For the past three days, I was on a retreat with my graduate program in Asilomar.  The conference grounds is in Pacific Grove (next to Monterey), right near the dunes and only steps away from a beautiful sandy beach.  During the day, I milled around the rocks near the waterline, peeping into the shallow pools that gather in the crevices.  Green algae and anemone line the walls of these pools.  I loved squatting down and looking at the bony, crater-like barnacles and clusters of small, black mussels clinging near the bottoms of these rocks.  They are are submerged with each wave, reappearing as the water recedes.  Strewn across the sand are carcasses of kelp, their long, brown limbs tangled up with each other.  They smell of sea water and decay.

The sand next to the water is moist and firm.  It feels cool underneath my toes; occasionally I let the waves crash over my feet, rising towards my knees.  The water is ice cold and numbs my skin.  The sand around me moves with the force of the water, and for a moment, the ground becomes soft and loose, except for the small bit of sand underneath my feet, trapped by the weight of my body.

It’s not a quiet beach, but it’s not crowded either.  Mostly there are residents walking their dogs and mothers with their toddlers.  It’s a nice place to come to when you need to be reminded of life’s enormity.  When I look at the water, I imagine what it feels like to swim into everything and nothing.  I think about the complexity and fragility of habitats.  I think about the diversity and connectedness of life.  I think about all the things that happen with or without our knowing.

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Night is when the beach is most incredible.  There are no city lights to disturb the shine of the stars.  There are no bridges and cars to distract from the darkness.  There is only you, the crashing waves, and a glimpse of what lies beyond our world.  This is the place where you go to be humbled.

On our last night there, we crowded around a small fire on the beach.  The sparks and embers fly away on the wind, and the smell of burning wood clings onto our clothes.  I imagine what we look like from far away, a speck of red-orange light glittering in the dark.

Because we are students, we talk about school, labs, and professors.  The conversation is light, so I am surprised when I hear an older student speak candidly about her struggles with graduate school.  About depression, confusion, and dissatisfaction.  “It isn’t that I don’t know where I want to be and how I want to get there; I’m just tired of waiting for things to happen.”

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I do not know how to respond.  Briefly, I wonder if that is what I will be feeling in the next six years.  Suspended in time, trapped between stages, too far in to turn back–too far in to dare to turn back.  After fighting so hard to get here, was I supposed to be here at all?

“I believe happiness in this world is unattainable.”

Someone asks, “What is your definition of happiness?”

“The freedom to do what you want to do.”

I say nothing because I do not know what to say.  I wonder what it means to have that freedom.  If I would know what I wanted to do; if I would be satisfied with what I wanted to do; if there would always be something else that I’d what to do; if I am, then, responsible for everything that I want to do.  Will I find myself in all the things that I want to do?

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I catch the streak of a shooting star.  We are engulfed in mysteries, surrounded by emptiness with millions of unknown stars staring back at us.  Somewhere out there are processes that we do not understand–cannot even begin to imagine to understand–even as we stand here, trying to understand ourselves.  Yet, in this directionless and overwhelming expanse, I don’t feel lost.  I am awestruck.

I may not know much, but I know enough that the creator of everything in this world and beyond, from the microscopic plankton to the fiery masses in the celestial heavens, knows everything there is to know, including me.  “For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

There was a time when, seeing a shooting star, I would’ve wished for health, success, or love.  Tonight, I wish that You will always be with me.

“I see your power in the moonlit night, where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright.  It’s all proclaiming who you are.  You’re beautiful.

Almond Biscotti from Edible Moments