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A Beach Person
May my toes root me here
We’re not really a beach family.
I grew up in landlocked country, realizing only in retrospect how suffocating those great expanses of land can feel. The undulating farmland, the flat roads with no exits and a house every couple of miles—today those features remind me of home, promise a quiet that is separate from my hectic life.
But back then, all that silence made me anxious.
I saw the ocean once. I was seven years old and we had taken a family trip to Disney World. There’s no ocean anywhere near Disney World, but if you’re visiting Florida from the Midwest, you can’t not go to the beach. By the time we’d completed the two-hour drive to Clearwater, my neck was sore from stretching it to look out the front window of the car, desperate to catch a glimpse of what I’d only seen in movies.
I couldn’t wait to get there and, though I was going back to freaking Disney World, I didn’t want to leave. No length of time could have been enough. I had fallen in love with the sea, and I knew it would be another lifetime or more until I would return.
We went to the lake a couple of times a year. I dipped my toes in Lake Michigan once. But even the Great Lake, with all its ocean vibes, couldn’t give me the same chills I get from the open sea.
There is something about standing at the shoreline as the waves lap at my toes, knowing that this is the end of the road. Something about letting the waves bob me up and down in the water like a cork. Something about looking down to see fish swimming past my ankles. Something in the salt and the breeze and the sun and the clouds and the swishing of the waves rushing into my ears. I could melt into it all.
As constraining as this natural boundary is, being close to it somehow makes me feel more boundless. Yet, in the 23 years that I’ve spent living on one coast or another, how many times have I visited the shore next door? I could count them up without even taking my shoes off.
In California, my roommates would invite me to Pacifica or Carmel, or even Coyote Point, just on the other side of the highway. Nah, I’d say. I have work to do. And here? The place I live with my family and my work and my commitments that never end? Hundreds of miles of shoreline not an hour from my doorstep and I never, ever go there.
I tried figuring out my reasons for being such a landlubber earlier this year, and the closest I got was, “Going to the beach is a pain in the ass.” Which, yeah. It can be, especially with kids—and the smaller they are, the harder it is. You need all the gear. Snacks. Drinks. Floaties. Toys. Towels. Shade. Sunscreen. You have to get there early, because the best beaches are impossible to get into after 9am. You have to pay for parking, and who has that kind of cash or knows their ATM PIN? By the time you get there, it’s basically naptime—for the little ones but also for you. And all the sand in all the places, basically until next year.
But this summer is so damn hot. My house is under construction. The pool we usually go to isn’t available. The town has a wading pool for residents, but there’s no shade—and it’s shallow, so the big kids don’t want to go there.
So, maybe it’s a pain in the ass, but I’m desperate.
This summer, we are beach people. On the hottest of the mornings (which are far too frequent this year), when there’s no rain in the forecast, I round up whatever humans are around, pack up the car, and head to wherever sounds good. Sometimes, if we’ve got a schedule to keep, it’s a pond or a reservoir. There are plenty of those in our little corner of New England.
But, when time is no object, we head toward where the salt sprays my hair and the gulls fight in the surf for uneaten clams, where the waves challenge my balance and I can look to forever without seeing more than a sailboat sliding across the horizon.
I watch the life cycle of the waves as they swell and break, adding and subtracting and stretching outward as the tide comes in, and then travel back in ripples that shape the sand into its own ephemeral waveform.
I hold my children by the hand and we tiptoe in, but only to my knees. Because we all love the ocean, but none of us knows her well enough to trust her.
I curl my toes into the sand, but the retreating surf slips it out of even my firmest grasp before a new wave crashes into my shins.
I heard once that the push of the wind helps trees grow strong and tall, and without that resistance they would flop over like wet noodles. I feel like falling over like a wet noodle. My feet hurt, and my knees are all shredded inside, and this ankle is giving me trouble, too. Every day there’s something new with this not-that-old body of mine. But standing here, looking toward tomorrow, I wonder. Can the waves do for me what the wind does for the trees? If I stand here long enough, will my toes root into the sand? Can the push and pull of the water soothe more than my soul and my senses, can it heal my flesh and bones?
If you need me I’ll be here, testing that theory. Here, where if nothing else the cool salt water on my skin can separate me for awhile from the small but persistent pains of living. Here in the place that both holds me in and sets me free.