High Tides, Dreamscapes, and Transition Times—elegy for the (eventual) end of a pandemic
Last week a huge swell in the Pacific had my husband and teenage son rising at 4:30 a.m. to snake their way through our canyon to the beach in the dark, to surf the biggest waves they’ve surfed in the two years since we moved here.
It would last only a few days, and they didn’t want to miss a moment.
Through a year of hard lockdown, surfing was their salvation. Several mornings a week, even in the winter, they left for the ocean with the stars still out, to hit the waves before Zoom school. My son took his first class from the car most days.
I usually tag along to take a run and do some sunrise yoga on the beach.
I would have loved to be there last week, watching them navigate those thrilling waters, but I sat this one out because there was no beach to run on or watch from. The waves, they told me, crashed right up against the cliffs at high tide. In places, the road was washed away.
By 7:30 they were racing back over the hill to drop the boy, long wavy hair still dripping with salt water, at the school gate.
The kids—now a high school freshman and senior—entered a school building that same week for the first time in 17 months.
They’re masked, vaccinated, and tested weekly for Covid, but it feels nonetheless like we're in rough and uncharted water.
Back in June, just a few days after LA officially lifted lockdown restrictions and mask mandates, before the delta variant sent us into a tailspin of wondering whether this pandemic will ever truly be over, I taught a Summer Solstice yoga workshop.
As introduction, I wrote:
In yoga and traditions all over the world, people have always felt compelled to pause at the solstices—the major seasonal pivot points of the year. These are moments to honor the rhythms of nature and to find balance in transition. To recognize our relationship with the sun—our power source, the source of physical life of the planet, which also emotionally and spiritually gives us so much joy, energy, and uplift. It's about our ability to tap into our inner power and energy, our personal fire, to be light and to spread light.
What I find especially compelling about the Summer Solstice this year is that it coincides almost exactly with the official reopening of the country after a 15-month lockdown—a major transition, if ever there was one.
If ever there was a need to open up, uncover, step outside, wander, let the sun’s warmth bathe our faces, taste freedom, live in possibility, imagine wild…it’s now.
We’re tiptoeing into the world, shedding layers. With cautious optimism, letting the light in—and out—again. Remembering how to move, connect, reach out, how to shine after so much hiding.
But I’m surprised to discover that I have complicated emotions about it. I have excitement, joy, optimism. I have a certain trepidation, uncertainty, guardedness. And I have a kind of grief about the end of the bought-back time I’ve had with our family this year.
The kids are venturing out again, different on the other side of this, to be sure. I look at pictures from the beginning of lockdown and they’re hardly recognizable.
Did I treasure this time fully enough?
Did I use this year the way I should have?
Could I have gotten more accomplished?
Finished more projects?
Could I have written more, practiced more, spent more time in the canyon and ocean?
Could I have tuned in deeper?
Should I have let more things go?
Found more quiet?
Did I take moments to actually breathe in the stillness?
When I was pregnant with our daughter, I practiced Hypnobirthing.
In deep relaxation, we learned how to journey inside
and find our way to the hidden control room
where you can dial down sensation
tune your receptors
to choose how you’ll perceive
how you'll handle
the throes that deliver
There, in a worn old armchair in a room full of plants
I ran my fingers across the panel
let each one come to me as an ocean wave
let me float just on top of the pain
stay loose and limber
as each swell lifts and rolls me
ride it out in a state of presence and surrender
The gradual build of labor
makes it possible to give birth at all
If you were thrown right into
the searing pain
of the final centimeters of opening and letting go
just before birth
it would be impossible
Instead it escalates in increments
So you adapt little by little
as your body nudges you to that apex
the interminable moment
just before the moment
you release your baby into the world
At my desk, I keep a clipping from a magazine—I think it's an ad for jeans or something—and it says,
"The in-between moments are the ones that count."
I refer to it often because it reminds me—in life, yoga, and art—to pay attention when it seems like nothing is happening.
Even after a year at home, this summer has felt like a strange and extended in-between moment... no longer in lockdown, but not quite back to normal; masking and unmasking; seeing family and friends again, but growing wary we're going backwards and it could be another long time; excited that the teenagers are finally back in school but mourning the loss of the days, weeks, months we were all cloistered together at home. Raring to reclaim creative space that got squished out in the chaos of pandemic family and work life, but feeling far removed from those projects too...
