It’s morning again. The cold outside beats against everything it encounters and my old bedroom windows tremble, struggling to keep the warmth inside. It is often the cold that stirs me awake and I tend to rise before the sun, listening to the stillness. The first moments of the day are quiet now and this is new for me, but I’ve found that it amplifies His voice. He’s loudest in the morning.
“Surrender,” He says, and like a lingering cold, I’m greeted by the thing I cannot shake.
In the bathroom mirror, I defend my position and He listens. Surrendering feels like mourning, I explain to Him. It’s being rendered speechless with so much left to say. I am not ready to let go, I declare.
His response is simple and it is the same every day. Surrender.
Most mornings, I’m paused before this particular hurdle in our relationship. I scale the sides and consider how to climb over it instead of making an active attempt to move it, because it is obdurate like me. Settled at the bottom of my gut, my reluctance to submit is like an anchor chained to the dilapidated dock of my fear. I’ve heard that there are levels to encountering God, that one could be ankle-deep or fully immersed in the middle of the proverbial river. But I’ve always been afraid of swimming in an open body, afraid of being “foot off of the floor” free.
Some mornings, I rise with the taste of salt on my tongue and I ask myself: Am I swimming or drowning? It is often hard to discern between the two. But control is neither. It is standing on the shore, firmly planted. It is knowing and seeing, and surrendering isn’t that.
Standing at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Morro de São Paulo, I swallowed the sea and other things— things Audre Lorde called tyrannies, things I’d made master. I couldn’t submit to God, but I’d willingly submitted to their sovereignty, and they reigned while I stood stuck with my feet fastened to the shore. I’d inherited some tyrannies from my mother, like her fear of water and her enduring desire for control. In tandem, the two birthed a reluctance to enter the water.
On the beach chair behind me, next to Sister Outsider and my other travel books, was a camera and a journal. Both were mediums for documentation, but one was more painfully honest than the other. Each page of my journal was like a mausoleum, where all of the bodies were buried. Or maybe it was like the Atlantic Ocean, occupied by ghosts and unfathomable trauma. Mentally, I thumbed through the pages while I peered down into the water. My struggles were neatly bound and tucked away within those pages; there were borders and boundaries and I existed within them. The tyranny of control kept me and my things safe, and it kept me frozen at the shore. This was my first encounter with the ocean, and I was afraid of swimming in an open body.
My fear of wading was palpable, present, and familiar. My chest tightened as I watched the others disappear beneath the waves, joining the ancestors and Yemaya. They rollicked in a way that I didn’t understand, an unspoken language and comfort they shared with the water. A light mist covered the goosebumps on my arms. Sand danced between my toes and the wind carried the scent of shrimp and acarajé.
With each retreat, the water returned with more force. Like an invitation, I was encouraged to enter, to be submerged, to let go. The water nipped at my ankles, then my calves and then my knees. I imagined hands curling around my legs and in my spirit there was a tugging. A quiet, persistent tugging. Surrender. Fists clenched and teeth sunk in my bottom lip, I stuttered before I took a step, suddenly choking on the memory of what it felt like to drown.
As a survivor of a near-drowning in my own body, I was trepid about treading water. Keeping my head above the surface was nearly impossible before.
The first time I went to therapy, I did not feel like a survivor, for I was only managing to float most days. When the therapist summoned my fears and asked me about the encounter that took me under, I told her about the night of the storm. That night, my body laid there like a pomegranate ripe for the picking and it was picked and picked over and rolled over. Lying there with limp limbs and a mind that speaks but a mouth that doesn’t, I was quicker to plead than I was to pray because I didn’t know God then. Only knew that if He’d seen me like that, He’d look away.
In the days that followed, the storm tapered but it never really ended. In my mind, I toyed with life and not life, with swimming and drowning. I found refuge on the shore of my fears and I stayed tethered there. I clenched, for the uncertainty of drifting, even in my own body, was a risk. I didn’t want to wade, for water had been no good to me. I was afraid of swimming in an open body, for if I waded in too deep, I wouldn’t be in control.
Peering down into the ocean in Morro de São Paulo, I caught a glimpse of my reflection. Worn from the storm and fortified by my fear, I stood at the edge of what I could not manage. I envied the others, the ones who gave into the water without hesitation; those who were washed over and “foot off of the floor” free. Swimming must’ve been better than my stagnant stance so I decided to go in.
Shakily at first, I took a step forward. Arms up and my fists clenched, I looked around for the others. Spotting them a few hundred feet ahead, I shuffled through the water with tears pooling in my eyes. As the water rose, meeting my hips now, I moved with the ocean instead of against it. I dropped my knees and allowed my body to fall beneath the surface. Fists unclenched, I submitted to the waves and met God for the first time.
But, I’d forgotten to hold my breath on the way down. Water flooded my nose and filled my throat.
Surrender, the waves whispered as I whipped and wailed, swinging my legs wildly. Legs spread like they were that night in my bedroom, I didn’t resist my descent. I straddled the line between swimming and drowning and I submitted to the outcome of either. Navigated two competing currents like a riptide. One, the life I was so committed to controlling. The other, the decision to submit it all to God.
To survive, I couldn’t fight the current, couldn’t swim back to the shore. In the thick of it, I had to choose stillness and there was no place for trepid treading there.
Steady, I reminded myself, while the waves carried me toward the shore. The storm within me stilled to a whisper, like I was Psalms 107:29 personified. The flame of my fear extinguished, minimized to a thin line of smoke. I found God in the shadows, closer to the ocean’s floor than to the surface. I didn’t find Him on my way out of the water, but in the throws of the riptide.
In the midst of the storm. In the muck and mire of my life, God was there, burrowed beneath it all, waiting to be seen. To be sought.
I’m still treading water in an open body,
trying to swallow the last of the salt that lingers on my tongue.
When my head ducks beneath the surface,
When the currents spin like carousels,
I choose stillness.
His voice is the most clear there.
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