Tripped by the Taut Line of Life

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 A child of the American Midwest, I grew up knowing nothing of tides.  Mine was a world of rolling hills and wind-tossed trees where great dollops of clouds piled themselves into the summer sky and tumbling, tassled corn stretched away toward an ever-receding horizon.  Less impressive than mountains, less romantic than moonlit beaches, the very modesty of our world felt stable and dependable, a well-constructed backdrop for less-than-dramatic lives.

Like the hills surrounding them, our rivers rolled along with equal modesty, sluggish and steady until snowmelt or rain transformed them into T.S. Eliot’s strong brown gods – sullen, untamed and intractable. Our lakes and ponds were stationary as bathtubs, passive as the cattle ranged around their perimeters.  Filled by rain, they emptied with drought.  Their rise was unpredictable and their fall intermittent, with no particular rhythm and little sense of liveliness. Taking on and releasing their water in fits and starts, they sputtered along like a rusty but still-serviceable truck. Dependable but not necessarily inspiring, they simply “were”.

Eventually, I left that placid world behind and one day found myself standing ankle-deep in the ocean, watching its unfettered waves wash along the shore.  I was fascinated and amazed, less by its expansiveness than by its movement.  Unlike my childhood’s passive ponds, these waters were active. Sluicing sand from beneath bare-toed feet, dissolving castles, reaching out with foam-tipped, glistening fingers to snatch away sandals or innundate books, to steal a bit of lunch or reclaim beachcombing spoils left carelessly near their edge, they were quiet as a breath, yet predictable as a heartbeat.  Sparkling in their rise, pale and pensive as they fell, these inexorable tides seemed to mutter and sigh among themselves, acknowledging the moon and sun that controlled their movements with all the gravity befitting subjects before a heavenly master. 

As time passed, years on the Gulf Coast taught me a new lesson: that atmosphere can trump even the pull of gravity. Driven by wind, tides become messengers from the sea, their silently rising waters whispering rumors of newborn storms still hundreds of miles from shore.  As winds increase, waters creep higher and spread farther. Grasses disappear and ditches fill. Boats large and small rise up, riding higher than their docks.  As waves begin to lap around half-submerged mooring cleats, water birds grow restless and pace the water’s edge.

If the wind backs into the north or west behind a winter front and gale warnings fly, the bays empty.  Only the channels remain, thin, crinkled ribbons of water laced through muddy flats. If the wind grows stronger or persists over time,  fish desperately seek for deeper waters and sea birds disappear.  Boats fall on their mooring lines, riding far below their docks. You can board them, dropping down onto their decks,  but you might want to take a sandwich and a book. You’ll need a ladder to get off, a rope step or a plank.  Absent all these, you’ll wait for a rising tide. 

Heidi Gallo ~ Low Tide, Rock Harbor      

When you first come to the water, no one tells you these things. Perhaps they don’t think of it. Perhaps they think the facts are too obvious, that you know them already, that you’d be insulted should someone say, “Be careful.  Things happen. Your world can change in a minute.”  

But change they can, as they did for me one frigid January afternoon only four months after I’d begun varnishing. Not yet accustomed to the water, determined to work despite the weather, I’d ventured out on the back side of a cold front that had dropped the water level by feet. My intended project was barely floating, its aging spring lines pulled tight against the dock. 

Uncertain whether I could board, I cautiously picked my way down the finger pier, evaluating the situation. Perhaps I was too cautious. Intent on the boat, the narrowness of the pier, my own balance, I didn’t see the spring line only a half-inch above the dock. It caught my toe, destroyed my balance and I was airborne before I realized what had happened. When I opened my eyes I was underwater, staring straight at a barnacle-covered piling. Instinctively looking up, I saw the light above me and kicked my way to the suface.  The boat I meant to be working on was bobbing away in the next slip, utterly unconcerned with my plight.


Later, I considered that I could have died, or been badly injured.  There could have been a boat in the slip I plunged into and I could have hit my head. I could have been unable to pull myself from the water or swim to shore, weighed down as I was by layer upon layer of winter clothing.   Instead, I managed to pull myself onto a swim platform where, heart racing, I sat and pondered my options. 

