For years I believed that I loved the beach because everybody I knew loved the beach and insisted that I did, too. They longed for it and sang its praises and daydreamed about escaping to the beach, and not just in the cruel dead months of winter. Like Basho longing for Kyoto even in Kyoto, my family and friends would lie on the sand and do nothing except celebrate their being on the beach.
Some waxed poetically: all life begins in the sea, be it the primordial waters of our newborn planet, or the smaller sea of our mothers’ wombs.
Others more prosaically celebrated not being work.
Still others took pleasure in showing off their bodies, or observing others who showed off their bodies, or both.
Too young to appreciate poetry, have a job, or experience the thrill of public near-nudity, I simply agreed, and insisted that I loved the beach and hoped that nobody would press me further on reasons why.
Reasons not to love the beach were obvious: sand. Sand in my shoes, sand in my hair, sand in my body somehow, sand all over the potato chips.
And salt. In my eyes, in my mouth, and eventually enough would work its way into my skin to make my nipples hurt.
And the sun. Burned skin, a lot of squinting, fighting for shade or else gallantly giving it up.
And the sea. Relentless, punishing the shore and those along it, concealing threats like sharp rocks, angry crabs, and deadly currents.
And in later years, when we moved far and the beach became accessible only for a weekend a year, I listened as everyone around me lamented their fate and long for the shore, but I stayed silent, content to be dry and cool. In time I was on my own to plan my vacations, and I finally began to admit to those around me that the sea simply didn’t pull me the way it did others. Although everyone was shocked, it was a relief to be able to admit that.
But that wasn’t the whole story.
I do love the sea.
When I was nine years old we lived on the twenty-first floor in a building whose lobby opened directly onto a clear strand of Atlantic beach. I had a bedroom but I preferred to sleep on the couch because I could leave the door to the balcony open and hear the waves down below. The salt and sound engaged all my senses, and my body, though I lay still on my side, struggled happily to find equilibrium amidst the shifting of the currents, reacting to the phantom memory of the water.
Those nights are among the most precious of my memories.
This past weekend we went to the beach for a wedding and rented a little cottage just a block from the shore. The days were consumed with wedding activities, and when we weren’t doing those there was obligatory socializing with relatives who had come from far away, and meeting people who were now, however tenuously, new relatives.
And I spent most of the time waiting for the moment when I could escape and walk the block to the beach by myself, and walk along the strand, quiet and alone.
At last the wedding was over, and the bride and groom went away, and the relatives old and new soon followed. My parents plopped down and admitted they were too tired and happy to do anything but sit, and so I excused myself and took the short walk in time to watch the sun slip off the glassy sky and disappear to the other side of the earth.
I walked along lazily until it was dark, trying to live in this moment and that other moment from years ago, even on the beach longing for the beach.
Because I do, after all, love the beach.