Monday, November 01, 2010

Leslie Hargis: ENG 102 Personal Essay

Leslie Hargis
September 20, 2010
Portfolio 1 – Personal Essay

The ocean, so incredibly intricate and delicate and so easily taken for granted. It is miraculously woven together in a complexity that can only be compared to the universe with its infinite mysteries. Like a weathered grandmother gently smiles with the wisdom and the absolute knowing that all is in its own perfect order, the ocean, too, smiles as if holding a precious secret in the cavernous depths closest to her heart. She breathes the steady breath of life as her breast gently rises and falls with every carefully coordinated respiration. Her tantalizing truths tear at the very center of my subconscious as I search for self-identity and a higher state of awareness. I recall my encounters with this seductive landscape both as a child ripe with innocence and as an adult who has come full circle with her demons.

From these memories I draw strength, appreciation, respect and inspiration; and form an ideology that drives my life. The sublime attraction of the ocean holds an aura of divinity for me, and it is from this that I begin to grasp a deeper sense of myself. It is more than poetic irony how the ocean can be one of the earth’s most unrelentingly destructive forces and a source of tranquility at the same time. This may seem like a paradox, but to me it is simply the best explanation and most vivid demonstration of the human condition. It is the essence of me. My pursuit of self-awareness begins where the surf meets the sand.

The first time I encountered the ocean was not on a family vacation but when I was three years old and my mom attended a weekend conference. I was more or less along for the ride. Not expecting to visit the beach, she did not pack a swimsuit, an umbrella, toys, or any other traditional beach gear. We pulled over at a public beach, and apparently before my mom could catch me, I ran headfirst into the surf. Much like my attitude later in life, I threw caution to the wind and dove right in. I had no prior conception of what waves were, what the salt water tasted like, how hot the sand would be and without a shred of apprehension I was immersed in the wonder that is the ocean. My mom laughs, now, at the size of the tantrum I threw when she plucked me from my spot in the water at nightfall. My first encounter with the enchanting call of the ocean was driven by a force much larger than myself or my free will. It was governed, much like the ebb and flow of the waves, by an unseen energy.

It was not until I was 9 or 10 that I had the chance to consciously and collectively experience the ocean again; at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In these memories I find a metamorphic basis for my outlook on life. Our caravan arrived at the rental house in late afternoon; all three cars were pack to the brim with my extended family. The house was on stilts, the interior walls were painted every gaudy color of the rainbow and the furniture was boldly outdated. The house was on a dead end street which gave way to a battered boardwalk that crossed the protective sand dunes. Scattered throughout the dunes were tufts of wild sea oats. This wild foliage pierced the defensive sand dunes much like my own free-spirit would stand alone on top of the carefully constructed shelter my parents encapsulated me with. The thick ocean breeze would dance with the sea oats leading them in a fantastic waltz that rivals Fred and Ginger’s impeccable chemistry and timing. Like Alice traveling through the looking glass, the other side of the dunes and oats lay the most magical place I have ever encountered. The sand was grainy and sharp with bits and pieces of broken shells blanketing the floor yet seemed to hold an inviting ambiance. At the water’s edge, a never ending symphony of sounds filled my ears and lifted my soul. The waves, in all their glory, kept time like a metronome on top of a grand piano. It was as if the waves were subliminally setting the pace to my breaths; a calm rhythmic march. I can remember running into the waves with such conviction and determination that it did not matter how blazing hot the sand was or how frigid the Atlantic ocean was. Out in the peripheral distance a bridge punctured the coast line giving me a sense of seclusion. Even further, a lighthouse towered into the sky holding its post like a noble and vigilant watchman. Overhead, the seagulls cawed and circled. The remainder of the day my Aunt and I scoured the beach for unique shells. I can clearly remember racing my cousins over the boardwalk into my personal Narnia. At that moment, when I had the pleasure of meeting the Matriarch of Nature in person, I was absolutely spell bound.