Eventually a young man carrying a bucket, a length of line and a boat hook came strolling down the dock. Far below his line of sight, I called out to attract his attention.  Stopping to peer down at me, obviously confused by the sight of a sopping wet, middle-aged woman huddled on a swim platform in January, he asked, “What are you doing down there?”  With all the dignity I could muster, I straightened up, looked him in the eye and said, “Waiting for you.”

In a couple of minutes he’d adjusted the lines, pulled the boat as closely as he could to the barnacle covered pilings and helped me drip my way to safety up an improvised ladder. “What happened?” he asked. I pointed to the spring line, still stretched taut across the pier. “Oh, yeh, ” he said. “Low water. It happens.”


In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, I remember my unexpected tumble into those murky, frigid waters and realize a peculiar truth: Haiti and I have something in common. Haiti did nothing wrong. Haiti didn’t “deserve” what happened to her. She wasn’t being inattentive or careless, and she certainly had no desire to bring such sorrow and grief upon herself. She simply was going about her business – buying and selling in the market, crooning babies into sleep, cooking meals, watching the last glow of sunlight dissolve into tropical dreams – when a fault line tightened and Port au Prince tripped, flying off into the chaos of history.

The horror of it all is magnified by our intuitive sense that the earth is not supposed to rise and fall like the tides, lifting and heaving all that covers its surface like so much flotsam or pulling down into itself all that is warm and beautiful and familiar.  But like a great and rising shore-tide, the tide of geologic events swept through a nation and then ebbed away, drawing reality taut as any unseen line across a low-tide pier.  

In my imagination, I see Haiti tripping over that line, catching her breath in anxiety and fear as she flies with her world through the air.  Arms flung out to heaven, she tumbles, she falls and then –  huddled, forlorn, shaken and needy – begins to ponder her options as she clambers out of the rubble. Today, she still sits, and waits for a helping hand.    

The earth rises, the earth falls,
the ceilings crumble and then the walls;
through panic-stricken rage and grief
the broken-hearted seek relief,
and the earth rises, the earth falls.


Comments are welcome ~ to leave a comment, please click below. Special thanks to Heidi Gallo for permission to use her “Low Tide ~ Rock Harbor for this piece. You can see more of her watercolors at Local Colors of Cape Cod.

16 thoughts on “Tripped by the Taut Line of Life

  1. Linda,

    Waiting in Haiti. Trip lines and fault lines. No one’s fault. “Waiting for you.” Powerful images all.

    I have always enjoyed your writing — but there is something new and different about it of late in how it hits me. Maybe it’s just me. I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because I see you more in your stories of late. Whatever it is, I can only say that this piece breathes.

    As you share your naked need while waiting frozen for a helping hand out of your mess, I now see you and Haiti frozen together as you wait for a helping hand. Your face has given Haiti a face, in a way that a CNN reporter and a television camera is not equipped to do.

    Connected by an ocean, connected by humility and raw need, I’m reminded once again of John Donne’s great meditation that began “No man is an island… Entire of itself.”

    I knew you would write on Haiti upon reflection. It was worth the wait.



    Reflection is critical, isn’t it? Sometimes events need a little distance, a little time for creative connections to emerge. It’s the very antithesis of “re-tweeting”.

    Interesting, your remark about reporters and cameras. When I wrote about the Iranian resistance, very much the same comment was made. I’ve always thought still photographs communicate reality more powerfully than television. Television moves too fast, it keeps nudging us forward and keeps us on the surface. You can go back to a photograph, explore it, prop it in a corner and talk to it. Perhaps writing can do the same – freeze a moment, a bit of reality, so we can give it the attention it’s due.

    As for that “new and different” that’s lurking about – I’m quite aware of it, too, and I don’t think it’s at all mysterious. I think
    I’m beginning to learn to write. ;-)


  2. A couple of things to address in this post but I’ll take them over a space of time.

    Tides: Where I grew up out on Cape Cod where the forearm starts to curve northwards we are well acquainted with the tides. Over on the ocean side it’s not particularly noticeable, but over on the Cape Cod Bay side the vertical difference between high tide and low is about 12 feet. It’s obvious even to those who grew up in the midwest and never heard of tides.

