I was deeply honored to be included in the Summer 2018 issue of the astonishingly wonderful quarterly magazine Parabola: The Search for Meaning. The issue includes poems, meditations, and articles by Thich Nhat Hahn,C.S. Lewis, Jeanne de Salzmann, Ramana Maharshi, and Jane Yolen. My article, "The Circle," tells the story of walking the beach with my husband and stumbling across a huge piece of driftwood that taught me a profound life lesson about everyday miracles. (The article is included below.) As Parabola's editorial director Tracy Cochran writes in her introduction to the Summer issue's focus on the miraculous: "It is by leaving the known, the well-traveled road, the deep grooves of habit, that we find our true path. And on that path, we may glimpse and sense that our true life does indeed share in the miraculous."
We’re at the beach in a rental house, just my husband, Pat, and I and Sophie and Murphy, our two springer spaniels. One night after dinner, we walk to the cliff at the end of the beach. The sun is setting, and the sky is pink and purple, with just a touch of blue. The ocean is silver, the white-capped waves relentless. Sophie and Murphy bound ahead of us, chasing the snowy plovers into the frigid water. We whistle them back, afraid they will follow the birds’ flight path and get carried off into the deep, darkening sea.
I wonder for a moment: What would I do if a wave took one of them? Would I go after her? Instantly, I know I would, even dressed in my winter coat and fleece pants. I’m a strong swimmer, but I imagine her sinking under the waves and me waiting for her to surface, the ice cold water moving into and through me, draining my energy, threatening to pull me down. Would I be able to save myself and return to shore?
With a grateful heart, I watch them running back toward us, big ears flopping and what looks like a grin on their faces as the wind pushes against them. We laugh as we put their leashes on and start back toward the house. We’re almost to the pathway leading up through the rocks when Pat stops suddenly.
“Look at that,” he says in a hushed voice. Resting on the beach is a branch, big as a small tree, washed up close to the dunes.
“It’s a perfect circle,” he says, raising his voice above the crash of the waves. I look and see what I had not seen before. Traced around the branch is a circle. A nearly perfect circle.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Pat says, pointing to the center of the circle, where the heaviest part of the tree branch rests. “There’s the pivot point. See, the branch is shaped so it has a bend at the heavy end—that’s the pivot point. And here,” he points to the tapered end of the branch where it touches the sand, “it’s lighter than the pivot point. When the tide came up, the water must have been just deep enough to float the lighter end, and the heavier center stayed grounded. The waves somehow managed to move the tree branch around in a circle until the tide went out again.”
He’s quiet for a moment, looking at the circle in something approaching wonder. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It must have happened right when the tide was dropping. The branch had to have been pushed around in a circle precisely when the tide dropped enough to ground both ends because otherwise the waves would have washed the sand smooth again.”
I can’t take my eyes off the circle carved in the sand by a large piece of wood that happened to be washed ashore at precisely the right time. If Pat hadn’t been with me, I would have never seen that circle. I might have stepped around it or straight into it, ruining its near perfection. Most likely I would have considered it an obstacle in my way.
“Chaos produces order,” Pat says as he stares out at the sea and then back at the circle.
“What do you mean?” I want—I need—to understand how disorder and disarray can lead to stability and harmony.
“The tide must have been really high to reach this point, so close to the dunes. Imagine it—the waves are coming in all over the place, they’re bouncing off the rocks. And this huge piece of driftwood is turning, swiveling, standing its ground but tossed about by the waves. It’s chaotic. But out of that chaos, this circle was created.”
The dogs are tired and lay down in the sand, curling up next to each other to stay warm.
“Chaos often produces very regular stuff,” Pat says. He is usually so quiet, a man of few words, except when he’s talking to his students. Then he’s animated, full of energy and enthusiasm about the earth and its history. I don’t have a long attention span when it comes to science, but I tend to ask lots of questions. In his kindness, knowing the way my mind works, he’s careful to keep his explanations short and to the point. But order emerging out of chaos, stability and harmony arising from turbulence and confusion? I’m entranced.
“Tell me how that happens,” I say in a near whisper.
“Well, think about the wind blowing across a sandy beach. It produces a whole field of symmetrical ripples. But the way the wind produces a ripple is by chaotic turbulence in its flow. If you look at the air flow in the winds generating a ripple, it’s all over the place, spinning, and interfering, but the result is a nearly perfect train of ripples across the surface.”
I imagine the wind moving across a lake. I picture the breeze moving through the wheat fields near our home. I see the wind gust on the ocean as it pushes and pulls at the surface to create waves. I think about what my dear friend Ernie Kurtz said about the wind as a metaphor for spirituality. We know the wind is there by its effect on things—leaves in the trees, blowing sand, ocean waves. We experience it, feel it, encounter it, but we can’t see it except in its influence on the world around us. Like so much that takes place in our world, we cannot control or command it.
“It’s such a delicate balance,” Pat is saying, “between the tides and the waves and the weight of the log—just enough buoyancy to float one end of the tree branch and push it around in circles, but not enough wave activity to pull it back into the sea and wash away the evidence that it ever existed. You could scour beaches for the rest of your life and never find something like this again.”
“So what does all this mean? What does it mean in human terms?” I’m shivering with the cold. The dogs look at us with impatient perplexity as if to say, What are you talking about? What’s so important that we can’t go home and lie down in our warm beds?
Pat stares at the circle. “I think it means we are just where we’re supposed to be. If one thing had been changed in our lives, everything else would have gone an entirely different direction. I wouldn’t have met you in the tavern playing pool that Friday night, we wouldn’t have our children, we would be living an entirely altered existence. Or we might not be alive at all.”
We’re both thinking about the same thing—our son and his battle with addiction.
“Like Ben,” Pat says after a moment. “It would be impossible to determine what event was the turning point in his life. Was it the bullying? Losing his best friend at such a pivotal age? Genetics? I don’t think we can point to one cause with any certainty. I believe it’s just the way things happened. His set of chances ended up with him where he is, at this point in time, and my set of chances ended up with me where I am. It’s the way things are.”
“So, there’s no changing it or wishing it were different,” I say, knowing the answer.
“If you change one thing, you change the whole thing.”
“Is it all chance, then?”
“That’s what I believe. It’s all chance.”
As chaotic as that seems, I am consoled. Chance. Chance events can create order out of chaos. That seems to me a sort of miracle.
We walk over the dunes toward the house. I look back at the circle one more time. It is almost but not quite perfect. When the tide returns, it will be gone. It exists only for this small period of time, and then it will vanish.
We have only this moment.
Adapted excerpt from THE ONLY LIFE I COULD SAVE: A Memoir, by Katherine Ketcham. Sounds True, April 2018.