October 23, 2014

Touched by the Sea

My friends the Potters were on Sanibel for the season, staying at their stilt house just a block off the beach. Ex-pat Brits, they keep a home in Barbados, and they are the only folks I know who travel north for the winter. When I called, Tim Potter suggested I meet them early in the morning.

"You can join Teresa and me for our sea bath," he said.

We said our good-byes, I hung up the phone, and only then did I begin to question exactly what I had agreed to do. Join them for their sea bath? Who would invite someone to participate in such a personal morning ritual? And what was the etiquette? Did I bring my own soap? What about towels? And what exactly, if anything, did one wear while sea-bathing?

When I arrived at the beach that morning, the Potters were already in the water just a few yards offshore. All I could see of them were their heads, bobbing above the wavelets. The beach was fairly crowded-walkers and joggers and shell-seekers-but no one else was taking a dip.

I flipped off my shoes, pulled off my shirt and waded out to join him in the waist-deep water. A sea bath. Must be a Brit thing. But the Potters had no soap or washcloths. I stood there, not sure exactly what to do next. Tim finally said: "Don't be timid, man. Ease yourself down."

I lowered myself into the water, up to my neck. It was warm and comforting, like being under an old blanket on a cool night. My "ahhhhh" was automatic. We spent a few minutes catching up, and then I said: "So. This is a sea bath."

"Mmmm," said Teresa, her face all dreamy looking. "Brilliant, isn't it?"

"It's nice," I said. "But what exactly are you supposed to do?"

"We're doing it," said Tim.

"Just sitting here in the water?"

"Right," said Tim.

Sea baths, the Potters told me, are morning rituals throughout the Caribbean. Islanders head to a favorite stretch of beach and spend some time communing with each other and the sea. It's part social, part therapeutic.

"There is no better way to start a day," said Teresa.

"You know, that's what puzzles me about you Floridians," said Tim. "You have all this lovely warm water, this wonderful Gulf that is like a big bathtub, and you go running along it, or looking for shells beside it, or you go fishing in it, or you build big houses by it, but you never just go and sit in it. Why is that?"

I didn't really have an answer. And so we just sat for awhile in the water. There was a gentle current, just the slightest tidal surge. At first I fought it, treading water against its pull. But that seemed contrary to the concept, and so I yielded. The Gulf rolled in, and I rolled with it. The Gulf rolled out, and I let it pull me along. In and out, warm, so warm...

And something happened, something subtle, something I didn't even realize was happening until it had so fully consumed me that I wasn't about to let it stop happening, something that clued me into the essence of a sea bath: It is not so much about bathing as it is connecting with the sea. Far be it from me to wax too New Agey about that moment, but yeah, it was transforming. I didn't come to the beach that morning looking for revelation, but the best revelations are the ones you don't grab for, and this one, as it turned out, grabbed me. It left me rocking, like in a cradle, like snuggling up with Momma Ocean. I came, I sat, I touched the sea.

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