    The time difference between two high tides is 12 hours and twenty five minutes. So, if the tide is high at 8 o’clock this morning it will be high at ten to nine tomorrow morning. And a week from now at eight in the morning it will be a low tide instead of a high one.

    With the great tidal range on the Bay side, what was really noticeable (if you weren’t over at Rock Harbor to see the boats that were once at eye level now WAY down there at low tide) was that at low tide the water was more than a half mile away from where it was at high tide time. Huge expanses of undulating tidal flats with what were like small ponds between them stretched out to the horizon.

    Skaket (officially Namskaket) Beach bears a Nauset Indian name, and was a favorite beach destination for families with small children. The kids could play building sand castles with the damp sand and frolic in the small ponds which were barely even knee-deep for toddlers. Four and a half miles to the east on the other side of town was Nauset Beach with its ocean waves.

    The other difference for the two beaches was the noticeable difference in the temperatures of the water. At Nauset it never really got warm. The south-flowing Labrador Current comes quite close and on a WARM water day the temperature usually didn’t go much above 63 degrees. Over at Skaket, when the tide was “out” in the morning on a sunny day the flats would be heated by the sun and as the water returned it was warmed and in the afternoon at high tide the water temperature would often be as high as 85 degrees.

    The difference in the tides killed my first entry into the world of self employment. I opened a restaurant at a small beach on the Bay side of the town of Wellfleet. On the weeks when the tides were high, during the best swimming hours of the day it was low tide and the sun was shining. The next week when the tides were reversed and people would want to come down to swim it rained. It was like that ALL SUMMER LONG. I didn’t lose my shirt, but when the books were balanced after the end of the season on Labor Day I broke even.


    Fascinating details. The differences between Gulf beaches and your beaches are as pronounced as the differences between my childhood cornfields and the Gulf. Your tidal flats are particularly appealing. We have just enough slope that there aren’t any flats, and the beach area between the dunes and the water is a relatively narrow band. Not only that, our tidal range is 1-2 feet under normal conditions. I didn’t see really big tides until I got to Alaska.

    The temperature differential’s amazing, too. It makes sense, but it’s one of those things that needs pointing out for folks (like me) who’ve never been there. I was just thinking – those flats must be where people go clamming.

    As for the joys of weather-related business, I can relate. I’ve always thought a restaurant would be one of the toughest of business undertakings. The fact that you were able to break even is great, even though I’m sure a big, fat profit would have been better ;-)

    Thanks for stopping by – I’ve been learning a good bit about the Cape, and really enjoying it.


  3. Linda, this folds so many moods together, from the individual reminiscences of place and weather to the deftly-described incident of personal near-catastrophe to the powerful statement of our common human fragility in the face of unpredictable changes in land and sea.

    Lovely writing, and something to ponder.

    Mary Ellen,

    Thank you so much for your kind words, and especially for raising up our “common human fragility”. I think it’s hard for the strong, the powerful, the lucky or blessed to realize they, too, are as limited and contingent as the poorest of the poor, but it’s a fact. When we’re brought face to face with that difficult reality, it can be tempting to turn away – not because we are without sympathy, but because we can’t bear to see ourselves in the plight of others.

    The fact that there are people willing to walk straight into the middle of such disasters and truly see those around them never fails to astonish.


  4. I’m enjoying more and more your posts of late, wherein you reveal and share your past with us, and what amazing real life accounts those are!

    But what I’ve appreciated more are the connections of your past experiences with what’s happening today. The revealing takes on layers of meaning; the beginning and the ending of each post is a mini-mystery in itself. The enjoyment comes when I’m led by your writing, step by step, eager to discover the final connection.

    This is one moving connection you’ve made here in this post, Linda, dramatic, personal, and relevant. Thank you!


    Your comment tells me I won my little wager with myself on this one. I had a title early on, but it included the word “Haiti”. I decided to revise the title, eliminate any early reference to Haiti and see if I could tell the story in such a way that it would keep you involved and surprise you at the end. As a matter of fact, I had Longfellow’s quotation and my play on his words from the beginning. All I had to do was fill in the middle!

