When you’re copping off heads, it helps to have a serrated knife. I didn’t, so I more or less mashed my fillet knife through fish bones on the top of a flipped-over bucket I had gotten from Lowes. The weather was
cool for late July. The Atlantic was unwinding a low tide. The only thing to see up or down the beach were mirages.
I had caught a couple of mullets and blues in the surf, but they didn’t satisfy my itch. I wanted a big fish, something larger, much larger. I wanted something I could fight. Something I could battle. A conquest. So, I started chopping off fish heads.
I had finally done it. For years, at least as long as I’ve had Beans (my 4-wheel-drive truck), I’ve wanted to camp
on the South Core Banks. I had finally arrived, scooting down the single, sand path, surrounded by sea oats, egrets, ibises, roped-off turtle nest, and shells. South Core is a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. South west of Ocracoke, due east of Morehead City, due north of Nassau (by about 670 miles) and due west of (hell, I don’t know, Morocco?), South Core Banks is nothing more than a 21 mile-long strip of sand. There are some cabins where the ferry drops you off, a little office for the park ranger who sells ice, and there is a beacon at the bottom of the island, the famed Cape Lookout Lighthouse. But that’s it. Nothing else except what you bring with you. You are alone.
I had packed water, lots and lots of water, some snacks like beef jerky and trail mix, a few changes of clothes, and about 4 books. Then there’s the fishing rods, four total, the fishing cart, tackle, a couple of rod holders, a beach umbrella, and a low-sitting chair. I didn’t bother with a tent; the weather was supposed to be nice. I’d just sleep on the ground or in the bed of my truck.
I had found my perfect little patch of nothing at mile marker 36, just a wee bit further south-west than a protected, but unidentified, shipwreck. And much to my delight, my expectations had been fully met when I saw no one. No one. For miles in either direction, with the water a perfect eighty-degree, Bahama-turquoise blue, the whole place was mine. After unloading Beans and setting up my fishing base camp, I had started chopping off heads.
I casted out the blue’s head first. It took 30 seconds for the rod to double over and go out screaming. Then it took 30 minutes to fight the shark only to have the shark break the line. So, I lassoed up another metal leader, some other fancy fishing equipment that should far exceed any shark’s bit and endurance, punched a circle hook through a mullet’s head, and flung it away. Maybe it took a minute or five minutes, but before I could finish my morning dose of caffeine, my rod doubled over again. I let the fish swim out, reeled it back in, then back again. On and on it went for another 30 minutes. But this time, right when I was knee deep in the surf and starting to figure out the best way to land the shark, a dorsal fin popped out of the water arm’s length in front of me. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t understand how my shark was so close to the beach, I mean, right in front of me. But the fishing line was still a ways out. Then the obvious dawned on me: there are two sharks. Maybe more. I got out of the water as much as I could, and the back and forth continued. Then, just like a snap of the fingers, it was over. My metal fishing leader broke again. The monster swam away.
The sharks continued to best me for most of the afternoon. And each time, a prayer of profanities was lifted up for God to evaluate. Truthfully, I was happy for the sharks and maybe a bit relieved I didn’t have to drag a big ol’ shark through a bed of broke shells, unhook it, and then drag the pissed off shark back into the ocean. But whether I wanted to catch jaws or secretly delight in an equipment malfunction, I kept cutting off fish heads.
As the morning transitioned to afternoon, and as I put on a third layer of sunscreen, the sharks and I mutually agreed on a temporary abeyance. I sat in my comfy chair, drinking a gallon’s worth of sparkling water, snacking on beef jerky. I thought about all the stars I had seen in the night sky just a dozen hours earlier. I had seen Jupiter outshine every star and understood why the biblical writers would celebrate these mysterious lights. The spiral, cloudy arms of our galaxy. Star clusters. Steady Polaris. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them… The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea…the Lord is his name. How can you not grasp something of the transcendent in these tiny dotted revelations? “All that is beautiful,” Socrates teaches, “is difficult.”
And I had noticed something I hadn’t noticed in a long time. I was breathing. Long deep breaths. Unlabored. In and out. In and out.
Then it was back on. I was ripped away from my daydreams and took after my fishing pole. A shark, a big one, pulled away with bait in his mouth like a scalded womp rat. This shark was different. He was faster. More determined. Went out to the deep rather than up and down the shore. And what’s more, he didn’t tire out like all the others. He just kept going.