Transitioning away from one thing, but not yet quite sure toward what.
I’ve heard yoga teachers say that more people get injured coming out of poses than going into them. On the way in, we explore, test the waters; we’re careful, intentional about looking for our edge. We take time to go deep; observe, pay attention.
But on the way out, we get in a hurry.
Whether we’re holding a pose that’s hard and muscular, or stretching and surrendering into deep release (which can be equally intense), we get close to the moment when it’s time to move on, and suddenly, we can’t do it soon enough. The mind starts saying out, out, out, and we rush to escape. We move without breath or awareness, thinking everything will be better when this damn posture is just over.
But if we don’t take our time in the transitions, approach them mindfully—it hurts.
Whether you’ve spent the last year muscling through—staying sane by staying strenuous and busy—or whether you adopted an attitude of deep repose, either way it's been a sort of stasis, suspension.
Finding the way now toward whatever is the new normal, whatever is next—getting back into flow in a healthy way—requires our attention. Our willingness to actually have the experience. To be here now in the awkward moment, for as long as it lasts.
In my classes recently, I’ve been focusing on transitions—the movement to and from what we typically think of as the postures: taking big breaths and staying mindful in the in-betweens, not knowing what’s coming next, feeling off balance; in those times that feel neither here nor there, like we haven't quite landed and maybe don't know exactly where we're going—cultivating awareness that those moments are their own important thing, and they count.
In a way it's a rather familiar state for artists because the creative life—the creative process—is full of such moments, perhaps even, mostly made of them. It leans heavily on willingness to be in the not-knowing, and the knowing how to not only be ok in the not-knowing, how to keep breathing through it, but also how to mine it for its importance: how to recognize the beauty and value of the liminal spaces and loose ends and wondering places.
I’ve always believed in the rule: don’t write directly about your dreams. Dreams are wonderful source material, a portal into the imagination. But an uncurated dream is nonsensical and boring to anyone outside one's own head. To write about a dream is to make it too literal. They need translation, transformation.
But that was Before—
before we spent a year and a half in a kind of dream,
a nightmare, a collective fugue state
before we realized we can’t agree on what’s real anyway
before we knew how many unreliable narrators there are
before we lived 15 months inside our houses
inside our heads
inside our beds, where we tend to do our dreaming.
And the lines blurred
My dreams have always been waterlogged and wave-y
there’s a whole Jungian interpretation of this, of course
but also the simple fact that
the most foundational, formative place
in my creative life
was my grandparents’ lake house
where I spent languid, liquid, sun-drenched childhood summers
chasing glistening minnows
shivering and burning
I remember the day
I was maybe 6
I lay spread out in the sand
drying myself in the sunshine
and I discovered I could drift
just to the edge of sleep
and hover awhile
aware of how good it felt
aware that I was aware
and dreaming at once
and that if I tuned in just right
I could stay there
between the worlds
in that blissful shimmer of a space
as real to me as
the wind and waves
and people playing and picnicking around me
The lake was a place
to woolgather, fossil hunt, shell collect
to drift, float, imagine
to incubate, gestate
lives to be lived
to be on my own
as my odd little self
to have what passed
—to a little Baptist girl--
for a couple of pretty hot dates.
It was a place made for daydreams
and heavy humid night idylls
it was a cloister
it was an oyster
full of pearls
The lake gave--
And sometimes the lake took away--
the old transistor radio
my aunt’s pearl ring
the bottom to my favorite little yellow rosebud bikini
very nearly my life one time when I wandered into unfamiliar waters
and very nearly my father’s when his sailboat capsized in a storm
every sandcastle eventually
and the entire front yard of the cottage in a violent storm tide
years before I was born
the lake and long-gone cottage
are the dreamscape I return to night after night
Recurring dream #1
On the beach in front of the cottage
I’m watching my own children play at the edge of the lake
When the water begins to rise behind them
Roll toward us like a freight train
I scream for the kids
who are little or sometimes big
and grab their hands
and drag them
and we stumble-run up the hill
toward the cottage
and fumble with the latch
tumble inside just in time
and it takes our collective weight
to shove the door closed
and hold out the tide
Recurring Dream #2
Returning to the lake after years away
I find the beach littered with treasure
beach glass glinting like jewels
shells in brilliant rainbow hues
and old lost things
(including a tube of toothpaste that’s always there,
who knows why?)
that churned up in the storm
came back in on the waves
things loved and forgotten
missed and searched for till at last surrendered
and yet it seems perfectly natural
that they’ve turned up here just now
In my 40s, I've graduated from lake to ocean. East coast to west. But the beach is still where I go to treasure-hunt, physically and imaginatively. To poke around in tide pools, beachcomb for shells and sea glass, and float off into fertile reveries.
