My wife and I love to discover new swimming holes, lakes, beaches, and places to park our backpack beach chairs, crack open the Snapple diet Iced teas, dig into a bag of chips (what? We’re drinking DIET Snapples!) and read, nap and swim away a perfect summer day. A few days ago, on a Monday off from work, we discovered a quiet little state beach at small lake, settled our chairs a few feet from the water and relished the quiet of being two of only a handful of people taking advantage of this picture perfect spot.
Until the day campers showed up.
Now, I’ll give their counselors credit. These kids were well-behaved, orderly, kept the volume to a dull roar and for the most part didn’t impact our day on the lake at all. But periodically throughout the day when the campers were in the water, the counselors would call out “Water Buddies!” and every camper had to stop and hold up the hand of his or her partner so the counselors could do a head count. This occurred so many times over the course of the day that any time we heard “Water Buddies!” Kelly and I would raise our hands up together to be counted.
On the way home, I thought about the weekend we had spent together, the trip we’d taken to tour the mansions of Newport, and connect with some old and new friends along the way. We had a great time but I’d spent much of the weekend uncomfortable about my size, omparing my frumpy fat mom look to the sleek preppy girls that gathered at a nearby table at the Black Pearl, feeling dowdy and huge next to my stunning college roommate in her fashionable outfit at dinner, and worrying about what my red, sweaty face would look like in photos of our outdoor brunch in 90+ temperatures. To say I was unhappy with physical self was an understatement.
One would think these feelings would be incompatible with my near obsession with spending as much time in the summer in my bathing suit as possible. I recognize it’s a contradiction. But something happens to me in the water. Weightless I can pretend I’m that lithe water sprite I feel like inside. I float with Kelly, she holds me, spins me around in the water, and I idly wonder if this is what skinny girls feel like all the time. Exiting the water returns me to reality. Wrapped up in our towels, settled back in our chairs I make a joke about the way my bathing suit top keeps rolling up over my enormous stomach. “Right?” laughs Kelly, running a hand over her own stomach “sexy huh?” I laugh and return to my book, my hand reaching out for hers across the arms of our beach chairs. And there, wedged into my beach chair, a ratty baseball hat covering my damp gray hair, my hand entwined with hers, I realize for the millionth time how lucky I am. How none of the worries about my physical imperfections, my size, my age, ultimately mattered. Because I have her. I have my Water Buddy. And when you find your Water Buddy, you never ever want to let go.
I grew upon on an island. A small island, and one connected to the mainland by a short ½ mile causeway, but an island nonetheless. Each summer after the students had departed the campus of the school where my father served as superintendent, the island felt like it was mine and mine alone. I would wake to the smell of salt in the air and was able to tell without looking if it was the dank smell of low tide which left the mud flats exposed and made it almost possible to walk to the houses on Falmouth Foreside, or if it was the fresher salt air of the tide coming in, claiming the beaches and leaving only the higher rocks to perch on. While the island also offered dark and cool forests to explore, they paled in comparison to the freedom offered by the beaches. It was on this island I learned how to avoid rocks slippery with seaweed, how to return landlocked periwinkles to friendlier tidal pools, and how much it really hurts when you scrape yourself on barnacles. My seasons were defined by the tides, the angry waves of winter nor’easters that crashed over our 1970s station wagon on the ride home, the brisk choppy waters that carried the sailboats to Monhegan each spring, the calm stillness of a summer heat wave, and the whitecaps of a cool October day.
When I first moved to New Hampshire I was miserable without my ocean, and aghast at the idea of driving nearly an hour to the nearest beach. The smell of the Merrimack River was … interesting…but it wasn’t the smell of marshes, sand, and Casco Bay. And although I have since come to love the beaches of New Hampshire’s tiny stretch of shoreline, and the clear waters of our many lakes, I never stopped feeling like I was cheating on Maine.
Then, several years ago Kelly and I took a day trip to Ogunquit. And childhood memories of matinees at the Playhouse, lobster rolls at Barnacle Billy’s, watching the boats in Perkins Cove with my brother, and the wide expanse of Ogunquit beach came rushing back to me as if I’d opened a long-forgotten attic trunk full of family photos. Suddenly I was home again. The fact that Ogunquit is a very gay-friendly town made the homecoming all the more sweet, and my ‘new’ life and my childhood were finally linked. Since then, we have made dozens and dozens of trips to our favorite beach. Arriving early to score prime parking at the lot, alternating our set ups from the river–side to float the current to the mouth of the sea, to the dunes side, where the body surfing really is the best. And each time my feet hit the sand and my sandals come off I know I am home again. Occasionally we are able to splurge for an overnight stay at the height of summer and I always rise early, no matter how late we were out the night before, to walk on the beach in the earliest morning hours. There’s something special about that time of day. Retired couples strolling hand in hand, runners with sports bras and spandex and slick-backed ponytails (truth be told I kinda hate them but that’s another story), beachcombers looking for sea glass, and the occasional bleary-eyed dad holding a toddler in pajamas in one hand and coffee in the other. I love the quietness of the beach at this hour, the way the ocean stretches in front of me with endless possibilities and the way the world seems so still, as if pausing in a breathless prelude to the day’s chaos of families surfing inner tubes down the river, haughty and indigent gay boys in identical tank tops and trunks traveling in packs down to the end of the dunes, lesbians in cargo shorts playing volleyball, the din of French, Spanish, Farsi, German and countless other languages, bags of chips, sandwiches, surreptitiously hidden beer cans, sunscreen, trolleys running in endless loops and the line of people waiting at the outdoor foot shower. A scene that will be repeated daily until Labor Day with different players.