    As for connections ~ I think they’re at the heart of life and, hence, at the heart of the writing endeavor. I’ve always enjoyed the naturalist John Muir’s comment: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”


  5. Linda:

    That’s an interesting observation about the power of still photography over moving images. I’d never thought of it that way before.

    There are so many stark, chilling photographs I can bring to mind after not having seen them for years. That poor little girl running, naked, down the road in Viet Nam after being napalmed. Her pain is palpable. The coed kneeling over the body of the slain student at Kent State. You can feel her anquish. The men standing on the balcony pointing to where the shots came from that killed Martin Luther King…

    But, there is one moving image that has to be seared into hundreds of thousands, if not millions of brains…that one poor guy in the invasion of Normandy who takes three or four steps up the beach and is shot dead and falls. How many times have we seen that?


    The proof is in the photographic pudding you offer up. Each of those images you mention comes to mind immediately – I didn’t even think of them, I simply “saw” them. Even with the Normandy invasion image, it remains in mind as a still image.

    I suppose it could be argued that familiarity makes recall possible in these cases – after all, we’ve seen these pictures again and again. But of course they’ve been reproduced because of their inherent power. And it isn’t simply a function of tragedy or horror. Say “Half-Dome” to me and I think of Ansel Adams. Say “end of WWII” and I remember that sailor and his girl. The word “iconic” is the right one.


  6. Such a powerful connection you’ve made between these two experiences, the one very personal, and the other so very global. But it’s in our connections that we become truly human- sometimes it take pivotal moments in history to help us recall that fact and put it into practice.


    You’re exactly right. The importance of personalization is one reason relief groups or those working on a sustained basis in difficult situations try as much as they are able to tell the stories of individuals. We may give intellectual assent to a cause, but we reach out to help people.

    A few years ago, during some humanitarian crisis or other, I happened to be at a symposium which had a question-and-answer session at its end. A young, impassioned woman stood up and said, “I’m just horrified by the hunger I see around the world. How can I help?” One of the panelists looked at her and said, “Go down to the Star of Hope Mission and help serve dinner.” Exactly.

    I’ll never forget the days after Tropical Storm Allison flooded out hundreds of houses in my neighborhood. It isn’t FEMA or the insurance adjustors I remember most clearly, but the pair of teens from the local Baptist church who came to the door and asked if we’d like some bottled water and a lunch: a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, some cookies. I still tear up when I think of it.


  7. I had written a different comment but the browser went berserk and I lost that one.

    This is such an engaging piece. You are right on about so many things in this piece. “Your world can change in a minute”. That Tuesday when I saw the news, one of the things they were saying was that hand the earthquake happened a little deeper in the earth, Jamaica would have been at the butt of a huge tsunami. That was a little nerve racking.

    I thought of my mother and father. The faces of close relatives and friends came to mind. Later in the week various little pictures came to mind. The young fruit trees I planted before I left in the summer. The government building that holds the record of my birth, my marriage. The gorgeous hundred and something year old Buxton Building on the compound at Mico College. I like to know that they are still there. Thinking about these things made me grieve even more for Haiti. For they have to be contending with different thoughts altogether.



    It’s the “small” things that seem to loom largest sometimes, and the loss of those “small” things can have such impact. Maybe it’s just that we can’t get our minds around the disaster as a whole. After Hurricane Ike, one of the first things I did was return to a place I’d lived years ago. I’d planted a tiny camphor tree there when it was about three feet tall with a dozen leaves. Now, it’s above the second story roof. It came through the storm fine, and seeing it there was unbelievably comforting.

    Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes – sweeping away everything in a minute. Lives lost, a city ruined – it’s just incomprehensible. And yet, the living have to go on. They’ll need people to keep remembering them once the media’s gotten bored and gone away to the next big thing.

    Blessings to you.


  8. This is powerful to me, Linda, on so many levels, one of which is that we see the world through our own experiences. How else can we see it so clearly? How can we feel another’s pain if we haven’t first had it ourselves?

    I love how you have juxtaposed the small on the big, the “me” on the “them.” Somehow we are all connected when we see the parallels of our mutual existence. Thanks once again for connecting the dots, which you do so well.


