Originally published on newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY (NPR) in Philadelphia.
As I get older I gravitate more and more toward those things that sustain me. That please me and nourish me rather than subtract from me. Some days in my life, some long days, I have felt that subtraction keenly. If I start to get that raw feeling that everything has been scraped out of me, scraped roughly out of me so that I have become dull and useless, then I know I need a trip to the beach.
Just the simple act of placing my beach chair in the sand and spreading out my towel signifies something. I am staking out a little patch of time and space where I am unlikely to be interrupted by children, spouse, friends, requests for work, telephone solicitors, or e-mail (I force myself to leave my cell phone at home). This very act says to me, “This is mine – this time, this small piece of the earth.”
The beach calls forth sense memories at their most intimate and primal level. Driving over the causeway into Ocean City, New Jersey I roll down the car windows and inhale deeply. Immediately the pungent, briny scent of the Atlantic Ocean assails me. If I closed my eyes I would know exactly where I was, just by that smell.
At the beach, change is the only constant. The tide moves inexorably in and out. One wave crashes grandly, but the next two roll in gently and rhythmically. The very sand shifts under your feet. The sky, a milky blue one moment, threatens storm clouds the next.
When I was a child my family used to visit my Aunt Mary in Point Pleasant, where she often rented a cottage for a week. Even then I sensed that beach life was different than real life. Sand was in every crevice of the cottage, and under my bare feet on the worn wood floors, but no one seemed to feel the urge to sweep it up. Shells collected by previous renters were on every surface – on windowsills, used as bookends in the bookcase filled with Reader’s Digest condensed books, even on the back of the toilet in the bathroom we all shared. When I picked up a large conch, I wondered if it was true that you could hear the ocean if you held it to your ear, or if that was one of those things adults said to tease you. I was more than pleased when I pressed the conch to my child’s ear and heard what sounded like a far-off echo of the ocean that was only steps away. How many more wonders did I, a child, not know about yet?
Later at the beach, my father’s strong arms swoop me up over the waves, which seem terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I get knocked down a few times, and find myself clawing the bottom, drinking saltwater, choking and sputtering, but then always coming up to the blessed air. The sky bright with the pitiless glare of the summer sun, the thrilled shrieks of others. Before long I don’t need my father to hold my hand or keep watch. Before long I learn to save myself.
It is a guilty pleasure to be at the beach by yourself. Walking along the packed sand at the water’s edge, you see and sense an entire world in miniature. Here there are entire civilizations of creatures scurrying about and burrowed in the sand. Ripples in the mudflats show where the tide has come in and then receded, erasing bird track hieroglyphics. A baby’s footprints are already half-gone. Is there anything so ephemeral as a baby’s footprints in the sand?
Everything here at the shore is eventually erased; nothing endures except the horizon. Erosion is swift and unstoppable. But in the meantime, there is the warmth of the sun, the laughing call of gulls overhead, the sweet rush of memories of other beach days, and the exquisite promise of more to come.