Beach is a teacher. Let it undo you. Let it rattle your perceptions and discipline your senses. Observation matters, the beach tells you, wake up.
Beach is how the “aum” would look if it were a land form, extending in a line that encompasses shape and non-shape, galaxies and their smallest particles, disappearing at beginning and end, yet never really ending. At the beach, we stand and watch the earth bend like a bow and we see how little we see, how the world we think we inhabit is an illusion of lines and boundaries, hedgerows and horizons. We are so much smaller than we think until, at the beach, we think about it.
At the beach, the ghostly hands of time and erosion become visible. We see how cliffs have settled into current postures, separating from other land forms in a dramatic cleaving. We see the layers of time painted on sides of cliffs. We find sea creatures petrified and laid to perpetual rest in stone. We observe how the earth has shifted since last we were there.
Yet worlds beyond our perception exist in the sea. Schools of fish shimmy and sway like silk scarves, landscapes of stone and kelp merge with craggy outcroppings of shellfish. Mammals that dwarf the homes we live in create, fall in love, and dance under the blue-gelatin surface of our sea. There are depths of green, symphonies of sound we land dwellers will never know, separated as we are by our need for air and light.
Beach lengthens our perspective, makes us more alive on our best days. We step onto the sand and awaken to a deeper level of intimacy with ourselves and others. A walk along the ocean beckons long, sinewy conversations, expressions condensed and boiled down to the core of the matter. Commonplace at the beach, the unimaginable. Perfectly refined people squat to pee in the sea grass. People shy and modest are seduced into love-making on the sand. People reveal secrets on the beach that later come to haunt them. Grieving people cry openly at the beach, where we feel free and alone despite the presence of others.
Not long after moving to the north coast, while walking the beach with a friend, my companion commented, “Sometimes it seems like the beach is the only place big enough to hold what I feel.” Maybe that is why I came to the beach: to find a place big enough to hold what I feel.
I remember the moment I decided to come. I was in Oceanside, visiting the beach house of a friend, running from my life and running in circles. It was the summer of 2004. I walked exhaustedly along the beach, trying to accept all the things I wanted to change and could not seem to change. I had never imagined myself moving to the beach, picking myself up, along with my daughter, and moving away from the town I called home—the town of our family, the area where I’d lived my entire adult life. But as I walked along the beach on that sun-spilled summer evening, I apprehended a message, a mysterious instruction that told me: “Come here.” Seldom had the guidance of the universe come across to me with such searing clarity, “Come here,” it said. And I looked down at the sand to find a pristine sand dollar.
I moved to Oceanside. One afternoon shortly thereafter, while sitting in the picture window of the house I was renting, a beach cottage perched on a cliff that overlooked the Pacific, I saw the word “WELCOME” spelled out in slanting foam on the beach. The delusions of wishful thinking? The deception of eyes staring too long at sunlit water? Call it what you will. I took it as another message. I had come, and I was welcome.
In 2005 I relocated further up the Oregon coast, to the town of Cannon Beach. During the harrowing fall of that year, a friend of mine was among a group of human rights workers taken hostage in Iraq. His name is James Loney. When Jim was lost to captivity and none of us knew where he was or whether he would be freed, I remember thinking that Jim would want us to savor every moment of freedom he could not experience. He would want us be fully alive to what we encounter. So I began to walk on the beach in the evening with this in mind. I would tell myself I was walking the beach for Jim. I would breathe sea air into my lungs and notice the ripe smell of it. I would take note of every hue the sunset gave birth to, I would feel powdery warm sand massaging my feet and breezes lifting my hair. I would try to notice, while walking the beach, all of the artful forms wrought by nature. And I would think, “I’m taking this walk for Jim.” I did this for the 118 days of Jim’s captivity.
Now, five years after that incident, I sometimes remind myself of this as I am walking the beach. I ask myself, “Are you paying attention?” After living on the coast for six years, I get jaded. I expect we all do. And so I ask myself again “Are you paying attention?” Not for Jim this time, but for you.
And I remember how the beach can undo me.