    I suspect in the end the ability to draw connections is more important than the concrete experiences we have – at least in terms of being able to appreciate what others are going through. I’ve never been through an earthquake, but I’ve experienced the devastation of a flood. I’ve never raised children, but I’m learning what it means to be completely responsible for an elderly parent. I’ve never experienced alcoholism or drug addiction, but there’s that little thing with the chocolate… ;-)

    I’m awfully slow sometimes, but I’m beginning to understand one task of a writer – to help us move, imaginatively, into worlds we’d otherwise never know. To do that, of course, you have to know the world of which you write. I suspect that’s why some of the best writing about great events comes after the passage of time. It takes weeks, months or even years to absorb the significance of what we live.

    Enjoy every minute of this upcoming week – and your own very significant day!


  9. Linda,
    I love the way you tie things together here, and the way your own experience brings insight to the plight of those you’ve never met. You make us see how, through no fault of our own (their own), life can be threatened, even extinguished. It can happen without warning. Without a helping hand, where would we be.

    These few weeks have been harrowing, and it’s draining to watch the images coming out of Haiti. It’s wonderful to read something that adds a drop of perspective to the bucket.


    One of the things that distressed me beyond words was the absurd insistence of Pat Robertson that Haiti had “brought this on herself”. I kept thinking, “But it could happen to anyone…” I started looking for an analogous situation in my own life, and was lucky enough to find it.

    It has been harrowing to watch. For those living it, the process of recovery will be complicated and exhausting. But ~ schools opened today in Port-au-Prince. Life will begin to go on, and whatever tiny routines can be established will help the healing to occur.


  10. There’s thrill in reading good stuff, in finding a word, a line, a phrase that resonates. And there’s magic when a writer pulls a certain something together, maybe even only subconsciously and here’s where you got me: “…when a fault line tightened and Port au Prince tripped, flying off into the chaos of history.” Oh, that’s a diamond line amidst many other precious jewels in this piece.

    And the midwest, in its still, still steadiness? Yes, quite true and yet there is such a rich fabric here if one climbs a hill or ridge and gets a view…but the water here? Slow and still, just as you paint it. Only Twain could turn the Mississippi into a romantic twining of water. We are, oddly, water-deprived and so, I come to you for my ocean fix!


    And isn’t it true that those “diamond lines” are mined as much as created, dug out from the subconscious and suddenly spotted, just lying there? Sometimes they don’t even need to be washed up or faceted ~ they simply shine. Finding one is a terrific experience, and probably part of the reason that myths and muse-ish legends about the writing process have emerged. There’s a good bit of mystery at play, here.

    Your water’s had its own role to play, of course. Twain’s an obvious one, but there are others, including my beloved T.S. Eliot. Whether right or wrong, I’m convinced his experiences in St. Louis and with the Mississippi informed his river imagery.

    It’s always such a pleasure to see you – the ocean awaits your toes!


  11. What an astounding story — and as you always do, it becomes woven into an even larger tapestry. Beautifully told and correlated, Linda.

    And I have to say, I think the title of your book — for you WILL do a book — should be “Messengers of the Sea.” I’m just sayin…


    You are so funny! But I’m glad you like the piece, and I liked your title. Here’s a true story: when I’ve thought about the book I’d write, the sea’s had nothing to do with it. But, you never know ;-) Maybe in the end we write the book that shows up and says, “Write ME!”

    If you haven’t been by to see Ruth’s dinosaurs, you just must!


  12. Sometimes stuff just happens, for no reason. But sometimes a hand isn’t going to come along and you have to help yourself…


    Of course. And you can bet that, given a bit more time and no one coming down the dock, I would have figured something out. It was COLD sitting on that platform, sopping wet! But how wonderful it is to be given the gift of help when we need it. It helps us understand how to cope better next time (whatever that “next time” is) and it can help sensitize us to the others around us who may need our helping hand!


  13. “Waiting for you.”

    I never think of something so clever in a situation like that.

    I’m struck by a thought that comes to me now and then. There are those who seem ever to be “waiting for you.” You and I are not that. We help ourselves. Self reliant, aren’t we? But there are those in the world – individuals, whole countries – who have been trained to wait for someone to help – even when tragedy has not struck, or rather, when tragedy is a way of life.

