At the beach this morning, I watched a surfer wipe out painfully. Standing on his board, he tumbled headfirst in an awkward somersault over the front of his board. From my spot on the sand, I thought it was really ugly, exactly something I wouldn’t enjoy. Like flipping over the handlebars on a mountain bike.
When I got home, I did yoga and then my spirit traveled to the River Niger, where it often goes for relief and sustenance.
The river spirits are different from the ocean spirits, calming and purifying rather than exhilarating and enlivening. Near the shore, a man sits on the ground under a saggy canvas lean-to. He is a skinny black man with very dark skin. He looks like an ebony statue coated with dust. His tent is cool and I am always damp from swimming when I visit him. He shows me a fish flailing out of water. It suffocates in the air, out of its comfort zone and desperate to return to the familiar.
This morning, the cell phone got shut off. Other expenses press down as well. There are choices to be made: between kids’ shoes and auto repairs, and honesty and pretending that, financially, everything is a-ok. I have been here, in a multitude of ways, many times before. Cliche alert: Financial desperation fits me like an old shoe.
On the road to her dreams, every heroine encounters a sign that announces in large letters: “Make U-Turn Here.”
Below those words, in lines of smaller print, it continues: “You are not one of the people who is allowed to be happy. You are one of the people who must scrape and suffer and watch others have fun.” As if it were an eye chart, the words diminish in size: “You are in danger. If you continue on this path, you will lose everything you cherish: security, stability, your home, your family. You will lose the love of everyone you care about. Do not continue. If you are wise, you will make this U-Turn and let everything return to the way it was.” Today that sign would emphasize: “Get an office job. Cell phone bills are very important.”
In the past I have stopped to read this sign, and I have heeded its warnings. I have been courageous, but only up to a point. Honestly, who wants to lose everything she cherishes? Cell phone bills are important. Today, however, there is more than a sign on a desolate road. There is a man, and a fish, and the river and the beach.
When we promise to do something for others, when we promise to do something for the sake of something greater then ourselves (like humanity, like the ocean, like the planet), the hardest part is making the promise in the first place – and then keeping it. The hardest part is not coming up with the money to make ends meet, the hardest part is having faith.
I am the fish out of water. But it's not really me. It's the me I was before today. I am not alone and I can ask for help every step of the way. I don’t have to figure this out all on my own.