The third weekend in September 2013, I was in Moledo, Portugal. I photographed a wedding the night before, and was invited to imbibe with the bride and groom and their friends after I’d finished my duties.
The next morning, it was hot, and a whole bunch of us — 15 or 20 — were laying on the beach sunbathing. I couldn’t lay still, so I took my iPhone, put my latest playlist on through the headset, and walked to Spain. Mostly because I could. There was a river a brisk 30-40 minute walk up the beach, and the river served as the Spanish-Portuguese border, and I wanted to be able to say that I once walked to Spain. So I did.
It was a very hot day for September, and I was a bit hungover. The exercise and the heat felt both a delight and a minor punishment, but a punishment willingly endured as payment for the fun of the night before. By the time I got back from Spain, I was sweating profusely. I could feel the heat rising up from my chest and into my head, and the sun was beating down on my head at the same time, trapping all that hot energy inside. I thought I might fly apart, which would be exciting, or faint, which would be embarrassing, so I tossed my iPhone down on my towel without a word and walked towards the ocean.
I had been in the Atlantic Ocean many times before, but not on this side. All my life, one walked east to get into the Atlantic Ocean, and west for the Pacific. But here I was, walking west into the Atlantic, my face melting off, my heart and lungs swelling with heat and energy and a sense of wanting to take something to the next level. West into the Atlantic — something new.
I didn’t slow my pace at the shoreline, I just kept marching in, and the water was bitter cold, and my body twitched in resentment. But I kept marching until a wave crashed into my chest, and then I ducked under the water for a moment, my entire body convulsing in horror at the grotesque change in temperature. It was like my cells couldn’t even compute that kind of change from hot to cold.
I was shivering uncontrollably, but forced myself to stay there, to shake out whatever energy had arisen. Suddenly, I had willed myself to stay in long enough to really know that getting out again was a relief, which meant long enough to endure my body’s complete and utter panic. It clenched and contorted against the cold waves that battered it, and yet my mind was still for a moment, focused on releasing what had been pent up from the heat.
When I emerged from the water, I felt radiant, fully alive, beautiful. Courage and exhilaration had sculpted these things from the clay that was me.
My friend saw me, clearly doused, as I laid down on my towel to rest in the sun once more. “Well done, you,” she said. And I felt proud, like I had been to the brink of something and not shied away, but let myself dive fully in.
I have friends in various places who have a tradition of taking a very cold dip in the ocean on New Year’s Day. In the northern part of this hemisphere this time of year, they don’t have the benefit of walking to Spain under the hot sun to work up their body heat first. Their courage seems to come in a quick flash between the idea and its practicalities — they simply decide to do it before questions can arise, and in that decisiveness, there is an opening. Like a huge window all they have to do is step through.
If you ask them, they say it wasn’t hard. Their courage astonishes us, and yet their real accomplishment was in simply opening to what they were capable of and moving through it, before it slammed shut with questions and doubts. There is an art to catching that moment, but if you catch it, the window swings open for you, time slows down, effort becomes as simple as taking the next logical step.
I’m not going into the ocean today. In fact, I’m laying in bed in New York City, recovering from the flu. It might not be this calendar day, it might be any old Sunday or Wednesday or Tuesday in the middle of the year. But I hope that the next time your energy rises just so, and you find yourself at the brink, you will see the window open and dive in, before any questions or doubts can stop you. I hope you will walk back to where your friends are gathered, knowing the feeling of radiance that comes from courage.
Happy New Year.