First, a Leaving

On July 22, 2015, I drove thirty minutes to a nearby beach to watch the sunrise.

Darkness shrouded my walk from the car. For all that I wanted to live near the beach, this would be my last day. I would not leave without seeing another sunrise. My phone! I thought. I stopped, turned back toward my car, then thought better of it. No pictures today. No interruptions. This is your chance to take it in, to live in the moment, to somehow find the strength to leave.

The concrete eventually transitioned to sand and I took off my flip flops. A cool dampness greeted my calloused soles. Now to keep the callouses off of my soul, I thought, half smiling to myself. I took my time. This was not a moment to rush. I reached the little bridge that stretched over the inter-coastal stream and stopped again. On my left, the sand grass tilted gently in the morning breeze. Their billowy tops formed feathery silhouettes against the faint light to the east. It was quiet. Even the sand gnats were still. A mercy considering how they had harrowed us the night before.

I crested a little knoll and the path gave way to a wide expanse of sand. Looking around, my first thought was how empty the beach was compared to the last time I had come here to witness the dawn breaking. Had it been only ten days? I approached the water’s edge and felt a sudden rush of sadness. I will not pass this way again, I thought. The magnitude of that truth pounded through me like the waves crashing onto the sand. It was a familiar feeling accumulated over the past twenty-eight years. Had I really moved twenty-seven times? Was I seriously volunteering to make number twenty-eight a mere six or so weeks after the last one? And this time alone?

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I set my toes into the warm water knowing I would have to wade out knee deep to discover even a hint of coolness. Despite days of rain and milder nights, the water still felt more like a bath than an ocean. I was used to Virginia waters, so cold that only the Northerners braved it before the pounding mid-July heat had settled in. Even in August, a dip in the water off the Virginia coast was refreshing. But not here. Not in June, July, August, or maybe even September. I wouldn’t be here to confirm my assumption.

I walked then. Following the shoreline, I stepped slowly in the direction of the lightening sky. My purpose was nothing more than just to enjoy – one more time – a stroll through shallow surf at sunrise.

The sky grew almost imperceptibly lighter. I glanced out over the water searching for the birds I had seen hunting just a few days ago. I stopped walking to scan the horizon as well as I could in the near darkness, but my eyes found only empty crests in the choppy, predawn sea. Where are they? I wondered, futilely. I didn’t even know what species of bird they were, Tern, Osprey, or Frigate. It was fascinating to watch their gray forms skim over the water in pairs, threesomes, and more, one straight line of outstretched wings that occasionally beat in no discernible rhythm. Then one or two would break from the flock, rise higher, and plunge headlong into the surf. I was too far away to see the prize held in its beak. I could only watch it rise from beneath the crest to float on the surface of the water. I was struck by the bird’s willingness to abandon itself to the sea in order to survive. In more ways than I could count, I had abandoned myself again and again to the whims of a capricious ocean. Like those mysterious birds, I had no roots, but had flown endlessly over a barren sea looking for life below the surface. Mercifully, I had found it in the most unexpected swells. Now exhaustion dragged at my wings. I could no longer maintain flight. It was finally time to land, but first I would have to leave.

Deep in my soul, I think I had known for a long time that there would never be a landing without first a leaving.

I turned my attention to the water splashing over my feet. As I watched tiny waves form to crash onto the sand in uneven bursts, I noticed how they all began as individual crests, only to merge into one shallow wash of water that moved in an almost circular motion. Pushing forward, the water strained against an inexorable pull back into the unplumbed depths from which it came, only to begin the cycle all over again. The constancy of the syncopated rhythm of the ocean continues to mesmerize me. The simplicity of wave after wave merging into the complex ebb and flow of tides in and out, day after day, year after year, millennia after millennia only makes me and my decisions feel small. That one section of beach and my narrow vision of those few waves represented less than a drop in the bucket of uncounted miles of shoreline around the globe. My mind can barely grasp the enormity of so many coasts, much less the vastness or depth of the sea itself. But even as I feel smaller, as I watch myself shrink in the face of the sheer magnitude before me, I understand that like my tunnel vision of this small stretch of beach, my everyday decisions – small in themselves – when put together, made up an entire life. And there is more to a person than their decisions, their actions, or even their thoughts. As I pondered all of this, I caught a glimpse of the vastness within myself I still had yet to explore.

The sky slowly began to change color. Deep blue gave way to paler shades overlaid with oranges, purples, and hints of pink. There would be no blazing ball today, at least, not for me; only colorful clouds whose outlines continually transformed in the early morning breeze. Every blink revealed a subtle shift of color in the jagged edges of cloud cover overhead.

