Once, when I was a child, I memorized (because of school) a poem about the ocean. I had never seen an ocean; I live several hundred miles inland on a giant continent. But, I learned a poem about the ocean: the way the spray flies through the air, the way the wind sings, the way the mist gathers.
I only swam in the ocean for the first time when I was about twenty-eight years old. Arriving, I thought about the poem, recited it to the man standing next to me. After all those years, I could still remember most of the rhymes/ the rhythm/ the cadence. Only, now it was finally applicable.
I swam in the warm water, when I was twenty-eight, in a fire-truck red suit cut in a vintage style, off of a white-sand island I cannot locate on a map (friends took me there).
I remember swimming through the clear, turquoise water and emerging, and tasting the salt of the water and being…amazed! Until then I had only known the freshwater of the Great Lakes–a sharp, saline surprise in my mouth, my nose, my eyes, such is the ocean.
The sun proved too hot, my skin too pale, so we wandered into the restaurants and shops off of the beach, and we drank fruit juice and the man paid a small mariachi band to sing me a song he later translated–something short and lovely–about looking beautiful, being alive, sharing a day together.
This past spring, I traveled to the ocean again, this time with friends. I wore the same firetruck red suit, it might be more faded, now that it is older (like me). We stayed in a rental off the coast of North Carolina. In the home was a book and, in the front cover of the book, the ocean-poem I had learned in grade school. I read it out-loud, swam in the ocean, tasted the salt once again.
When I was a child, I learned certain verses of the Bible by heart, memorized them, recited them back. Only, I didn’t know for certain what they meant.
I thought about that, last week, driving home from work late, late at night, on the Detroit highway system and shrouded in the darkness of post-sunset commuting. I thought about it as I recited the poetry of the first chapter of the Gospel of John to myself, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”
Once, I didn’t know what these words meant, but I learned them anyway.
Once, when I lived far from the ocean, I learned a poem about the ocean and, only when I saw the ocean, did I fully understand.
Now, I can drive in my car, know the experience of faith, reach back into my mind, a time when my brain was soft and impressionable, to the words that stuck then, and comfort me now.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…
I’m glad I learned both, when I was young, when I still had much to experience and understand.
I at least have seen the ocean now, have swum in the salty wave, have walked along the sea-shelled shore. Now, the poem makes more sense.
I will never understand the fullness of God. But, I’m glad I started learning when I was young, anyway.