by Kirk Hensler originally published on Rebelle Society on March 11, 2013
“In order to write about life first you must live it.” ~ Ernest Hemingway
I can’t decide which life I was meant to live; the life of Ernest Hemingway or the life of an old Asian man.
Five years ago I lived in Taiwan. Every day I woke up and saw hundreds of people practicing Tai Chi in the park, always around sunrise. It was slow and beautiful, always repeating the same postures. The movement could stop your mind.
After a while, I began practicing their postures and experiencing some unique sensations. I felt a lot of anger and resistance that would eventually turn into peace and calmness. But then the calmness would go away and I was back to where I started, needing to repeat the same cycle over again to achieve the same result.
I could see life going on like this around me while living in Asia—people making choices, and sticking to them through all of the cycles.
They sat back and watched the world move around them, not attached, non-responsive, skillful in their actions. Their ideals were pure and their patience indomitable. I admired these qualities more than I could explain. I admired them so much that I convinced myself I should be this way. Live a good, predictable life with little surprises or ups and downs.
Two years ago I was surfing in Southern California at a local spot called Old Man’s. I liked it there because the surfers were too old to pretend that it made any sense to be territorial about the ocean. It was approaching spring and the water was warming up.
Like 300 other days of the year, the skies were clear blue and the sun was shining warmly down. It was getting close to sunset, my favorite time to surf because there is pure magic in the air, when I saw a large pod of dolphins swimming about 1000 feet out on the horizon.
I was ready for something spectacular so I thought about paddling out to them. The only problem was that I’m from Michigan and I was sure a great white shark would eat me on my way. But on a second thought, I realized that the bite would come without warning so I would slip away into beautiful, pre-death euphoria before the pain ever set in.
I paddled for a very long time but I didn’t feel like the dolphins were getting any closer. I stopped for a second and sat up on my board to look around. Behind me, I could no longer see the other surfers inside the sets of breaking waves. Beyond me, there were no dolphins in site. Was I being fucked with?
I started to panic a bit. I paddled more while I thought about everything I had learned on The Discovery Channel to determine if I was going to die or not. I couldn’t remember if dolphins meant that there were sharks around or not. I looked around me in all directions. I sat up on my board again but realized it left my legs dangling in the water like bait.
I lifted them out of the water and straightened them out on the board in front of me. This created a slight balancing issue and I struggled with rocking side to side (I never said I was a good surfer). It got out of control and I started to tip over into the water. Before I fell, I remember looking back and realizing that I could hardly see the beach.
On my seemingly long and agonizing fall into the water, I remembered a game I played when I was a kid. My sister and I would set up pillows across the living room floor and pretend they were life rafts. The carpet was the ocean, and it was filled with killer sharks. Each time I would fall off a pillow I felt a crippling tightness in all my cells and a painful desperation to jump back to safety. Pillows and carpet, in my living room.
When I hit the water in the Pacific Ocean I thought I shit my wetsuit. I could not get out of the water fast enough. Sorting through all my thoughts so I could coordinate the movements to get my life out of danger was difficult, but I managed to upright my board and hop back on it. I laid face down with my head to the side and took a deep breath, because I hadn’t breathed in the last 30 seconds.
And then, with my eyes closed, I felt something move underneath my board, something powerful. I opened my eyes and saw the top of a fin poke through the water. Oh god. And then another fin appeared, and another, and another, until I was surrounded by fins and eventually blow holes. Dolphins, not sharks.
A dolphin jumped out of the water 3 feet to my left and I saw its entire body. It was huge. Then another one breached and splashed me with its tail. As my fear turned towards excitement, a dolphin swam right underneath the nose of my board, not 2 inches below the surface of the water.
Gliding on its side, the dolphin stared right into my eyes. It must have been happening in slow motion because, without thinking, I had time to reach into the water and graze my fingers across its entire body. It was like nothing I’ve ever touched; there was no pre-existing memory in my head to prepare me for this feeling.
More dolphins surrounded me, swimming and jumping like kids. A family. I was Mogly from The Jungle Book. I paddled parallel to the shoreline and the entire pod followed me, revealing their beautiful techniques. The faster I paddled, the harder they swam. We were interacting, communicating. They jumped and I laughed. The harder I laughed the more they performed.
I realized then that I did not care if a shark did appear and bit the life out of my body. Everything else was irrelevant.
When the dolphin looked me in the eye I knew he saw everything. It must have been God. A moment that has never existed before anywhere in my mind.
I can’t be the wise Asian man. I can’t ever stop looking for dolphins to swim with even if I get eaten by sharks.
In Hemingway’s words,
“Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the Romance of the unusual.”