Around me camera lenses began opening and snapping shut. That had been me a few days back – working hard to capture a memory on the canvas of a photo lens. Somehow I knew that today needed no lens; the memory of this sunrise would live on in me for as long as I could remember. Forgetting would be harder. My failure to stay the course, my inability to love in the end, the hurtful words that had left implacable scars on the soft places left in my heart – these would be much more difficult to forget than the skies’ colors, even my camera, I knew, could not faithfully capture. But forget I must. What bird would ever dare to dive back into the deep dark if it did not forget the promise of a waiting predator below the silent surface? The bird’s only chance is hope – hope that the shadow spied below is nothing more or less than its morning meal.

The sunrise complete, I returned the way I had come. With the light of day behind me, I chose hope and gratitude. The past twenty-eight years had by no means been wasted – rather, they had shaped me into who I was that day, just as that day would shape who I was the next, and the next, and the next. This was not the end of a story, but the definitive close of a very long chapter (that now felt strangely short). In any story, from chapter to chapter, the characters may change, the scenes may shift, the plot may take an unexpected turn, but the storyline continues, and so would I.

Taking one final look over my shoulder, I glanced sidelong at the sun, still hidden in brilliant cloud, and said farewell to broken dreams, hopes unfulfilled, and the shadow of a bleak future. As I crossed back over the inter-coastal, I knew that I was doing the only thing I could do in leaving these shores; and, with my back to the rising sun, I walked straight into the arms of a bright, new day.

Nightmare on the Pacific

I’ve wanted to write this story down for many years now. My Senior year of High School I used it as an ‘improv’ audition for a part in my high school’s production of “David and Lisa: A Play in Two Acts”. My retelling (complete with an animated reenactment) of the following true story earned me the only lead role I’ve ever had.

The year was 1981, and while I had traveled alone before, it was not a common occurrence. About 18 months earlier I had made my first unaccompanied trip: A 6-hour bus ride to visit my sister in the middle of nowhere, West VA. That’s when I learned that a 15-yr. old should not be allowed to see “The Shining” (on the big screen, no less) prior to sleeping in a house 3 miles from civilization. An inability to see the hand in front of one’s face combined with the kind of terror only Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall can inspire … well, you can imagine, yes?

Shelley Duvall in Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining'.
Shelley Duvall in The Shining

I suppose the scariness of my first trip should have warned me off ever traveling alone again. Alas, teenager = notoriously slow on the uptake.

So, at 17 I made the trek (by plane this time) from East Coast to West for one last adventure before my final year of High School. I would again be visiting family (Aunt, Uncle, & cousins), and I looked forward to seeing what life was like in the State famous for balmy weather, horrendous traffic, and movie stars. Little did I know that this trip (along with a few other things I’ve picked up on in the 30-years since) would inspire in me a disparaging an affectionate mantra for my West Coast brothers and sisters: ‘Everyone in California is crazy!’

I have always been a ‘beach girl’, you know, the way some people are mountain folk? Well, that’s me, only at the beach. Even now, if I could, I would build myself a house on a sand dune and spend the rest of my days watching the tide roll in and out.

Every summer as a child my family spent a week or more at the beach pictured here:

I would not build my house on Virginia Beach. It is seriously this packed. All.Summer.Long. Seriously.

The entirety of the main strip of Virginia Beach is jammed with condos, hotels, dance clubs, beer joints, sandwich shops, and retail stores. As a child, I remember a carnival of sorts adding to the magic of our vacation by offering rides, cotton candy, a fun house, and salt-water taffy.

The California Coast I visited was quite different from the Virginia Coast I knew and loved.

That August day, 1981 was pretty hot as Coastal California goes. My Aunt drove me about a mile from her house and we agreed she would pick me up at 3:00 p.m., giving me roughly 4+ hours on the beach – plenty of time to get burnt to a crisp enjoy the sand and surf.

Arriving at the spot my Aunt had chosen – ALONE, mind you – I stood atop a cliff overlooking a virtual wilderness stretching out to meet the dark blue waters of the Pacific. The hike down the rock stairway from the road was a bit daunting, but I soldiered on. Bravely waving good-bye to my Aunt, I settled my towel on a patch of sand and began my Pacific Coast Adventure.

Capistrano Beach, California. Besides the lifeguard in the stand, there were maybe 20 people scattered around me in various directions.

