I remember being fascinated as a kid by the way babies would grab my finger and squeeze like crazy. Even when we outgrow the reflex, we continue to reach and grasp and cling. Yet part of growing up is learning to let go. Toys break, friendships fade or (if you’re in middle school) stunningly crash and burn, grownups baffle and disenchant. Most of us learn at some point that clinging – to people, experiences, things – brings suffering. But still it’s hard not to clutch. Especially in moments when the world seems to be spinning out of control.
Four days before July turned into August, I ended up in the ER with a crazy, stupid migraine that would not go away. They gave me a spinal tap, I suppose to rule out meningitis. The migraine abated after about 24 hours, but the headache that resulted from the spinal tap stayed another eight days. Apparently it takes your cerebral spinal fluid time to replenish itself and for some people this takes longer than others. And while your body restocks the CSF, if you try to raise your head or sit up, your head is flooded with pain. The only time I managed to be relatively comfortable was lying flat on the skinniest of pillows. I don’t like skinny pillows; I like fat, fluffy ones. All told, I lost two weeks of income and was in bed nearly as long, stalled in the middle of summer, getting restless and discouraged.
At some point, as I was harrying myself with money worries and work worries and book worries and relationship worries, it dawned on me that maybe I should use the experience as chance to practice letting go. Of worry about things I couldn’t control – the hospital bill I wouldn’t be able to pay, the writing time that was slipping away. I wondered if I could even let go of needing to be out of pain. I practiced breathing. I wanted to pitch a tantrum, what a friend dubbed his two-year-old daughter’s “toddler Medea” when she lies on the ground and shrieks and flaps her arms. I practiced not panicking. I watched myself move through these things.
There’s been a lot in the news this summer about rip currents in Lake Michigan. Close call rescues and several awful drownings. All through August, the height of rip current season, a little red triangle around an exclamation point has popped up on my weather page: rip current alert. Rip currents are fast: they’ve been clocked at up to eight feet per second – over five miles an hour – faster than Michael Phelps can swim. Most people who drown, do so because they panic and exhaust themselves trying to swim against the current to shore. What lifeguards advise instead is to swim parallel to shore until you’re free of the current and, if the current’s too strong for that, to float on your back until it abates. Then you can swim away and back to safety.
There are rip currents in our lives. Sometimes a lot of them. Sometimes it’s rip current season. So I’m heeding the lifeguards: there’s a time to swim and a time to float. That’s the lesson I’m trying to learn. To cultivate calm, to float till there’s a break in the current and then make my way back to the sand.