My earliest memory is of me, barely old enough to hold my small body upright on my own, standing at the edge of the ocean. I remember being terrified as the tide carried the sand, the shells, and what felt like the very earth beneath my feet back out to sea. My father’s hearty laugh and an explanation of the currents followed, yet even now, I have never quite gotten over the fear of being swept out and away.
I am not an avid beach goer, and my idea of a slow and painful death involves being left to sit and bake for hours in the sun. My pale skin does not welcome those brutal rays, and I get bored far too easily to just sit and “relax” on the shoreline. Coupled with the fact that I have a sincere phobia of deep water, one that was fostered by an ill-fated snorkeling trip and one too many movies, and a day at the beach is anything but for me.
I grew up near the water, and for me, it has always been the banks of rivers and oceans right as the sun is rising or once it has gone down that called to me. I find the shoreline to be nothing short of therapeutic, and whenever my car begins to wind its way toward some body of water, I roll my windows down long before I can catch a glimpse of the surf just to soak in the salty air. The sounds, the smells, and the taste of calm on my tongue seem to erase the aches and pains that accumulate under my skin. Even when I don’t plan for it, I find myself seeking out bodies of water when I need to be alone or when my heart feels like it is slowed to a crawl. And there is nothing more satisfying than discovering that I am alone, unencumbered by a stranger’s company, that I am the only one making that pilgrimage at that exact time in that place.
For it is there, in those stolen moments of solitude, that I remember the power of an empty shore.
At the water’s edge, I have cried the tears that come from some primal place so deep and so hidden that I am always surprised when my salt and what feels like the world’s start to mingle on my face. It is in those moments of raw vulnerability that I begin to bandage my oldest wounds, the ones whose scars never fully heal regardless of time or circumstance. It is here alone where I am able to regain some sense of balance because the waves seem to carry my weights out into the deepest trenches, even though I know they always manage to find their way back to the shores of my soul.
Years after my first visit to the Atlantic, I would wake up one morning and load my arms and hands and body down with towels and coolers and toys and every other absolute necessity for a short visit across the sand. In an unusual act of early morning wakefulness, I volunteered to take my youngest niece and nephew across the road to the beach long before the adults were ready to start the family caravan. As the three of us began the long hike from the blacktop to the stairs, my nephew’s tiny hand was tucked into mine, and his sister trailed along beside us. The smell of the ocean drifted into our noses as we reached the top of the walkway. There, the early morning sun was beginning to shine, and Kyle gasped as he saw the ocean for the very first time. In awe, he stood, simply saying, “It’s so big.”
That moment remains one of my most precious memories. Because in that precise moment, a child barely more than a toddler was able to say what I had always felt. That there, next to the ocean, we are reminded of our size, of our humanity. That in the ocean’s enormity, we can find peace in our insignificance.
Now, I live in a city that celebrates its proximity to the Gulf, and our entire economy is practically built on salt and seaweed. Every time I see some commercial for a resort or the beach vacation of a lifetime, I can’t help but notice how everyone is always smiling, surrounded by rainbows of fish and playful dolphins, inflatable toys and well-behaved children.
What’s always missing for me in these scenes are those of us who need the salt and sea and air in order to breathe and to remind ourselves of our fragility as well as our strength. I can never find even a hint of us in the background, those who go to the water to reclaim ourselves or to cry away our most private of pains.
Just once in one of those ads, I’d like to see a child standing there, sun peeking over the horizon, his mouth open in breathlessness as he takes it all in. Perhaps there is a man, arms wrapped around his knees as he tries to make sense of the end by revisiting the beginning. Or maybe you see me. Hair blowing. Eyes closed. Mind open. Alone. On the shores of the sea.