This is my second week at Harvard Divinity School. Today, I went surfing with a classmate, a former Navy Seal whose legs were amputated after a deployment to Afghanistan. He later went on to compete on the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Ski Team in Sochi, Russia.
I desperately wanted to do schoolwork, but he leaned in and confided, “It’s the last day of summer. We might not see this,” he pointed to the sunny sky, “until next winter.” I paused to consider. Then, he added, “I’ll drive.”
So without legs and a pair of prosthetics, he drove us out to Na Hant beach about thirty miles away from campus along the New England coast. When we parked, he pulled his steel prosthetic limbs off and squeezed himself into a wetsuit.
Standing without his prosthetics, he was about three feet tall. He grabbed his surfboard from the trunk of his SUV and started wobbling his way towards the sand. I had a pack of food and our towels in a bag, and trailed alongside him.
The tide was low, the wind was onshore (not good for surfing) and the waves were small (one to two feet). He was bummed, “The internet said three to five feet.” He squinted at the sea, “It’s cuz the buoy is so far out and it doesn’t take into account that the water collides into things by the time it travels to shore.” He sighed, rationalizing out loud how, when and why the surf report is wrong. “Oh well,” he shrugged it off and grinned. “It’s just good to be in the ocean before it starts snowing here.”
He told me the water temperature was 70 degrees. That was a load of bull. It was at least fifteen degrees colder than that. Without a wetsuit, I scampered into the waves behind him and started paddling like a labrador. All told, we were in the water the whole afternoon. Him, surfing in his wetsuit and me, swimming in my bikini.
After a couple hours, the hypothermia subsided into a complete numbness and I felt invincible because I was literally without pain from head to toe. When my fingers wouldn’t move anymore and my entire hand felt solid like a stone mitten, I decided to get out of the water and start jogging to see if my extremities would soften up.
I had read in the Harvard Gazette about Dan, my Paralympian classmate whom I was surfing with today. It showed a picture of him at the Harvard stadium about to run track. As I was jogging on the sand, I mentally tuned into my friend still out on the water.
As an intuitive and spiritual life coach to CEO’s, I’m used to hearing people think. It’s popularly referred to as reading someone’s mind. For me, I can also hear what their heart is thinking, not just their mind. Sometimes, I can also hear what their soul would like to say, even if they themselves cannot hear their own soul.
As I was jogging, I suddenly heard Dan’s voice in my mind coaching me how to run. I don’t know if he was looking at me from the water at that very moment, actually speaking to me or if I heard his soul talking to me without his conscious awareness.
But I noticed how sloppily I was plodding along. So I straightened my gait. His voice in my head told me, “Chin down. Stick your chest out! Point your fingers, make them blades slicing the air forward. Parallel your feet like they are skis.”
I fixed my posture and felt like a horse prancing. I noticed the weight on my feet was lighter and instead of booking it, I felt like I was bouncing. Normally, I consider running a chore and use my feet like shovels, pulling the ground towards me with every stride.
His voice countered that notion, saying, “You are not moving. The ground is moving beneath you.” I had a visual of me being on a treadmill. “Imagine that you are not even touching the ground,” his voice said. “Imagine that this is not hardened sand beneath your feet. It’s air.”
Instead of covering territory by foot, I felt like I was riding a current of air. His voice continued, “Imagine that the ground is a cloud floating in the sky and it is just passing beneath you. Tap it with your feet as it passes.”
So there I was, no longer running on the sand, but slicing through the air with my hands and elbows, tapping the clouds passing beneath me with my toes. His voice repeated, “You are not moving. The earth is moving beneath you. You are suspended in space, tapping the planet as it spins and rotates beneath you. You are not touching the ground. You are in the air above the ground.”
I felt free, floating along the coast with my cloud tapping feet. Of course, someone without legs wouldn’t think of running as touching the ground. The ground is for people with feet! When you have no feet, you have to grow wings. That’s what I learned from Divinity School on that day—that when the earth beneath you crumbles, use the air.