I was running out of fishing line when I saw the shark. He wasn’t big; he was huge. Over three hundred yards away, swimming in a clear blue swell, a beastly silhouette glided. It's possible, I thought, this is the biggest shark I've ever...And, KLAM, I was struck by a stinging sensation. The sensation didn’t so much as hurt as much as it revealed itself. The shark coasted through the wave after wave, and I knew I was alive. I knew I was buoyant. I could breathe. And it wasn’t some adrenalized, fleeting sensation. I understood it brought me here. It was the something that told me I could live on this island by myself for several days. I was sufficient. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, and making my steps secure. I wasn’t crippled by depression or addiction or PTSD. I was living my life. The culmination of months of improvement pierced my attention like an electric shock. For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation…
It was sort of like this: Imagine a man who is obese. He gets on the scale and the needle moves way too much; In fact, it moves so much that his life is in real peril. So he decides to do something about it. He goes on a diet. Day after day he sticks with his diet of carrot and celery sticks. He comes to know hunger so intimately they become friends. But the whole time he is on a diet, he forgets to weigh himself. He doesn’t look in the mirror. He forgets to monitor his progress completely because he is singularly focused on the diet. Then months or years later, he catches a glimpse of a stranger in the mirror. And he realizes he has been holding up his pants for months. His shirt is sizes too big. And he gets on the scale to realize he’s lost two hundred pounds. He is shocked to realize that he’s been saved from obesity for some time.
Now clearly that analogy doesn’t exactly work, but that’s what I felt all at once. I remembered how bad it had gotten. Days of staying in the house. The constant doctors’ appointments. Endless adjustments to medication. The nightmares and panic attacks. The undying talk therapy. And, my god, Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It wasn’t in anyway miraculous; it wasn’t like I was fighting a shark and, boom, I was cured. Snap, snap, all rainbows and koala bears. No, what happened on the beach was a simple movement of consciousness. I realized I was better. I could bear looking in the mirror. I felt a gratitude for existence. Life was not only meant to be enjoyed; life could be enjoyed.
Long-time readers of my blog have surely noted by now that some of my favorite passages in the bible are the cries of dereliction. And maybe it is true, maybe I am a grumpy, half-filled glass kind of guy. Regardless, I think my pessimistic spirituality reflects a closer reading of the biblical story, my real story, than all those gooey, saccharine bible studies or “inspirational” messages. I mean, really, if you’re looking to be inspired every single day by something that is not already inside of you, you’re broken and that’s okay. Why not stop reading those memes and puffy cloud bible verses that you can’t relate to? Don’t use the bible as a tool to reflect where you want to be or a shield from where you are. That’s just as good as reading a fortune cookie. Let the bible tell your story, where you are today. Finding comfort in the stories that mediates the distance between the biblical narrative and your narrative is a faithful reading; and the bible is more than generous to reflect the stories of people struggling, people at the edge, people ready to walk away. And I've got to think that if God’s word is so full of those stories, your story has been reverenced. Your cry of dereliction is a cry that God knows, a cry God redeems.
What good is the resurrection if you ignore the bloody cross? And the cross, that’s not something Christ does for you or does in your place. There’s no substitution going on here. Your pain and suffering are real. You haven’t lost your faith because you’re anguishing from day-to-day. Anguish, the bible tells us, is the manifestation of faith. Anguish is prayer’s native language. That stupid poem about footprints in the sand forgets the biblical narrative. God didn’t carry you through the toughest parts. God didn’t unleash a host of angels to carry Christ away from horror. He endured it. You endure it. You did (do) it. And while God walks with you as a silent partner, what good is that? Before you know salvation, you know dereliction. The cross is Christ with you, not God instead of you. So scream it out loud if you need to. My God, my God… Scream it with Jesus. You have done the hard part; you are doing the hard part. God does the saving.
I still want to honor the very real suffering, the real absence of God so many people feel. I hope I have done that. How easy it is for people on the sunny side, the perpetually happy, healthy, the lucky, the rejoicing, the lemons to lemonades, the so sugared they radiate toothaches to simply not see the suffering in front of them. How easy it is to ignore things at our boarders, to dismiss racist remarks, or feel, as one pastor told me this week, gun laws shouldn’t change; he could make this remark with true sincerity because, I'm left to guess, suffering, true diseased, trama-filled suffering has alluded him. And praise God for naiveté. Ignorance truly is bliss. Celebrate your happiness. You are blessed and count your blessings. But know the suffering. Know the derelict.
For me, right now, my meds are working; I’m happy to be alive. I’ve even taken up exercise. This isn’t a stable place, though. I’ve been on this side of the cross before. My meds will give out or some horror will inevitably dawn one of my days. It happens. Biochemistry is real. But right now, I’m Mary Magdalene, who came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.
Where are you in the biblical narrative? It is all fine and good to know that there is a happy ending, but don’t rush through the suffering to get there--it's not like it's a choice anyway. Don’t be ashamed of God’s absence. Live into that part of God’s story.
Oh, and that shark, the big one I was telling you about, he broke away too. Right now the monsters are fleeing.
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