And the ones that can know you so well
are the ones that can swallow you whole
--Dar Williams, "The Ocean"
Let me set the record straight. I hate the beach. Most people I know are appalled by this, for one simple reason. I am from New Jersey (in fact, until I was in first grade, I lived within a mile of the beach, but a five-year-old's concept of geography is such that I didn't know it until after we moved inland). I do not, unless absolutely forced, partake in that barbaric New Jersey ritual known as "going down the shore" every summer. We never had a beach house, we never joined a swim club, never wore those thick macrame sailor's bracelets that you never took off and they shrank and shrank and shrank until eventually your mom had to cut it off before you permanently lost circulation to your hand. The crowds, the boom-boxes, the sand-burrs, the jellyfish, the oily coconut smell of sunscreen--hate it. Hate. It. If I never had to walk barefoot across another sandy, sticky, melting, broken-glass-strewn, sunbaked parking lot for endless rows, searching for the car we parked hours ago, all the while lugging chairs and towels and shells and books, I would die content. I really would.
But I love the ocean.
Figure that one out. The ocean makes me happy. I once had the luxury of spending ten full days in the Orkney Islands, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, waaaay up at the northern tip of Scotland. They're closer, really, to Oslo than they are to London. And even in August, the height of tourist season and backpacking and hosteling heaven, the population is slightly less than 20,000. Spread out, mind you, over 16 inhabited islands and some 55 to 60 uninhabited ones. Perfect for an antisocialite such as I, particularly as this was in the midst of my prickly twenties.
Every day, after a vague breakfast in the hostel and something resembling ablutions in the (at best) moderately-scary hostel showers, I got on my rented bicycle and headed inexorably towards the ocean. Not hard to do, when you're on an island that's 20 miles wide at its largest. And with Scapa Flow, also water, in the middle.
Every day, for ten days, I wrote. I spent hours hunched over on the rocks, trying to block the worst of the wind from tearing pages out of my notebook and sending them towards the Shetlands and Norway. I forget what I was running from, that summer (probably myself), but I remember it was looking out over the churchyard in Stromness that I realized that a little loneliness wasn't necessarily a bad thing. That I could be not only alone, but actually lonely, and still completely happy.
There's more to it than that, of course; there always is. There's whatever happened the night that I'd gone the previous week to see Hamish at the one-room flat he shared with Grace, the mystery that changed the course of our friendship; there's how my father used to play Goldbug while he waited for us on the ferris wheel at Asbury Park, and we used to try to find his white hair in a different place every time our car crested the top of the arc; there's the suicide note I was never supposed to see, written desperately one night, instructing me ashes in Atlantic in typical cryptic fashion, that was later cast aside in favour of another day but stupidly not discarded; the ocean of my mother; the salt that's in all of us
it's where we came from, you know,
and sometimes I just want to go back