We succeeded in getting away to the beach for a few days this week, something that doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like, given our different schedules. Here where we live in the Piedmont of North Carolina, we are not actually very far from the ocean: three to five hours at most, depending on where one goes on this Graveyard of the Atlantic shoreline. This time, given our lack of time, we went to Topsail Island, which bills itself, these days, as being on the Outer Banks, an inclusion I do not recall from the days when my family-of-origin went yearly to the “real” Outer Banks, where we had a cottage, one of those funky little flat-roofed-cinder-block-post-modern affairs that had no modern conveniences whatsoever, even for those times. I loved it. My family-of-origin was a perpetually stressed and miserable group of people, and those summers at the beach were my healing from each winter of cold rage and cabin fever in the mountain town where we lived. My kinship with the ocean remains to this day, although it has become an internalized seascape that makes theses trips less necessary than before, a seascape that is far more perfect and creatively changeable than those landscapes I was exposed to throughout my life, the ones that began that internalization process. I have tried to live on or near the sea most of my life: our family has lived in such places as Cape Cod, Chesapeake Bay, and even on Lake Superior, which was a great lesson to me in terms of the archetypal “inland sea.” We lived, for two years, in an Aleut fishing village on the Alaskan Peninsula, too, in a cove off the Pacific Ocean, and that, of course, was the most amazingly beautiful and stark landscape I have ever loved and been daily overwhelmed by. Topsail Beach, with it’s overbuilt series of coastal towns and ticky-tacky houses built within such proximity to each other that residents could have little real privacy, with its mom-and-pop restauratns and dives, and its overall honky-tonk atmosphere, is a poor comparison; but my beloved ocean continues to resist all attempts to turn her into an offshoot of such desecrations of her shores, although those are sorrowful enough… Yet even then, the winds and the sand, the weather that brooks no denial, and the constant change wrought by all these continues to hold a mystical pull on those who walk her beaches, whether they do so with a beer can in their hands, a surfboard or a pail and shovel, running shoes on their feet. . . or whether, as I did, they huddle in a beach chair wrapped up against the cold and intone sacred sounds that weave their way in and out of the howling winds and the constant pounding of the surf. There is something about proximity to the sea that is an ongoing mystic pull toward the absolute loneliness of God. Perhaps there is no difference.
One never knows which individual or what group will be drawn to the sea outside the usual vacationers, surfers, artists, fisher people and others. This time, the day we arrived, we were charmed to see a group of what appeared to be conservative Mennonites, the little girls and boys and their mothers playing joyfully in the surf, while the men of the group stood around on the beach with their shoes still on, seeming to show little interest in that seascape of seascapes, perhaps discussing the manly things men usually discuss. We lived in Amish and Mennonite environs at several points in our lives, and we were aware that these are a very private people who do not like to have their pictures taken and would be highly unlikely to put on bathing suits and actually get into the water, even if it were not still too cold to. But the women and children, wearing their lovely, long cotten dresses with Peter Pan collars, their bonnet strings dangling, made a lovely work of art there in the surf, leaning into the wind and the the inexorable crashing waves. We couldn’t resist a few surreptitious pictures, and hope that we have not intruded too much on their privacy by putting them up here. What an endless variety of life lives itself in the least expected places! God is constantly writing in one book or another, and we were delighted with this particular one.
When it was time to find some lunch, we ended up at “Buddy’s, one of the most traditional of the aforementioned “mom-and-pops,” a beach bar on the dune, which affords the opportunity to eat in view of the roaring surf, and we were amused to be able to order Alaskan Pollack there on the Atlantic; nothing unusual, of course, and no doubt a lot cleaner than what I grew up on, on this side of the country. Just below us on the dune, there was a memorial to a surfer who had lost his life in those treacherous waves. The young woman who served us told us he had been well-known there for years. The cross, draped with various memorabilia, reminded me of those leaning at intervals on the dunes of the Bering Sea where I used to go to work monthly up in Alaska: cross after cross in memory of those who had lost their life at sea. We come and we go.
For most of my life, I have had a longing to be near the sea, and in these last years, I have taken it inside me and made it–her–live within. I know her sounds, I know her rhythms, I no longer need to see her or hear her outwardly. She is mine and I am hers. Perhaps the end of all love-longing is this: the beloved becomes too real to live outside the lover, and there is nothing the beloved can do that will cause the lover to flee…ever again.