The hot day and the fact that I’ve never enjoyed baking in the sun lying out, meant it wasn’t long before I wanted to get in the water. I stumbled across the blazing sands, anxious for a dip.

Several things in succession took me by surprise. First, the water was freezing. Seriously, I’m not exaggerating (I’m mostly not exaggerating). Next, hidden by the dark, frigid waters, I found myself trapped on a broad swath of sharp, pointy rocks like glass which dug into my bare but sensitive feet! What happened to the sand? Gone. I knew this by the fact that my feet were now bleeding*. (My feet might have been bleeding … I was not certain since the water had turned my legs from the knees down into solid blocks of ice.) I hobbled forward, hoping the sand would miraculously reappear. Instead, I found another cliff, this one sans stair.

Totally focused on the pain in my feet, I stepped off the edge into nothingness and was suddenly, without ceremony, in over my head.

Too bad they didn’t have a sign like this. Of course, to be accurate, it would have to show the sharp, pointy rocks just before the drop-off. Little drops of blood coming off the stick-man’s feet would have been helpful too.

Forced now to tread water or drown, I managed to struggle up for a breath. I splashed around for a while hoping not to attract any Great Whites (Jaws had taught me never to trust an ocean filled with monsters … wait, isn’t every ocean filled with monsters?). Scanning the coastline, I realized that in a few short minutes I had been swept down probably 1/4-1/2 mile from the spot where I had left my towel. I could barely see the lone lifeguard stand in the distance.

So began my journey to get out of the water. This sounds simple, but no. I had unwittingly discovered the Twilight Zone Bermuda Triangle of the West Coast. Apparently exiting the Pacific Ocean is California’s equivalent of a Herculean feat. Here were the tasks before me:

  1. Swim back up the coast – against the current – to get fairly even with my towel. I thought I had experienced strong currents before, but the East Coast cannot hold a candle to the Pacific currents’ mad skills.
  2. Defeat the rip tide undertow which barred my way back to the underwater cliff edge. (I’m pretty sure I fought it for at least 20 minutes before making any headway whatsoever.)
  3. Cross the sharp, pointy rock-bed before bleeding* out.
  4. Stumble across blistering sands to find my towel and collapse. (Pain from sharp, pointy rocks + blistering sands = insult + injury.)

All these I managed to accomplish before falling, exhausted, on my towel, instantly asleep. Upon waking, I decided I had had enough of the dangerous (who knew?) Capistrano Beach. Not knowing how long I had slept, I approached the lifeguard stand and asked what time it was. Even though I was talking to (clearly) a fellow American, I had to repeat the question several times before he seemed to understand me. A little past 1:30 was the answer in the end. I then had the brilliant idiotic idea that I could walk back to my Aunt’s house, saving her the trouble of picking me up.

First, the cliff stairway to the road. Hm, now which way? I did not remember coming down a hill to the drop-off spot, so I turned right and started walking along the highway. I found myself at a sort of 4-way intersection with a nice-looking neighborhood to my left. The only landmark I knew to look for was a K-Mart store near my Aunt’s home. I was fairly certain that if I could find the K-Mart, I could find my way to her house. I didn’t see the K-Mart sign anywhere.

Just as I decided to cross the street into the neighborhood, I saw a man coming towards me on a bike.

“Excuse me,” I said, in my not-quite-Southern Virginia drawl, “but can you tell me where the K-Mart is?”

The way he looked at me I could tell he had heard and understood my question. He then proceeded to put his head down and start peddling. Huh? That’s weird, I thought. Shrugging,  I entered the nice neighborhood and found myself in a typical seaside subdivision complete with palm trees and balconies overlooking the ocean. Pretty houses with manicured lawns surrounded me on both sides.

The lovely streets of Capistrano Beach, California. You would never know that every house comes complete with at least one nut-case!

The first person I saw was a lady walking down her front sidewalk toward the street. Halfway to the mailbox her head turned in my direction, she kind of ‘started’ when she saw me, then did an about-face, and retreated back inside double-quick. Curiouser and Curiouser! (Alice, that one was for you.)

The next lady was across the street up the road a ways, watering her garden. I stopped in front of her house and asked for directions to the K-Mart (I stayed on the opposite side of the street so as not to scare her, since I apparently resembled a 17-yr. old, unarmed, female Jack the Ripper). The woman took one look at me, her eyes widened, and she literally (I wish I were making this up) dropped her hose and ran into the house, slamming the front door behind her.

I couldn’t help thinking, “Either these people are the most unsociable bunch on the planet or they’re just NUTS!”

