The closest thing to a higher power of which I can conceive is the Pacific Ocean. If you’ve been following along, you know I’m a staunch atheist, but I don’t want you to think that means I’m cold and dead inside. I am moved by forces I understand to be greater than myself, I just don’t believe in god. When I’m at the ocean, however, I experience sensations I’ve heard the devout and the spiritual describe. My favorite place to experience the Pacific is at the Washington Coast, though the Hawaiian Islands are a close second. I sit for hours in contemplation, watching the waves break and crash, knowing it’s a phenomenon that’s been occurring for billions of years. The Pacific is constant and massive at almost 65 million square miles. It’s temperamental, ever-changing, never still. It never stops. It could take the likes of me and churn me into bits. I respect its awesome power and worship its extraordinary beauty. In some ways, the time I spend at the beach is like church, or at least fulfills the purpose for which I understand the religious attend. I feel overwhelmed at the shore, yet safe in the knowledge the tides have been going in and out longer than I can imagine, unstoppable.
I was on Kauai in December, where I headed to my favorite beach on the island at Polihale State Park. By Hawaii standards it’s a long stretch of beach–thirteen miles–and generally all but deserted the times I’ve visited. It was midday and we’d broken through the misty gloom of the eastern shore to the dazzlingly bright sunlight of the west. The wind was up, and the waves were massive, slamming themselves on the beach with a crack. Some were breaking farther out with a roar, joining those rushing in and creating towering tunnels of water. Stretches of the beach had eroded, leaving long, high shelves of sand where tall surf had run in and snatched whole sections of land. I sat atop a ledge and settled in to watch the show. Swimming was out of the question, the ocean a fearsome, dangerous place that day. The waves were so high they disrupted the appearance of the horizon, causing the usually crisp, perfectly straight line of blue on blue to wobble and erupt as each cylinder of water advanced toward me. It was a trip. I longed to feel the water surround me, to be lifted and churned, but I wanted to live. I wondered if this was how some experienced god–a force so terrible at times, so gentle at others. I felt apart from the Pacific, certain death at entering creating distance between us. The water smashed on, sending up great columns of spray, revealing a glassy green underside where the vortex spun the waves forward in perpetuity.
The time before, I had sat on the gritty gold sand of Polihale to watch the sun set on the unbroken horizon. The ocean was calm and rhythmic that evening, the waves arriving in what seemed like perfectly symmetrical, evenly-spaced rolls. Each wave had its own distinct audible crash, advancing up the shore in bubbly pearl-colored foam before retreating to reveal sand reflecting the sunset like glass. Every moment the Pacific replicated this magnificent show, as the sun drew nearer and burnished each small wave crest with its honeyed light. It was marvelous, and I found myself running into the surf again and again, so moved and lifted in spirit that I wanted to physically take part in the tableau. I danced in the bubbles, giddy and exhilarated, diving under the surface, letting the Pacific pull me out with it, immersing myself fully in its glory. Was this church?
Washington’s Pacific coast is a wonder in and of itself. While I would never race into the water and allow it to carry me (the average water temperature somewhere around 50 degrees), I have spent many hours walking along its grey, sandy beaches in all seasons, in all kinds of weather. One August, a salted mist was rising off the ocean in clouds, unfurling over the beach in smoky curls. The water was an iron grey, the waves breaking far away without rhythm, a soft roar. My new husband and I walked along the beach in jackets, tasting the salt as the mist stung our eyes. We hardly noticed the mist was creating a dense swirl of fog around us as we walked. Soon we couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of us, the ocean obscured but for its sound, the Evergreen-rich cliffs above the beach obscured. How incredible to be lost in fog on a beach in August! How romantic! How the hell would we find our way back?
We did find our way back, but for moments at a time it had been scary. We had wandered a few miles from the staircase up the cliff to where we were staying, and twilight would be setting in shortly. The entrance to the staircase wasn’t exactly well-marked. You had to kind of intuitively sense it based on the flora around it–not possible in thick fog. That the Pacific could cause such disorientation and obscurity outside of its physical form was an uncomfortable notion, and another testament to its awesome power. The Pacific giveth the extraordinary views, and it taketh them away. Was there a message there? When we stumbled upon the snippet of beach that gave to the staircase we were relieved…and determined to get right back down to the water the next morning.
One New Years Day I walked out onto the Washington Coast and the tide was far, far out, the sand pelted flat by the previous night’s freezing rain. The low winter sun skated across the giant mirror the tide had left behind, illuminating the beach in stark gold and white light. The beach was littered with great clumps of thick foam the color of a root beer float as far as the eye could see (when they eyes weren’t being pierced by the sun’s reflection). Quivering in the wind, some masses lifted and blobbed their way across the sand. I wanted to be at the edge of the water and I walked directly toward the horizon, amazed at how distant the Pacific seemed, the magnificent void of a minus tide. An ocean so monstrously capable of country-devastating tsunami reduced down to what looked like a puddle. It was impossible to get close, the sand becoming sucking tarpits the closer I drew. I watched the distant breaks and felt I was on a different planet, the intense light and blocks of foam transforming the beach into an alien landscape.
Any time I’ve required momentary calm and comfort, I’ve imagined myself at the Washington coast, standing on the cliffs above the beach, looking out across the steadfast Pacific, its tides rising and falling, requiring no human intervention, a force mysterious and perpetual. Or I’ve mentally sat on the moonlit shores of Kauai, the sky fading purple above me, waves rolling and crashing, endlessly shepherded by the waxing and waning pearl above. Feelings of inferiority and a sense of the fleeting, finite nature of life wash over me, centering me, lifting me, carrying me forward, an uninterrupted mantra, do it now, do it now, do it now.