What I thought was childhood excitement I now believe was the pure electrical energy the ocean generated and its waves pulsating through my veins. A thunderstorm blew up the second night we were there, and the screened in porch was the perfect place to marvel in the elements. Thunderstorms also hold a special place in my psyche, for they evoke a sense of excitement and danger. The next day, after the storm, the beach was littered with washed up jellyfish. The waves were bigger and unruly, and they thrashed wildly as the remnants of the storm dissipated. So overpowering in fact that one particular monster managed to knock me off balance, and I struggled to counter the constant turning of the crest. At that time, I still felt no panic, no imminent threat to my safety as the waves rolled me like a crocodile rolls its prey into submission. The storm on the water, much like the storm that was brewing inside of me, left debris as evidence of its fury. There was still something soothing about the ocean, despite its volatile moods. It was free and raw, it held an unadulterated vibrancy. After spending all day in the water, when lying in bed, I could still feel the push and pull of the ocean. The pulse, the heartbeat of the ocean was still counting time against my body. This brief but monumental encounter with the ocean may have been the beginning of the end of my childhood, of my innocence.

Over the next few years, the waves of adolescence crashed into my bubble and I was carried off with the rip tides of teenage awkwardness. I was suddenly swimming with sharks, without a cage and with only a limited supply of oxygen. I regarded the stilts that held up my life and the sand dunes that took the heaviest blows not as protective guardians anymore, but as restraints and confines. To rebel, to go against the current, I answered the bewitching call of the sirens and plotted a course of destruction and addiction. I was no longer building sand castles or collecting sea shells. I dove head first into life, and like the Atlantic Ocean, it was cold and unforgiving. No matter how hard I tried, I could not stand on my own two feet in the crest of my waves. I was Dorothy asleep in the poppy fields. For the next 11 years of my life I was indulging myself with the most irreverent display of disrespect. It was as if I were a surfer trying to harness the sheer power of the wave instead of allowing the wave to carry me. It did not take long for my levies to break and I was drowning in a flood of addiction. Like a natural disaster, the tides of my behaviors left a path of destruction that affected a countless number of other people besides me. My storms had washed up jellyfish, deserting them in the exposed sun leaving them to rot. Finally, one day in August of 2006, a beam of light caught my attention. It was as if a light house’s beacon had pierced the fog and was beckoning me back home.

As I lay in my third and final hospital room, the haze of the last overdose was beginning to lift and one image stood out brighter than anything else. This image was so real, so lucid that I was suspicious of its origin. I was standing on the water’s edge, staring off into the vastness into the distance. If I stood there for too long, I knew the waves would take the sand from under my feet piece by piece. I would sink a little further with every lap of the tide, solidifying my existence on the shoreline; making it impossible to ever to play in the waves again. Then, instantly, I say myself running across the rickety splintered boardwalk, crossing into my sanctuary and taking a breath of relief and surrender. Suddenly it all became so clear to me. I knew that I had to harness my inner ocean, my inner drive to find my inner peace. Gradually, I found my rhythm again. As a reward, fate found a way to bring me back to myself, to my element, to the ocean.
This past summer, after 17 years of being away, I once again stepped into the looking glass. This trip was especially meaningful. It was the first time both my parents and I took a family vacation together. It was much more than a family vacation. It was a chance to mend, to move forward, and to rebuild after the flood. I had alienated them, disappointed and disrespected them. My selfish choices had destroyed our dynamic. As I stepped on each splintered and warped plank of the boardwalk, and as the soft tails of the wild sea oats caressed my hands, tears welled up in my eyes. We sat in silence; my mom, dad and I, and a simple prayer of gratitude kissed my lips. I vowed to never take this image that sprawled out in front of me for granted again. The sun’s rays glistened like a thousand diamonds as it pulled the cover of the horizon over its head; as if a loving mother was tucking in her child for bed. Ironically, a sea storm blew up within the first hour that we were there, but as quickly as it came in it left. It was as if to remind me that no storm is too bad, no storm is worth giving up. It was only fitting that my dad had never experienced the ocean until this trip. I believe that the muse that influences fate knew that this was the right scene for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for tranquility. More so, this force knew that this day would come. The three of us never enjoyed each other’s company like this before. During my journey leading up to this moment, I found it easy to forgive others for their wrongs, but clutched onto my own guilt and shame. Here, at the water’s edge, sitting next to my dad waiting for the sleepy sun to rise over the sea of tranquility, absorbing the song of the waves; I found the strength to forgive myself. I found the inspiration to let go and to be free.

The ocean is a weathered grandmother, smiling ever so slightly as she takes on the role of the observer. She breathes the steady breath of life as she rocks back and forth in rhythm. She acts in calmness and a clairvoyant knowing that this too shall pass. A sly mischievous smile plays across her face and a sparkle of excitement twinkles in her eyes as she brings joy to others. Much like the matriarch of a family I go to the ocean for guidance, for wisdom, for serenity.

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