This winter I despaired of summer every coming. Life was hard. Exceptionally hard. Around every corner lurked a new struggle or challenge, friendships strained, harsh words were spoken, and every week brought another round of frozen air and endless, endless snow. Spring made its appearance, hesitantly, slowly, even Memorial Day, the official start of summer was marred by frigid air and snow flurries! I became convinced that the year had it in for me and 2013 would be the first year in existence without a summer, which seemed like a uniquely personal affront to someone who lives for summertime.
But of course it did come, complete with everything we love most – beach days, nights on the deck, endless ice cream cones, lake time, vacations and “staycations,” visits with friends from near and far, sleeping late, and goofy belly flops at the pool. There were new theater projects for both Liza and me, with them came new friendships, and oh did I mention ice cream? Even work seemed calmer, happier and exciting (especially with Liza rehearsing in the same building for a few weeks!)
I am notorious for fighting the end of summer kicking and screaming, and saying goodbye to this summer – one that was so long in coming and so desperately needed- will be especially hard. So this Labor Day weekend, as is our custom, Kelly and I spent our last official beach day of summer on our favorite beach in Ogunquit. Lying there, toes in the sand, my thoughts wander to both the changing nature of life in coastal New England and the permanence of the beach. We began the year walking the frozen sand beneath dunes white with snow. A little over three months ago we sat bundled against the wind and spray as the angry tide pushed to the top of the rocks beneath the parking lot, yet six weeks after that we were sweltering in a heat wave, taking shelter under our umbrella and in the cool waters where the river meets the sea. My heart ached, as it always does, at the realization that the next time we return, leaves will be falling, Halloween and “harvest’ decorations will dot the windows of Main Street and Shore Road, and the beach will belong to the locals who can finally walk their dogs there again. I was prepared to let myself sink into my early September funk that a friend once dubbed my “weltschmerz,” or “world pain.”
But then the sun peeked through the high canopy of clouds and the humidity returned with a vengeance. Kelly suggested we brave the water. Having recently returned from vacation in Hilton Head, where the ocean was an unsettling 85 degrees, it was both a shock and a comfort to wade into the mid-sixties temp of this more familiar section of the Atlantic. The waves were especially good and the water was dotted with serious surfers, kids and a few adults with boogie boards, and people like us just in it for the body surfing. I’ve been body surfing for over forty years now and never tire of the sensation of being swallowed by the wave and carried to shore. But something happened to me yesterday that hasn’t happened in a long time. The combination of powerful waves and a rare moment of perfect timing coincided and for a few brief, powerful seconds I wasn’t inside the wave I was on top of it. The momentum was unlike anything I’d experienced, the roar was deafening and when my ride finally stopped I realized I’d ridden nearly all the way to the sandy edge of the water. ‘Did you SEE how far I went?” I called to Kelly. “Did you SEE?” My suit was full of sand, my knees were scraped, and my hair was a mess but I had gone the distance with that wave.
Later, as we lingered and lingered on the beach telling each other “oh just 15 more minutes,” before packing up to head to town for a late lunch and some shopping, I relived my ride on the wave over and over in my head: the way my heart caught in my throat, the way I was excited but also scared, and the way I didn’t realize until it was over how far I’d really travelled. Just like this year, I opened my eyes and there I was, safely back to shore.
Exciting things await us this fall. Liza starts high school (high school!) and I’m eager to see what new experiences and adventures she’ll find along the way. I’ve begun rehearsals for my dream role, one that has haunted me for over fifteen years, and on its heels have another juicy role waiting for me – an unheard of bounty for an old lady in theater! Kelly and I will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the day we met and our third wedding anniversary. And our family is happier, stronger, and more connected than ever before. For the first time in years I didn’t feel that ache of sadness when we left the beach because I knew that no matter what the coming months throw at me, the cycle of life on the beach will remind me that all I have to do is turn my back to the waves, take a deep breath, leap and let myself be carried safely to shore.
Here’s to riding the waves.
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.