Swim Towards the Light

Life lessons from my not-so-zen dad

Michele DeMarco
Jun 30, 2020 · 7 min read
Light pouring in through the ocean surface

“Waves come in sets of seven…” This was the first piece of advice my father gave me when I was a little girl.

He was an architect, a young one at the time, with dreams of modern structures and box houses like Mies van der Rohe’s. Only we lived in the heart of Colonial New England — Marblehead, Massachusetts to be specific: the birthplace of the American Navy, home of the Revolutionary Fort Sewell and The Spirit of ’76. His clients wanted wainscoting, not walls of glass. So, when I was five, and in fulfillment of that dream, my parents bought land on Martha’s Vineyard — Chappaquiddick specifically, up two dirt roads with trees as far as the eye could see. And together they built that glass house, or one that approximated it.

It was meant to be an investment: “We’ll rent it out…a third income,” they agreed. But that lasted only one summer season. We fell in love with our house on Chappy, and it became our second home.

And so did South Beach a mile or two away. Every weekend during the warm months, we and two other families would load our respective 4x4s full of all manner of toys — windsurfers and boogie boards, paddle ball and Frisbees, inner tubes for floating over the swells, rods and reels for fishing below them at sunset. And we would traverse the sand until we found just the right spot. There we would stay until the moon called us home. It was idyllic by any standard. Except for one day.

It was late afternoon, three, maybe four o’clock. The wind had picked up from the north and was blowing the sea into a sizable chop. South Beach is known for its surf — which makes it a major draw for those who like a bit of adventure. My dad was one of these people; he never met a wave he didn’t want to ride. He was a ten-year-old boy trapped in the body of a man. When all the kids on the beach were long gone, or long done in, there Charlie would be, out near the shoals, diving forward at just the right moment in order to catch the water’s momentum and take him into shore. And he taught me to do the same, sensing correctly, that I too had that longing.

Looking back, I’m not sure what was so different about that day, other than maybe I was one of the few people in the water. I was on tippie-toes, as I often was, bouncing up and down, weightless and uninhibited, waiting as the waves grew taller and taller. In the distance, one was building — the curve in the middle getting more pronounced. Did I wait too long or dive too soon? I can’t be sure. All I remember is feeling a crash over my head, flow pulling me down, spinning round and round like clothes in a washer. Then water rushing, choking, blocking every orifice. My eyes forced open, and I tried to reorient. But everywhere I looked all I could see was muddy green. And the sonorous drone flooded my ears. And my head collided with a wall of sand. Then my arms started to flail like a newly caged bird. And my body tightened as if it had rigor mortis. And then I was sinking, fast — in what direction I didn’t know. Sense had abandoned me.

And that was the moment I first felt death — that nanosecond of blackness, absolute nothingness. And then I heard his voice — like the Divine with a Philly accent.

“Swim towards the light.”

Now let’s be clear, my dad is no philosopher, nor is he religious or even “spiritual,” admittedly. This is a guy who couldn’t wait to marry my mother nearly 50 years ago, but, as the story goes, the architect at the alter spent most of the ceremony eyeing the shape of the beams overhead, rather then listening to the priest discuss the merits and responsibilities of Catholic marriage. So, when he took me aside when I was six or seven, and told me that waves come in sets of seven, and if ever I found myself caught in the undertow and struggling to find air and in a panic — like I was that day — to look for the light, I knew then, like I know now, that he was not talking about finding God or saving souls.

But here’s the thing: there’s actually something incredibly profound in that statement, even more so when you couple it with the other advice he gave me some years before about how to save myself when faced with overwhelming odds — even if it was while out at sea.

Let me tell you right now, Michele, Mother Nature always wins. There are lots of things you’re going have to fight for and against in life, but she isn’t one of them. You’ll lose every time. But you can’t give up, because you also don’t want to die. So, the first thing you do when you’re overwhelmed and scared is to relax. Tense muscles are paralyzing…they’ll weigh you down. You need to stay buoyant. If you relax, it’ll also focus you and get you thinking straight again.

Now, it’s going to be dark down there, and even though you won’t want to, you have to keep your eyes open to see what’s going on. It may hurt, and you may not like what you see…hell, you might not see anything at all, because it’s too damn murky. But trust me, if you look around, you will see the light…and that’s where you want to be. So, once you find it, swim like hell towards it. And I promise, if you do, you will get to the surface and be able to breathe again.

But don’t get cocky…you’re not necessarily out of the woods. You still have to get to shore. And your body’s gonna be exhausted. If there’s a strong rip (i.e. current) …here is where you use Mother Nature to your benefit. You have to let the current be your guide…and not like some piece of driftwood. You need to steer yourself while in that flow. Stay alert. Focus on the shoreline and getting to it. But remember, it’s not a race. Don’t waste all your energy fighting to get there. Again, just stay relaxed…move with the pull of water, all the while edging inward. And listen, it doesn’t matter how far down the beach you eventually end up. You can always walk back to where you were. The point is to get there.

The last thing to know is this: waves come in sets of seven. That means while the journey back to solid ground may be rocky, you’ll also have some lulls. You gotta ride the rough times and take advantage of the calm ones. Just keep reminding yourself that fighting against the forces will only suck the energy out of you. You can’t change Mother Nature. You have to make her your friend.

I can’t say how many times in my life I’ve thought back to my Dad’s words — not because I’d become a surfer or someone who spends a particularly great amount of time in the ocean. Rather, because they apply so profoundly to the challenges we all face when life unexpectedly throws us into chaos…

We can’t control everything that happens in life, as much as we may want to or as hard as we may try. When “Mother Nature” (life) pulls the rug out from underneath us, as she inevitably will, and we go crashing down, our hopes and dreams, innocence and confidences in ruin all around, we must try to “relax” into the pain (allow it to be what it needs to be). Yet we must also “open our eyes,” (face the reality of what is — what’s happened), even though it’s hard and even if it hurts. And then we must look for the “light” (find beauty in what’s around us, connection with those important to us, and make meaning however we can from whatever circumstances have befallen us).

But it’s up to us to “swim towards the light” (to reach out for it, make ourselves available to it) — with “everything we have” (body, mind, and spirit).

We may be “exhausted” along the way, and we will likely have to “ride some waves” as we go (allow our emotions to come and go as they will, always mindful of how long the difficult ones last). But eventually, if we “hold our head high” and “move with the flow,” (not giving in or giving over to pain, not defining ourselves as a victim), always “focusing” on where we want to go, then sooner or later we will “reach shore” (feeling ourselves strong, our minds fresh, and our feet planted firmly in life once again.)

We can’t change “Mother Nature” — For damn sure. We can’t change the sometimes harsh realities of life

We “have to make her our friend.” We must learn to bend without breaking, adapt with hope and confidence, and move forward in life with peace and renewed ease.

Michele is an award-winning writer and a therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Daily News, Elemental, The Ascent, and The Basement Series publications, Partners HealthCare journal, Living Well magazine, and Be Well and Life Without Baby blogs. Her non-fiction books include and . Her upcoming novel, About Others, won the national Mystery Writers of America’s Helen McCloy Award for Mystery Writing.

Michele is completing her PhD in psychology and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can find me at , and reach me at michele@micheledemarco.com.

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Originally published at on June 30, 2020.


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Michele DeMarco

Written by

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t. micheledemarco.com



A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Michele DeMarco

Written by

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t. micheledemarco.com



A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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