I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied…
John Masefield, “Sea Fever”
Daylight Savings Time just started. The days are getting longer. It will be beach weather soon; beach weather, that is, for those for whom the shore is a seasonal destination. Not for me.
For various reasons, my memory has large gaping holes. There are many things in my life I have knowledge of, but not actual memory. There are so many things I do not remember, so many things lost.
One memory I do have is of standing alone on the sand at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, when I was seventeen, in the fading golden pink light of a January’s day. It was late enough in the month that the vacationers from the holidays had gone home, and late enough in the day that the elderly snowbirds who wander down to St. Petersburg every winter from the North had gone in for dinner. The sunlight caught the improbably pink hotel down the beach, turning it warmly rosy, and the white trim – the decoration on what for all the world looks like a big gaudy cake – pale yellow. The thin piping songs of the shorebirds were broken by the occasional raucous cry of the gulls. There were no waves to speak of: by Pacific standards they were wavelets, small crests of water just catching the afternoon glow, forming a rippling golden highway to the horizon, meeting the deep blue sky streaked with pink.
The sky is rarely completely clear in Florida. There are almost always a few clouds, which make for the most glorious sunsets in the world. This day, though, was one of the exceptions: the sky was crisp, and clear, and deeply blue.
There was nothing special about this day. There were no milestones, no celebrations. There were no crises, no earth-shattering events. It was …. a day.
I have no idea why I remember this day so clearly when so many others far more important are blank canvases. It was one of the few times as a teenager I can remember feeling completely at peace. I was with the ocean, the world could wait.
I have stood on many other shores: the Atlantic, on Cumberland Island, Georgia, where I rose to meet the dawn on the same spot where the night before I had released a fragile sea turtle, the size of my palm, into the surf. The Mediterranean, where I and my family sat on a jetty eating sandwiches and watching the tides come in. And the Pacific…
The Pacific is my ocean now. It is mercurial in a way that the Gulf is not. I have swum in the warm waters off of San Diego and snorkeled in reefs in Hawaii, and waded (and shivered) at the edges of the frigid waves breaking upon the Northern California shore an hour away from my home. It is wild, it is exciting, it is frightening. A stranger shore, a stronger ocean, a deeper call.
When my children, Californians in a way that I will never be, swam in the sixty degree water, I would watch with bated breath to make sure the tides did not pull them under. (All we had in the Gulf were stingrays, easily avoidable if you shuffle your feet.* The ocean itself was not ready to devour you.) Even today, grown as they are, I find myself fretting when they hike the slippery rocks to get to the tide pools where the sea stars and anemones are, until they are back safely.
It has been over three decades since that day on the beach that stands so vividly in memory. And still, I can stand on the shore on a winter’s day, and watch the waves – real ones, now – crashing against the rocks and cliffs, and feel nothing but peace. There are few things so horrible that the smell of salt air will not make them more bearable.
So let others rejoice in the return of beach weather. For me, it never goes away.
*Of course, there are the thunderstorms. What the Gulf lacks in waves it more than makes up in lightning.