This weekend, I visited Tybee Island (off the coast of Savannah) for the first time, with my sister Kirsten and my poetically-named nephew, Whitman (whom I’ve written about before). It was a late birthday gift to me, though I didn’t realize it at the time (until Kir told me so, as we were jumping some rather paltry waves at low tide). I thought she had just gotten a wild hare to go to the beach and wanted me to tag along—because, despite my obnoxiously pale skin that practically burns even in the rain (I generally shun the sun like a vampire), I love the beach. I love, love, love everything about the beach—sand, salt, water, bodies doing all kinds of things, umbrellas, fish, shell fragments, kelp, the smell of creosote pylons and sunscreen—and she knows that, that wonderful sister of mine. Which is why this weekend really was the best birthday gift ever.
If I could live in the ocean, I could be quite content. It would making writing poems a bit difficult of course (the soggy pages!), but the truth is, I think I was meant to be in the water. Though I’m a Taurus, a fixed earth sign, and I’ve never had my astrological chart “done” (I mean, come on), I’m certain water signs must appear all over the different houses because I just adore the water so. A lot of people will tell you that they feel “free” or “at peace” in the water—and of course, I feel those things too. But it’s more than that.
To me, the ocean lets me lose time and fill in all the cracks and damage that every-day living levels at me. Hours can pass in the water and you don’t even notice the changing position of the sun, or the fact the tide pulls so far out that you’re only in waist-high water, even though you’re far out past the end of pier near the Tybee Island Marine Science Center. You just suddenly realize it’s 4 p.m., and you have no idea how that happened. It’s more than “time flies when you’re having fun.” The water has its own clock and rhythms, and it lets you forget anything as mundane as minutes and hours.
The ocean helps me feel whole again. The water seeps in my pores (and less fortunately, sometimes my mouth and nose), and somehow heals me. When there are metallic shiny fish breaching for the joy of it or dozens of pinky-length tiny fish swimming in schools, and seagulls swooping down to catch these foot-long clear snaky fish all around you, and all you can hear is people laughing and splashing, how can anyone not feel rejuvenated?
Everything is light—I am light—and can be pushed around by waves as if I am nothing. Blah blah power of nature blah blah—sure. But on land I don’t feel grounded like I should—or maybe, to look at it a different way, I am too grounded on land. There is ease in the water—it’s my element—and I like the sway and swell of the water, the way moments there can’t be quantified. Too much of life on land is about measuring and metrics and stasis. Water erases all of that—and it’s a heady feeling, just to be.
Alas, despite my affinity for it, living in the ocean is not possible—and with real estate prices being what they are, living by the beach is also not possible. So, what to do?
What I would like to do is spend a week down at the coast (or longer if I could afford it) and take my notebook out to the beach and write. When you only have a few precious hours at the water, you have to spend every one of them playing in the waves with family and visiting with them (which is as it should be). Writing must give way to experiencing.
If I had a longer stretch of time available to me, I could spend some of it “processing” the experience: noticing the way the sand dries in ripples when the tide rolls out, watching the swoop of pelicans as they fly only inches above the water’s surface, counting the colors that appear as the waves crash, wondering about the origins of a knot of ropes and seaweed and a plastic spoon. Figuring out what it all means—and how I as a person and writer fit in such an environment. That’s the work of a writer, after all, to interpret experience and reveal meaning.
But you need time and a “fullness of attention” to consider all those sensory details that come together to create that writerly moment, I think—otherwise, your writing faces generic tropes and recycled metaphors (and nobody wants that–especially not about the beach). A day and a half at the water will never be enough to see and taste and hear everything—oh, alright, perhaps it’s enough to squeeze out a poem or two, if I really try. Honestly, I would like to write a suite of beach poems—the beach at different times of day, in different weather, in different moods—something to help me remember what “beach” and “waves” mean for those times when I’m stuck in my pedestrian, dry life.
(I guess I need to investigate how many week-long writers’ conferences are situated by the sea…I know Stonecoast is one… maybe I can work that in next summer. Hmm.)