It is the comforting cycle of life on the beach that draws me back to it no matter the season. We spent part of New Year’s day walking the hard frozen sand, the dunes covered in a snow so fine one could mistake it for the white sand of summer were it not for the sub zero temperatures. We marveled at the boulders and driftwood thrown as far as the beach parking lot by recent storms and watched a crew of men hard at work replacing windows in a beachfront hotel. In Spring, impatient with a winter that was hard in every way, we made pilgrimages to the Adirondack chairs at the top of the beach… as if our presence could will the temperatures to rise and the sleet to stop falling. And finally a July heat wave and the alignment of busy calendars brings the moment I wait for all year: the first dive under the first wave, the impact of the break against my legs, chest and back, the sensation of being carried to shore, a part of my ocean for a few perfect seconds. Even when the weather is challenging, the beach is comforting. The rhythms of the tides are familiar, predictable and wild at the same time. The changeable nature of the waves, the way they attack and retreat from the shoreline, and how, after nearly 5 decades of watching the tides, I still exclaim in amazement to Kelly “look! That was underwater just an hour ago!” I know as sure as I know my own name I will make my home by the ocean once again, and, when I am gone that my ashes will return there. Tidal rhythms have always defined me and, (if it didn’t sound helplessly new-agey and self-indulgent), I would say that they have healed me as well For weariness, grief, anger, fear, frustration, and loneliness are no match for the crash of waves, the damp imprint of my foot in the sand, the feel of mist in the air, and a horizon that yields nothing but sea.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that the first several months of 2013 were as one of my friends said so eloquently, “a major suckfest.” You name it I weathered it. And in the process I learned a lot. I learned that begging ‘the Universe” for a break will get you about as far as playing the megabucks. I learned that when crisis hits and good people just try to do their best with a lousy situation that others will have no problem laying blame, walking away, and speaking falsehoods. I learned to never ever underestimate the damage that can occur when people let their egos get in the way. I learned that if you want help with something physically and emotionally hard you have to ask… and ask… and ask again… and again… and again, until you are hoarse from the effort. And that even after all that asking, there will be people who say no, or even worse, ignore you. People you thought you knew, people you thought you could count on. People you’ve supported, listened to and been there for. I learned that the silence that greets a call for help can be deafening. And l learned that heroes and helpers will come from unexpected sources, in unexpected ways and that as long as you live there will never be enough ways to repay their acts of kindness, good humor, thoughtfulness, generosity, and outright sweat equity.
I learned that teenagers will often show themselves to be more understanding, forgiving, and compassionate than people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. I learned that their capacity to bounce back, to try again, and to work hard is vastly underestimated by adults who are quick to malign them as self-centered. I learned who will listen to you cry on the phone and who will let it go to voice mail. I learned that “hang in there” is quite possibly the single most useless phrase in the English language. I learned that every once in a while it is ok to yell back, to put a bully in their place, and to be honest about how it feels when someone lets you down. I learned that “grin and bear it” is for the birds.
I learned that stopping the pity train and putting your own problems in perspective is something that should be done as a regular exercise. I learned for the millionth time that cancer doesn’t discriminate, that it will take a loving husband and father from his family, that it will continue to torment a young woman who has fought it far too many times, and that it will rear its head for the third time in a close group of friends. And I learned for the millionth time that in all these situations the power of friends to come together for support, for kindness for laughter and for care is truly remarkable and humbling. I learned that a group of women as far flung as all the corners of the world can create a virtual community of love and care when one of its members is grieving. I learned how to be a better friend, when to curb my sharp wit, when to simply listen, and when to give the sarcasm and snark a break. I learned there is tremendous grace in saying simply “I’m sorry I let you down.” And even greater grace in forgiving those who have let you down.
This year has hurt, but it has also held pockets of unexpected laughter and comfort. I has brought the giddy excitement that comes with making new friends, and reinforced the joy of gathering with people who have known you for decades. And so finally, I learned that when you’re in the middle of what seems an endless winter, that suddenly one day you will wake up to find Spring arrived overnight. Not just in the comforting cycle of nature that returns the green leaves to the trees in back of our house, and brings back my beloved days on the beach and evenings on the deck. But in the realization that time does indeed heal many things and that the hurts and hurdles of a long hard frozen winter make the softer air of spring even sweeter. Happy Spring to us all, for we have truly earned it.