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The Lesson in the Waves

The granules of sand enveloped my foot as soon as I placed my weight on it. My entire body was engaged in the simple effort of pulling my leg out of the sands’ claim just to step again. I mindlessly shifted my gaze to the trail of footprints next to my sinking toes. As I followed them, I had to raise my head from my reveries to locate their owner. I was surprised to see that my 3-year old daughter had become a blurry figure along the beach, like the other strangers that speckled the shore.

“When did she get so old?” I thought, a swelling sense of pride and fear pushing against each other. I focused on the pride. Emery’s bravery had grown this summer. Each trip to the beach she scaled the rocks with less help or walked deeper into the water. Today she seemed to fly across the sand. I continued the slow march behind my daughter, cheering her on. Her sister wriggled to be released from the carrier on my chest, ready to attempt her own bravery. As I took in our surroundings, the fear knocked again.

It was one of the last days of summer and the lake was revolting. The bag of beach toys on my arm whipped against the wind. I had packed light jackets, but I hadn’t calculated for the chilling breeze or the withholding sun. The lake, usually a sleek pane of blue, was a gray, chomping monster. Emery had arrived at the shore and was delighted at the ferocity of the waves. Images filled my mind of her little body being swept away and I stifled the rising urge to call her back. I became aware again of how slowly I moved through the sand, now with a hum of panic. Emery simply laughed as she hopped on a wave.

After the girls had greeted Lake Michigan’s cold bath, they settled into playing with sand and shells. My high-alert could settle as well, so I turned towards people-watching another mother on the beach who had arrived shortly after us.

She was accompanied by three girls, perhaps seven to ten years old. The ages of the children allowed a different kind of beach bravery than our experience. Before the mother had even finished laying down the towels, the girls had stripped down to their swimsuits and dove for the waves. Mom barely looked up as the girls paddled farther into the lake. One of the youngest girls was wearing floaties on her arms—she seemed to see them less as a life-saving device and more as a superpower. She waited for the biggest wave to crest and then pounced on its peak, using the wave’s power as a free ride. The mother was watching now, smiling and shaking her head at the child’s new trick. I was watching too, half in awe, half concerned. Every time the girl jumped into a wave, it pulled her farther from the shore. The mother yelled to the child to come back closer and returned to smiling, but I noticed she never went back to unpacking the bags. She was standing now, her eyes on the children. She yelled again for the youngest to come back. The older girls attempted to translate. But the child couldn’t hear them above the roar and responded with another jump into a wave.

The pride-fear war was back again. I wanted to keep my eyes on the child, as if by sheer will, my gaze would keep her safe. But I couldn’t stop peeking back at the mother. She was still smiling and shaking her head at the youngest, even while she peeled off her clothes to go intervene. I was transfixed by her calmness and the way she folded her clothes neatly before walking towards the water. Pride won out again, this time for myself. Moments where my daughters look back at me and see calm reflected over panic, their self-efficacy grows. They became more open to exploration each time I model trying something even when I don’t know how it will end. Like coming to the beach on a blustery day.

The other mother was waist-deep in water now, three heads bobbing around her. She was a lighthouse, withstanding each crash of a wave. I relaxed. The secret our kids don’t know is that encouraging their bravery is an act of ours. It is a choice to lean away from that creeping dread of loss and fear. The wave-jumping-child was completely unaware of the rising alarm on the shore, of the way I’d been mentally rehearsing my life-guard training of years ago, or how another pedestrian on the beach had stopped his walk until the mother reached the child. Our kids don’t yet know the weight of what-if’s or the catastrophizing daydreams that you have to learn to keep at bay. They look over their shoulder to their lighthouse parents; when I look back, I only see an empty beach. Maybe that’s why they can ride on waves and fly across sand.

I fixed my gaze on the waves that I feared seeing my children’s faces in, but found myself reflected back instead. The gray water began to swell, as if it had decided this was its moment. It widened, rising in power until it reached a peak, an arm raised in triumph. A foam emerged and reached out, folding the wave over into a bow. It received a crash of foamy applause for the performance and vanished. I scanned the horizon in front of me to see this scene repeated over and over and the lake said to me, this is you. Not one moment of pride. Or one moment of fear. But the rise and fall of both over and over again. Nature was reminding me this is life's rhythm: cycles of power and loss. And that just like nature, my humanity beckons me to accept this. We are asked to stretch ourselves, as wide as the horizon, to hold all of life’s waves. And we are able to because we have within us a deep strength, as still as the waters beneath the surface. As light as children who can run across sand.

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