We drifted over silvery waters from the big island to the tiny one. I looked out the panoramic window onto open sea and atmosphere. It was like scales had fallen from my eyes to take in a view so gloriously clear. For four months, in the city where I was studying abroad, I’d been living under a man-made sky, a firmament of soot. But there on my holiday away in Thailand, the sunlight glinted so hard off the waves that I couldn’t see underneath.

Next to me, my sister gave in to the boat’s gentle rocking and fell asleep with a pair of headphones in her ears. My friend scribbled something in her journal. I had a stack of books to read and postcards to write and a lot of thinking to do on our ten days on the island. I was looking for closure on a sad relationship, the emotional grey that had been hanging over me. The happy island life, away from cars and computers, and near the sand, sea, and people who loved me, was just what I needed.

When I thought of our island destination, somehow I had pictured a hill of sand with a scattering of palms. But as we sailed toward the dock, what I saw out the window made me gasp. No one told me it would look like this. I wanted to nudge my sister from her sleep, but I couldn’t look away from the sight of the two enormous limestone cliffs glowing bronze in the morning sun. They stood like twin guards to the good life on the island. Our boat entered slowly, the engines relaxing, bringing us inside the huddle of rocks.

Later, when I took a book out to the beach, I fell asleep to the rhythm of the waves and got the worst sunburn of my life. If only I had read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s words by then, how “one carries down the faded straw bag, lumpy with books, clean paper, long over-due unanswered letters, freshly sharpened pencils, lists and good intentions,” I would have been wise to the fact that the “books remain unread, the pencils break their points and the pads rest smooth and unblemished as the cloudless sky.”

The body and mind need first to breathe fresh air and clear out the smog of urban noise, busy schedules, and complicated relationships, and to become “like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.” Oh…and the body needs sunscreen.

In the morning, I walked to the empty beachfront from our bamboo bungalow. The sandy path was strewn with fragrant flowers, good morning mercies fallen from the trees overhead. I had this sense that my Maker was wooing me, bringing me simple joys to erase complicated hurts.

Out on the fresh sand, smoothed by the night tide, I sat in a tattered lounge chair. In the cove, the cliffs beamed golden and the water lapped softly. A kitten sneaked up and batted his paws at the strings of my swimsuit. I sparred with him, then tickled him under his chin. Soon, two fluffy white wild pups trotted out and put their paws into the sand, each in their own spot scratching for something just beneath the surface. The alpha quickly left his post and nuzzled his brother away from the hole he was digging. He took over and worked fast, flinging wet sand into his white mane.

Suddenly, I noticed a little surprise poking out from the pit they had dug, a claw of a different sort. From its hiding spot, a crab sauntered out into the open and clicked his claws like castanets, prey teasing its predators. The pups ran in circles around their little jester, snapping their teeth and pawing at the creature. Right within reach, the crab could easily have become their breakfast, but they missed him on purpose and chased him in silly circles back into the bubbling surf.

When we three girls came to the spot that night, the pups were out again wrestling, one taking the other by the scruff of the neck, both growling with their tails up like little exclamation points. “Siblings,” my sis laughed. Lights glimmered in the distance from the karaoke stage. We took our footprints as far away as we could.

In pitch black, where the sand met the foliage, we threw our towels into a pile and waded into inky water. When we got waist high, we double-checked that it was still just the pups keeping watch. Then, we pulled off our swimsuits and tossed them in the pile, too. I ducked under to wet my hair, then rose up and kicked onto my back to look into the dotted midnight blue of the sky. It was like we were snorkeling in the stars.

When I turned toward my sis and friend where they were treading water, I saw something strange. Glints of light followed their arms and legs as they moved. I shook my head. We were too far from the karaoke stage lights for this to be a reflection. There was so little light that I could hardly see the details of their faces. Again, they moved their arms and the fairy dust followed. I dragged my fingers through the water. Flourescent glitter shimmered there, too, stars dancing in the water. I blinked my eyes to check my vision. “Do you see that?” We were all watching by now. Again and again, it happened, magic before my skeptical eyes. I must’ve missed the lesson on bioluminescence in science class, but my education gap made this moment all the more amazing. This water was alive. I felt fully alive. I bounced like a happy seal at the wonder of it. Up, down, all around…there were surprises everywhere.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind….”  The wild pups went digging for their pleasures, but I don’t have to. I can wait in faith for all-out joy, surprises sent to me by the Inventor and Sustainer of stars and bioluminescence.

In C.S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy (written the same year as Gift from the Sea and situated on the same shelf in the bookstore!), I read that “…Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is,” and, “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” Anne believed that too much effort could stifle true joy: “to dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith.”

No one told me just how breathtaking that island was going to be. Instead, I got to be surprised by joy, to walk and swim in the moment by moment attentiveness of the Creator, every wonder leading my thoughts away from man-made troubles and back to Him.

{This week’s post is based on Chapter 1, “The Beach” in Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. View all entries in the series here. Special thanks to a fellow blogger who got me thinking on the theme of Surprised by Joy this week.}

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