If I were ever to see the ocean again, I fear the sheer size of it would kill me. In my comatose life I go to the shore in my imagination, but even in this faded version of things I have to look down, to focus on my feet, letting them sink and squelch into cake-mix sand. To look up would be to let my heart break open far too wide at the expanse of it all.
I imagine myself by the sea sometimes. I close my eyes when I hear gulls overhead, screeching their sailor songs and causing the smell of brine to flood into my nostrils. I remember the way the sunlight reflects like a million tiny diamond facets on the surface of the water and the sound of the cascade of foam onto the pebbles—how it draws back, unnerved, like ice cream over sensitive teeth.
But that is in my head. It’s been two years since I went further than the front gate, and even before that, there were only simple and sporadic adventures.
The Magnitude of Something I Might Lose Myself In
Trips to the sea have been decades apart in the living out of this chronic illness. Mostly I crash under the duvet, bedbound by waves of pain and exhaustion. When good things converge, so that I can sit up and have the light stream over my shoulder, I paint the ocean. I dream in hues of aqua and in green so dark it is almost black. Blues that sound other-worldly: cerulean, azure, phthalo, and cyan. Again, I hear the waves, and smell the salt, feel the swirling. But if I let myself indulge my daydream completely, I know the imaginary current will drag me under.
Best to know one’s limits and eat the crumbs from beneath the table, lest one might choke on the bread. At least, this is what I tell myself, knowing full well that such minimizing is what keeps me alive. Aware of how I feel watching a minute video of the sea—a tiny horizon in the centre of my screen, the beauty of which I can barely cope with—I have to ask myself how I would manage if it were a panoramic view surrounding me on all sides, showing me the reality of my smallness.
Yet it is not my minuteness that I am afraid of, nor the magnitude of something I might lose myself in, for I spend time with God daily and this very awareness comes often. Confined as I am, it is the huge reality, the heart-wrenching awe that I’m sure would do me in.
If they do not deceive me, my memories tell me that even back when I really stood before the ocean, I used to close my eyes in wonder and concentrate on the smell of the sea and the feel of the wind. The too-muchness is something I could never contain my reaction to. Perhaps I should have cried and shouted, fallen to my knees, as I wanted to. But these things are generally frowned upon. One must treasure things inwardly—especially in Britain—and soberly eat ice cream. Unabashed glee is only for the children.
The grasping of small wonders
When your world becomes four walls, the few steps to the birdfeeder are a spacewalk. The fresh air destroys the illusion of vacuum, and you can breathe deeply for as long as your weak lungs can take the effort of it. Wonder is the same. This is why roses bloom slowly, knowing we would be overpowered if they went from bud to full-on crinoline glory in a matter of seconds, shedding their scent like crimson thuribles. Our slight attention spans protect us too. If we could behold even the beauty a small leaf contains, if we could really see its tributaries, and take in the way the light reflects off each cordoned cell to create a myriad of greens, we would be caught up in a lifetime of contemplative awe.
When I muster the strength to return home, I traipse some of the outside glitter back in like a snail, dried blossom and goose grass sticking to my flip flops. I climb the mountain of my mattress and fold into an origami version of myself, clutching the air and the moments of awe to myself, that I might savor them in stressful dozing.
No doubt many of us have come to understand a little of this kind of life during lockdown. The grasping of small wonders that teach us of the infinite. The knowing that companioning the smallest created thing connects us with the creator. Corrie ten Boom, when imprisoned by the Nazis, was befriended in her jail cell by a tiny ant. Maybe like her, we only need that one small piece of the jigsaw to be reminded of how to extrapolate to the whole. And so we see the loaf in the crumbs we gather, and to us, the ones who see, they are not less than, but more than we can manage to take in, with basketfuls left over.
Such bite-sized morsels of hope and wonder will perhaps prepare us more for heaven than we realise. Like the new arrival in C.S. Lewis’s imagining of heaven and hell, The Great Divorce, we see the true majesty of every blade of grass so completely that its reality dumbfounds us, and it will take a great deal of acclimatizing before we can lift one foot to tread further. I imagine that even then, as it is now, I will spend the longest time looking at my feet before I dare to lift my gaze.
Cover image is art also created by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt.