Every year around this time I start to go through beach withdrawal. For the last few years since I moved away from the coast, I have gone to one beach or another every February. After a long winter, I stumble onto the sand and I feel like I am coming home. This year, I will be here in the mountains, which hold their own beauty every month of the year. Still, the beach shimmers on the distant horizon of my future, moving away from me like the tide going out again.
I have been thinking lately of all the beaches I have loved. Some of them I will probably never return to. For so many years I thought I was looking for a beach I could keep forever. I longed to find a place I could return to year after year, coming to know the world better through that place. To read more about this, check outThe Ocean Inside of Me Walking down Playa Ballena in Costa Rica, on the tail end of visiting 11 different beaches in that area, the ocean taught me something.
Every beach is different from one moment to the next. You can never walk the same beach twice. It is always changing, the very Earth moving beneath the waves. Life,like sand, doesn’t stand still. It doesn’t stay in one place. Time pushes us forward. The Earth and the oceans move, and life rises and falls against them. We must move forward. We must see many places in life, and use our time to explore the world around us. This lesson seems important for to me remember now, as my life changes daily, becoming something new.
Today, I offer you a humble beach that will always hold a special place in my heart, and a piece of my life that happened there.
When I was 22 years old, I fell asleep drunk in the middle of the afternoon on Waveland Beach, along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. It is a small strip of sand between the Gulf of Mexico and the pavement of Highway 90 as it hugs the coast. Before Hurricane Katrina, graceful historical estates sat on the other side of that road. On this day, they had already been torn down and their foundations lay in a rubble that was the only evidence that anything had ever happened there. The Live Oaks stood triumphant, and the land beyond looked like a strange, deserted forest of twisting branches.
I woke up with what would be diagnosed as a 2nd degree sunburn over the entire back of my body. I drove home to my townhouse in Slidell, Louisiana on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain. I was sandy and sore but laughing. The smell of the beach was still on my skin, and the beauty of that day was like a sun setting inside of me. Later, I would ask my friends to leave so I could crawl on my knees to the bathroom, no longer able to bend them. There were weeks of pain that followed; lying prone in sun sickness on that couch in Louisiana all those years ago when the world still seemed new after Katrina.
Now, the fire of those days is written in lines on my face. I know now that I was in the early stages of pregnancy, and that was the last of my drunken days on the beach in that place. My existence teetered there on the precipice of change, and my old life began to ignite and burn away.
I remember the agony, but I also remember how my friend and I were at one with Waveland Beach that day. We looked past the men leering from the road 200 yards away and the trash and what was left of the houses that had been torn down in the storm. We saw how beautiful it really was. We saw the Gulf large and flat against a vibrant Mississippi sky. We heard it calling out to us. Like memories sometimes do, this one balances on the sharp edge between beauty and pain.
I have walked that beach many times in my life. Humble though it may be, I have felt the Gulf calling out to me there. I have laid in the sand, and felt myself sinking into the world around me. I have loved that place on many days, and I love it still from afar. I don’t know when or if I will ever back there again. My memories wear away, time like sand rubbing the finer details out of them, smoothing out some parts and erasing others.
Here, on the page, that place lives, frozen in the time it was written down. Let me show you. Here is something I wrote on Waveland Beach many years ago. Observe how the words have galvanized something true about that place and that time; how they have captured something pure about the person I was when I wrote it.
Somewhere a girl is lying on a beach, her skin warmed by the sun, like a benevolent god above her. The wind runs its fingers through her hair. The tide inches closer into shore. Soon its waves will lap at her legs like gentle persuasion, pulling her deeper into this moment of repose. Two brown pelicans alight from their wooden posts and glide over the surface of the water. Her heart soars with them.
She closes her eyes, listening. She feels herself rise with the roar of waves rolling forward, and gets carried away with the gentle whoosh that accompanies the receding pull. Back and forth she rides, until the heat on her eyelids make them snap open and here she is, now, lying very still in the sand. If she was to try and stand at this moment, her legs might sway beneath her.
She imagines the fish swimming between the sandbars; the whole beating, pulsating throb of life that waits just below the surface of the water. Her mind plunges into the depths, dives to the bottom, and comes up for air. She lays her head back, and her field of vision becomes double exposure; transforms into an inverted perception of sand and sky. She imagines herself planted there, suspended above a blue expanse and held in place by the root of the tide.
She is the salt in the air, the song carried on the cool breeze. She is one with the earth and the sea, perfect because there is nowhere she would rather be.
Photo courtesy of Paul Murphy
If you feel like beating your own winter blues with a road trip, you might check out some of my old haunts along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. You can drive the whole thing in a couple of hours, visiting several beaches along the way. The coast is dotted with small, quaint communities that each has its own distinctive charm, and the area abounds in outdoor recreation like boating and crabbing. If you’re not into that kind of thing, there’s plenty of good food, gambling and booze, and New Orleans is less than an hour to the West.
Do you have a beach that’s close to your heart? Tell me about it in the comments!