The Winter Beach
The last day of January, I left the house at 5AM to go photograph the blue moon. I could’ve photographed the same blue moon before bed, but there was the ever so slight chance of catching the moon being partially eclipsed before the sun came up and ruined the view. To see the moon being fully eclipsed you’d need to be on the Pacific Coast, or in Asia, but, not being a person of discriminating alacrity, I thought I’d give it a try on the Atlantic Coast. After all, I might be on what is called the East Coast, but in reality, I live just minutes away from the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Word play had to count for something, I thought.
I packed up my camera gear, loaded Beans (my truck), pat the doggies on their sleepy heads, and kissed my wife goodbye. I stopped at the Circle K and tanked up on coffee, passed the Farm Bureau sign, which said the temperature was 28 degrees, and then passed another flashing sign that said it was 23 degrees. I crossed the swing bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway and was officially on Topsail Island – a 26-mile barrier island in North Carolina.
The trip from my house to the island, in the wintertime, takes about 25 minutes, maybe less. The same drive in the summertime can take twice as long. Try making the trip on a holiday weekend, say like the Fourth of July, and it can take hours.
Years ago, U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson, concerned about military buildup in Guam, infamously asked the admiral of the U.S. Pacific Fleet if “the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.” The Congressman was immediately lampooned. How could anyone be so dumb? Islands don’t tip over or capsize!
Well, if any of those pundits or talking heads ever had been to Topsail Island on Memorial Day weekend – with the cars and RVs and boats, the little kids building sandcastles, and the moms and dads sitting underneath umbrellas with coolers and freebies and painted white noses from bottles of sunscreen, the doggies and doggie owners carrying around plastic bags of picked-up-dog poo, and the fishermen with the fishing carts and every sort of rig, lure, plug, and a few other experimental contraption to snag a passing fish, and the restaurants’ waiting line with hired summer hostesses wearing spring dresses and ponytailed hair, and Wings and Shark Attack and every other tawdry, near vulgar confederate-flag-selling souvenir rattrap, and Hot Diggity Dogz with shaved ice, and trailer parks and beaching parking and miniature golf, The Tiki Bar, Hulas Bar, Trailer Bar, and Gallagher’s – they’d realize the man had a point. In the summertime, it’s a wonder the entire island doesn’t plunge below the watery surface and join the mythical ranks of places like Atlantis.
But during the darkness of wintertime, when it is below freezing and the air blows warmer off the ocean than the land, the beach ranges the length of the island with nary a footstep. And then, after the sun curls over the horizon and the sky is paint-spilled tangerine, pumpkin, and apricot – the rickety, dome-and-firmament, like a God-dropped cloth, saturated lusters fire tints and hues unseen by warm weather months – maybe there will be dogmatic beach-walker or avant-garde surfer. Maybe. But with those few exceptions, the tide levels will rise and fall, the grackles and gulls will huddle together suffering the winter chill, and the sun will rappel down the back slope of the island like an unnoticed simulacrum.
Winter on the island is a reminding place. There is a loss of purity to life with the busyness and inattention that summertime brings. And by purity, I guess I should add, I don’t mean some puritanical blanching of the soul – covered bodies and restrained avarice. I mean a convalescence and surrendering of the mind.
I used to walk the beach during the winter on a near daily basis. At the south end – where the inlet runs to open water and the currents churn baitfish as lures for flounder and drum, where the sound of wind rushes by like freight and the glare of white light glints individual grains of sand like distant suns, where unchipped shells are accidently found, and if a person passes you by they are as likely to be riding a horse as they are to be on foot – the beach is a vestibule or shrine, the vestige of hearing a place speak. You belong here. I remember feeling completed by the near endless views and the waning, winter sun. I remember feeling romanced, as though I breathed poetry and exhaled beauty. And I would hear that whispered voice again, You belong here.
Wintertime water looks different. It folds out of the ocean branching long, lacy fingers, grinding sand with foam-curdled tributaries and riverlets, and recoils and flinches at the hint of dry land only to resurge again and again. In the absence of skimboards and boogie boards, the surf is a battleground – the place where an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object. The contest will go on and on in wintertime. Until the houses are occupied again and the hotels book-up and boats are chartered, until the edge of the world rents out vacation spots and novelty and distraction crush the ebb and flow of cosmic struggles: in the wintertime Poseidon and Gaia fight to stalemate. And the clash and bang of their swords and shields sound like a voice saying, You belong here.
After the frigid sunrise, I elected to go home, warm-up, and return later in the day. This is something you can do in the wintertime. You can drive a few minutes home, drink some coffee, eat some lunch, take a nap, read a book, and go back to the beach.
I trolled around some of my familiar locations looking for a bird to shoot. But in the wintertime, it seems, even the birds have unoccupied their lives and taken up residence with languor. The north end of the island appeared evacuated. The wind channeled between land, forcing water back to the sea. Millions of dried grains of sand tumbled over each other in a torrential storm no more than six inches above the ground.
Any signs of industry were in the middle of the island in a little town called Surf City. But the busy hub seemed good only as a dispatch-place for handymen and women who find wintertime work by fixing and replacing all the broken-down appliances between tourist seasons. I finished the day out exactly where I had started so many hours earlier. But instead of photographing the moon, the sun was slouching away.
“Good bye today,” I said, “Will I see you tomorrow?” And even the Sun had to ask the Earth the meaning of my question, and the collective wisdom of both answered with silence or indifference.
Noticing the grains of sand and the fingered-rolled waves, the cloud in the sky that looks like a horse, it’s the trite, world-worn virtue of stop and smelling the… But the felicity of calling, hearing that voice, You belong here. And eventually you come to understand this calling, this voice not to be teaching a geography lesson but a statement about being. You belong here. You belong here, in this moment. You belong to yourself. This is your life. Avail yourself to yourself. This is your season. You belong. You be-long here.
The summertime is that busy part of my brain, and I wonder why I spend so much time there. Summertime chastises, like an old man disturbed by the playful cries of a small child. Summertime mocks, like sports fan whose identity is anchored a little too deeply in their team. Summertime hates its own heatwaves and thunderstorms and uses its own lightning bolts to welt its own skin with a sort of hidden but obvious flagellation. Summertime is the near crushing anxiety that can so quickly turn to panic; the depression that lingers in my mind like a cloud of cigarette smoke exhaled indoors; the dependency that makes tolerable what is intolerable, suffocating, and perpetual; seething memories spraying shame. The list feels near inexhaustible and overwhelming, and it isn’t a bad question to ask if all this will one day plunge me beneath the surface.
So, I listen for that wintertime voice calling out to me, reminding me who and whose I am. You belong here. It is the quiet, adventurous place. It is the place where I am most myself, where I am with myself. And when I hear the voice just right, I am that I am, and I thank you, that I am.