I settled on nuts, wouldn’t you? This woman was obviously from California:

I can totally relate to that guy (not), but his bodily pain looks to me a lot like I felt.

Once I (sort of) overcame the shock of 3 people having blown off a lost stranger (really 4, if you count the not-so-helpful lifeguard), I decided a self-assessment was in order: Sandals, check. White shorts (which had dried by now), check. Blue button-down collared shirt with sleeves rolled up to 3/4 length (also dry), check. Granted, I could not see my hair, but my hands did not detect anything beyond the normal windswept mess which usually followed a swim in the ocean. Fashionable sunglasses completed my ensemble.

I continued walking uphill for probably another 45 minutes or so (it was a long street), and at the top, lo and behold, I could see in the distance the K-Mart sign!! By now I was exhausted from my battle with the sea, my feet were blistered (walking for miles in sandals will do that), and I was afraid my Aunt had already left to pick me up. I wouldn’t be at the designated pick-up spot, she would decide that I had met my end in Jaws’ jaws giving her a wonderfully icky story to tell at the next Capistrano Beach Garden Party.

“Shocking!” the listeners would reply. “Wait, wasn’t there a serial killer posing as a lost girl asking for directions in our neighborhood last week? Whew! Aren’t we lucky a shark got that one! Pass the cucumber sandwiches, please.”

Convincing the clerk at a nearby mini-mart to let me use the phone (and phone book) provided yet another exercise in How can I convince you I am a real human being in need who does not actually want to steal your phone or your phone book?! Sheesh! You’d think no one there had ever helped seen a stranger!

In case you are wondering, I did make it back to my Aunt’s house that day, despite having spent the afternoon walking out of my way in a 3-mile arc, no thanks to the peanut gallery of unhelpful Californians.

Still, I am grateful for my time in The Golden State. My experience has helped me understand why Californians continue to pass nutty legislation; I can now justify the odd behavior of so many of California’s public figures; and I gave up trying to figure out how Nancy Pelosi could hold a seat in the House of Representatives for 15 years running! It’s simple:

Everyone in California really is crazy!**

*No permanent foot damage was inflicted in the making of this story (and I seriously doubt there was any blood involved whatsoever).

**Excepting, of course, the friends and family I know there. Hope you guys got the humor in this and didn’t take offense! 😉

What about you? Have you ever gotten lost in a strange place and couldn’t find anyone to help you find your way? Was it a funny story or a scary one? How did you escape your predicament?

MY Happiest Place On Earth

Today I read a post challenge/contest here. Reading through Misty’s account of her trip to Disney made me smile. I cannot think of a worse fate than a week at Disney, or any other theme park like it, for that matter.

So the challenge was to blog about my happiest place. The first picture that popped into my mind was the beach. Oh, not just any beach – Bellows Beach holds my fondest memories:

I tried for a year to draw this view … I’m hopeless.

Situated on the Eastern side of Oahu, Bellows became a sort of haven for me when I just needed time alone. During our last summer there I made the commitment once-a-week to drive across on the H3 (always catching my breath at the sight of the bright, multi-colored shoreline at the tunnel’s end) in order to spend an hour or two soaking up the sun as refreshing salt-water waves crashed endlessly over my feet. We had the privilege of living in Hawaii for 2 1/2 years. I do believe you can still discern the faint scratches left by my fingernails on the airport tarmac while being dragged against my will toward the plane …

Okay, so that was my first thought. Then I recalled the yard off my side porch this morning. As I sat listening to birdsong and bumble bees buzzing around the magnolia blooms, it occurred to me that I was home. Peace surrounded me. No, there were no crystal-clear blue waves crashing over white sandy shores; no mountains rising up out of ocean spray, no sea turtles wandering across the beach for a glimpse of the clumsy 2-legged creatures gawking at them … just a sky of pink-tinged clouds scudding over blooming trees and the mournful sound of the morning doves.

Staring hard at 50 makes one think a little more deeply about what constitutes happiness. The bigger scheme of things comes into play when you age, I think. Happiness for me is no longer where I am on the outside, but has become more about where I am on the inside. Anthony de Mello reminded me recently that the ‘highs’ we call happiness are but the precursors to the lows we know as depression.

Maybe my happiest place is inside me where contentment lives. The simple things in life … family, a fresh-mown lawn, a friend sharing a glass of wine with me are what I have come to cherish. My happiest place is every place. At work or at play, I only need look within to find happiness.

What about you? What is your happiest place?