    What I love to see is when these get reversed. When someone as self reliant as you or me trips and falls. (I’m so glad you weren’t injured.) And when someone trained to be dependent, pulls themselves up and helps themselves. When victims of an earthquake wait days and days for help, food, water, and at last they begin to turn to each other with these offerings.

    Thank you for making this unexpected connection. It was a delight.


    I think you’re exactly right. Those categories, “waiting for…” and “self-reliant” are fluid, capable of shifting and changing over time or because of circumstance. I wasn’t always self-reliant, and even the most self-reliant trapped in the Superdome after Katrina weren’t capable of helping themselves or anyone else. After a few days, there was no water or food to offer – and when resources are depleted, the outside helping hand becomes critical.

    I can’t help but think of the movement from “waiting” to “doing” your overview of the Civil Rights movement highlighted. After decades of “be patient”, patience ran out – sometimes in the most simple and ordinary ways. Rosa Parks sitting down comes to mind.

    I suppose the key to it all is knowing what we’re capable of, knowing what’s needed and learning from our experiences so we’re better prepared the next time a crisis presents itself. Learning compassion and generosity never hurts, either ;-)


  14. I can’t really say that I am back, Linda, as I am a little fickle. But as always, thank you for the words. Appreciated, even if I seem gone :)


    You may have seemed gone, but you’re obviously not gone, and that makes me happy beyond belief. Isn’t it funny how we can miss someone we’ve never met? It says a good bit for the power of the written word.

    I’m glad to see the same epigraph atop your new (or newly formatted) blog. I’ve referred to those words time and time again and taken them to heart. If I don’t have something to say, I don’t say it. It’s an approach that’s served me well.

    I’ve seen enough of your new posting to know there’s only one thing to say – stay warm!


  15. Poor, poor Haiti. Shows you just how small we are. Tiny little things walking this great, big, unpredictable earth. Goes to show we don’t have much to say about stuff.

    I worry especially about the children. This is a country that was limping along, people working as hard as they could with not much to show at the end of the day. What is going to happen to all those little orphans who cannot fend for themselves? I am so glad the world showed up to help….. too bad a really good organizer wasn’t in control!

    That was a frightening trip into the cold water for you! I find water beautiful, but a little overwhelming: it is soooo big and powerful and often deep. I am lucky to live next to a Great Lake, which may as well be an ocean (except it isn’t salty). We can’t swim in it anymore because of the muck we have thrown into it, but it is still beautiful. To listen to the crashing waves…calming and inspiring at the same time.


    We are small, despite our occasional delusions to the contrary.

    Your comment reminded me of the Breton Fisherman’s prayer ~ “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” President Kennedy was given a plaque inscribed with the prayer by Admiral Hyman Rickover. He treasured it and kept it on his desk in the Oval Office. (The original’s on display at the JFK Library in Boston.)

    I fear too many today have desk plaques declaring, “O God, This piddling little ocean is nothing, and I’ve got a terrific new boat”. Humility in the face of life’s realities isn’t especially common, I fear.

    When I think of lakes, I certainly don’t think of your lakes. We had pretty good lakes, but not GREAT lakes! I can’t believe you can’t swim in yours any longer. That’s terrifically sad in its own way – I wish we could stop seeing such issues as politically particsan and see them as matters of survival.

    But still – there are those waves. They do calm and inspire, and they’re never the same – never! It’s a good part of their power and charm.

    So good of you to stop by!


  16. Rivers, lakes, oceans and earthquakes with a Spring Line to hold them together!

    Here working my way through the archives and continue to be happy with what I find. The comments and your consistent responses slow me down but remind me of a piece of advice from “The Master Game”: “Stop the World.” For a while.

    Thanks again


    One of my own favorite bloggers talks quite a bit about “slow blogging” – taking the time to write, read and respond with thought and sensitivity. I’ve learned quite a bit from her, and it’s obviously shaped what I do here.

    I do see the comments attached to any post as part of a dynamic whole, and I try to respect people who take time to leave a comment with more than a cursory “thanks for stopping by”. Everyone has their own way of doing it, but that’s mine ;-)


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