At our home beach, I mostly find the humble mussel shell
inky indigo ovals with streaks of iridescence showing through in worn places
I look for the ones still attached at their back seams
like butterfly wings
One morning, months deep in lockdown
The beach was suddenly covered with them
I thought how they looked like
open prayer hands
which in yoga are called
meaning handful of flowers
A gesture that’s both offering and supplication
When we signal our willingness to give, we open ourselves to receive
To simply unclench is a gift to yourself and the world
One day, early this summer, I walked Topanga beach at dawn, after a very high tide.
Fully vaccinated and unmasked now, I still dodged the occasional stranger by a force of habit that felt almost instinctual, leaning into my inner introvert after months of being in, in, in.
It was cool, damp, and gray but very bright as the rising sun lit the mist.
The tide was way out and the air smelled like wet rock and fishy seaweed, like my memory of the lake. All along the high water line, way up on the beach, unusual shells stuck up out of the sand and pieces of sea glass glinted.
In thrilling ways and raw ones, everything seemed over-exposed.
I combed through a tangle of emotions: hope, relief, excitement, and an unwieldy melancholy, a clutching kind of realization that the end of pandemic lockdown, in some ways, would signal the end of family life as we’ve known it.
Before lockdown our teens, especially the older one, had already, for a long time, been creeping away from us slowly. They were on their way out, till the pandemic brought them back in. After all the tragedy the pandemic has caused, I’m ashamed to admit that as a mother, I cherished lockdown. I loved having my little birds back in the nest. But I know they’ve lost so much: a year of broken curfews and raising hell, the general teenaged jackassery that drives parents to the limits of their wits but is such an important part of growing up.
After a year of rewind, of being artificially infantilized, held awkwardly close, we’re flinging open the hatch and I envision them being pulled suddenly, inexorably into the uncharted waters of a post-lockdown life, beyond my grasp forever.
After a long stall in the natural, gradual labor pains, we find ourselves rather abruptly in transition. Making up for lost time, the leaving job they began bit by bit so long ago now feels like it’s happening in one fell swoop--
and the pain of delivery just might be more than I can bear.
That’s what I was thinking about, as I strolled and stooped and filled my sweatpant pockets with sea glass.
And then, one right after the other, I started to find the most remarkable things.
Truth being stranger than fiction, the tide had deposited objects so startlingly specific to our family life—its eras, accoutrements, and inside jokes—that it seemed like I was in a waking dream. My actual recurring dream, come to life. Every few steps another artifact winked at me from the gritty wet sand and knots of strewn seaweed.
The tide brought
a Nerf dart
a pastel plastic rabbit
a little boy’s sneaker (a green shoe no less)
a little girl’s sandal
A rust-colored cowboy missing an arm
a pink plastic tea cup with an embossed heart
it brought them back different
it brought them back changed
it brought them back, let's be honest
a bit rougher for the wear
it brought an empty vessel
just waiting to be filled
How do we endure
the moments at the threshold
the comings in and the goings out
their sweetness and pain
the miraculous little cups
that runneth over
with delight and despair
the way they wash over you
bit by bit then all in a rush?
There is no way to prepare
You can only pause
as it happens--
turn all internal dials to receive
tune the sweet ache of your attention
to the instant inside the instant
when the wave is neither
on the way in nor on the way out
but just at its zenith
poised to take something away
and leave something else behind--
As you stand there
at the almost imperceptible margin
blinking into the implausible brightness
of the diffuse gray morning,
you can only inhale and exhale
and open your hands
like mussel shells.
This post is dedicated to the memory of my beloved uncle, Sam Sheffer, who passed away last night, 8-28-21.
He was creative and outrageous, naughty and hilarious, totally irreverent yet devoted to the sacred, as philosophical as he was an absolute nutter, brilliant and mysterious.
He read everything I wrote.
I wish him peaceful waters, sweet dreams, and a beautiful transition.
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2021 -- All rights reserved.