A week ago, I finally made it down to the sea for a swim.
I still have the scars to prove it.
It had been so long and I had longed for this. For weeks, my head was full of remembering - that delicious feeling of being submerged, held in the softly bobbing waves, washed clean of life’s cares. Everyone else seemed to be fitting in their sea swims and I kept wishing it was me.
And finally, finally it was.
And it was... just painful.
We’d checked the tides, but misjudged our own timings. Life happened and we were later arriving than expected. Later, but still way before low tide was due. I thought I had time.
I was wrong.
Instead of the serene watery glide I was expecting, I had a long foot-scratchy stumble through the shallows then a stagnant tummy-grazing splash before having to hobble slowly all the way back again, my knees bleeding, my feet gashed.
The thing is, despite the diminishing tideline, I was convinced the deeper waters were just a few steps further. I felt sure that if I just kept going, eventually I would find them. I knew I’d missed the optimum time, but hoped for that middle place – water up to the waist, everything quiet but for the gentle slap of small waves against my swim suit, those tiny soft sloshes – it’s actually one of my favourite times to swim.
In reality, I had missed even this. Yet, still I persevered, aware of how ridiculous I looked to onlookers as I tiptoed gingerly over spikey stones hidden from view but all too real under my bare feet. Every step stung. There were unexpected higher rocks, jutting up into my calves, then surprise dips where I would put my foot down confidently only to wobble precariously as the seabed seemed to momentarily disappear.
I was frustrated, hemmed in despite the endless sea around me, constrained in a wide-open space. I couldn’t really move (unless you count a few arm-scratchy strokes and five minutes of stationary bobbing and kicking). And out there, a long furlong from shore, I began to shiver, exposed, unable to keep warm by swimming as I normally would.
I mustered up every scrap of optimism I had left, tried so hard to love it in spite of everything. And, of course, there were moments of beauty. There was the flat, gently lapping lake of a sea, sparkling turquoise in the May sunlight. There were the ridged sand pools, dotted with chalky rocks and strewn with multi-coloured seaweeds: fat and bumpy or thin and hair-like. There were the tiny sea snails hidden amongst the pebbles and the view across rocky flatbeds to the Bluebird café, where later we would grab a takeaway tea to drink with our picnic. There are always bright spots and it’s good to look for them.
But it’s also good to admit, just be honest, when life doesn’t go as planned. Not to force things to work when they cannot. Let them be imperfect. Turn back if you can, if it’s clearly wrong, rather than stubbornly, doggedly persevering.
I know, because I’ve been here before. It all felt a little uncomfortably familiar, this determination not to quit, this inability to know the difference between ‘defeatist giving up’ and ‘wisely stepping back’. It can be a fine line.
Suddenly I was 19 again, struggling to make sense of a choice that had sent me hurtling down a path which wasn’t mine. A mix of poor guidance and timetabling challenges in sixth form (admittedly with a dash of teenage folly thrown in) meant I didn’t really love most of what I was studying, which in turn, affected both my grades and next steps.
But despite embarking on university life on completely the wrong course, I tried desperately hard to love it. I wanted to tell people I loved it because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to have the best days of your life. That’s how it seemed to work for everyone else. But, in reality, it was like a swim at low tide – difficult, painful, even a little humiliating. I struggled to find common ground with others there. I felt adrift, miles from the safety of shore.
There is such loneliness in making a wrong choice, and that loneliness intensifies when you’re fighting to make it seem like a right one. There’s the awareness too that others are watching, spectators to your failure. How do you put a spin on such things? Even back in those pre-social media days I felt the pressure to portray it more positively than it was.
Rather like last weekend at the beach, I was completely unprepared for the pain. Going to the sea, I hadn’t even packed my swim shoes, so certain I would be able to dive straight in and glide gracefully through the waves. Similarly, I wasn’t prepared for the pain at that first college. After an incredible gap year abroad, it simply didn’t cross my mind that I wouldn’t be able to dive straight in to another new life. There was nothing to protect me from the jagged rocks of disappointment.
When everyone tells you you’re going to love something and then you don’t, it’s easy to think the problem is you. In fact, sometimes it’s simply the wrong place. Sometimes our timing’s just a bit off. And however much you try and put on your happy face, deep down you know when you’ve got it wrong.
Obviously choosing the wrong uni and course is a relatively easy thing to sort out compared to other wrong turnings, but still it can take a while to admit you’ve chosen badly. I used up a whole year in my determination to persevere because ‘I’m no quitter!’
Finally admitting I was miserable brought pure relief. Funnily enough, I could then look around me and see the good things there – a handful of like-minded friends in the end, a kind family from church who took me in when my first accommodation belly-flopped, a beautiful rural area. There was still goodness. And, like at the sea, once I had admitted this, I could enjoy being there in other ways.
One year on, when I eventually made it to the right uni and the right course, it felt like a swim at high tide. Yes, there was the occasional overwhelming wave, but mostly it was a wonderful experience of being held and carried in the water. I could move around, put in the work and stretch my limbs.
Back at the beach I accepted this just wasn’t my day. Pointless to force it to be something it wasn’t. Standing in the shallows then, knees grazed like a child, I looked around and saw beauty: the softly lapping sea, the cottagey café on the hazy horizon, a moment to stop fretting about what hadn’t worked and just be.
It’s good to persevere, but sometimes we’re chasing down the wrong path, so desperate to get the thing we want that we close our eyes to the obvious signs screaming that, actually, this isn’t a great idea.
There is a wisdom in admitting when things aren’t right. A bravery in turning around.
It could be a failed sea swim.
It could be something else.
But take a deep breath and admit it. And then let God and others guide you back to shore.
High tide will come, and you will know.
Low tide swim
like a child who has pushed too hard.
I am trying so hard
to look on the bright side:
‘You never regret a swim’
And yes, it is still beautiful -
look at the tiny sea snails
among the curling seaweed.
Look at the chalk white pebbles!
I found my light places
but that didn’t change the fact
I had got it wrong,
a bad choice.
Perseverance isn’t always a virtue
not when you’re persevering down the wrong path.
I hobbled back to shore
with bleeding knees
and gashed feet.
It was still beautiful, I try to say,
fighting tears of pain and disappointment.