I bound and twist, my head flailing, feeling the coming together of the heavy, spent undertow and the raw break of the wave. Before long, I extend my range, including the birds and horizon in my aperture. Feeling the broken waves on my skin, rising into extensions, letting my fingertips take over. Settling, hearing the hum under the breaking waves, a series of slow, tracked gestures arises, my hands are again moved by currents, my feet sinking into the sand as the waves lap around my ankles.
From there, I create a little pile of sand and dig a hole for my feet so I can perch comfortably, then sit in meditation. Absorbed, precise mindfulness shifts with my stream of awareness. After 20 minutes, I realize there is a slight vibration under me, and wonder what it could be. I remember my alarm, and realize I can’t hear over the crashing surf, but I can feel it from its place in my bag on the sand next to me. I had forgotten about the time.
Given the wave height and fast breaks, I decide to move back toward the more populated section of the beach before swimming. Because of the huge breaking waves, I have to time my entry carefully. Then, I am doing butterfly, flipping up into the fronts of waves not yet breaking, and briefly floating on my back. I check to see if I can touch the bottom and am knocked down by roiling undertow behind me. I gasp and wonder briefly if I am in a riptide, then it dissipates. I decide I should get back to the beach, and get knocked down two more times before I am on dry land thirty feet or more down the beach from where I put in. My hair is matted with sand, seaweed, and tiny blue-black mussels. My skin is a layer of salt, my eyes marine light, my spine a ululation.
“Winds drive ocean currents in the upper 100 meters of the ocean’s surface. However, ocean currents also flow thousands of meters below the surface. These deep-ocean currents are driven by differences in the water’s density, which is controlled by temperature and salinity.” –National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A white, chilly day, I head again to South Beach, hoping to find it quiet. I walk a short distance, then start moving with the waves – much smaller today, one to two feet at most – rising, falling, and turning as the waves wash up onto the shore, slow, and fall back away, receding and dissolving. I feel the changes of direction in the backwashing water deep in my belly, and sink lower, being lead from there. Staccato sparks but doesn’t ignite. Instead, Flowing keeps re-appearing, gentle. I could do this all day, I think. I start running back and forth in a little curved dip that is horizontal to the breaking waves, rushing up, turning, falling to the middle, then rushing up the other side, like I am at a skate park. Facing the waves head on, my arms raised like a cobra’s hood, sinking deep and flattening the plane of my arms definitively, I find momentum briefly, raising my knees, bounding, articulating small gestures in my pelvis, occasionally balling up my fists and drawing them in.
Using 5Rhythms creator Gabrielle’s Roth map of the 5Rhythms helps keep me engaged, even when I am practicing on my own. I could just come to the sea and dance, and sometimes I do, but giving myself new problems to investigate and holding myself in a given rhythm at least until it fully manifests (in some way) offers the possibility of greater insight.
Today, Staccato keeps wavering. I am edgeless, patient. I tell myself, face the sea, greet the waves as they roll in and gather force, the bottom of the wave slowing as it reaches the shallows, the top of the wave still racing, rising up, cresting. I sink deep again, and put my hand on my crotch over my black bathing suit bottom, rocking my pelvis forward and back with the muscles of my lower back and stomach, then find clipped, precise movements in the shoulders, elbows and legs. Finally, I accept that I have drawn Staccato out of myself, if briefly, and let myself move into Chaos. Chaos, like Staccato, is quieter than usual today. I have dug in and worked hard and know I can let Chaos act on me as it wants to. I release my head and bound around, shimmying my legs one at a time, shaking and spinning. I am happy to let go of the weight of Flowing, to rise up but still have the edgelessness, the unceasing movement, here becoming emphatic and expansive. Within just a few short minutes I let myself transition into Lyrical. I am covering ground, moving parallel to the sea, and away and toward, high up on my toes, arms outstretched, dancing a lilting waltz. I could do this all day, I think. Stillness finds me again moved by and creating currents, my hands in a unified plane, wind making my hair into a horizontal flag.
I am alone on the beach and I set up a throne for myself in the sand and sit for twenty patient minutes. Toward the end, I let go of formal practice, and instead eat a boiled egg and look at everything, the tiny ships sitting on the line of the horizon, the birds in their trolling arcs, the breaking waves, the lifeguards who have just arrived.
I consider not swimming today because it is so chilly, but I decide that going into the ocean every day is a practice, too, and I don’t know if I will have another opportunity today. The tide is starting to come in and the surf has picked up. I stand facing the waves for some moments, then finally take a few steps and dive, swimming butterfly straight into the horizon, then floating. The cold is sharp and exhilarating. Back on land, I am happy I pushed myself, happy for the influence of the sea on my body.
July 14, 2017, Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, MA