The ocean sings her song to me and the sand shifts under my feet, the water stealing little threads from between each toe, pulling and tugging this way and that, drawing the ground almost imperceptibly away from under me. I know this familiar pull, this incremental theft of footing, this call of darker water that thrums just beyond my reach. It curls around my heels and over the tops of my feet, caressing me, seducing me, a shrouded muse that seeks to draw me in and lure me from solid ground.
It seems I’ve always stood here, in some way, tethered to the push/pull of the ocean as if a vast sandbar of shifting ground and the constant motion of the water and tides could ever be claimed as a home. This shifting, this changing, this call, is as much a part of me as my heart, or the people that I’ve loved, or the things that I’ve lost (or the music of an entire life held close in my body).
It’s as much a part of me as sandy sandwiches and cuts on tender feet from hidden razor clams. A part of me like wind-burnt skin and salty hair. Like long days at the beach broken by dark afternoon thunderstorms sweeping in quickly that send us screeching and racing home to watch from the porch, fascinated by the dark power of the storm, our grilled cheese sandwiches slimy in our chubby, clutching hands. It’s a part of me like the middle school angst and faltering attempts at love played out on the sand against the distant pattern of the lighthouse signal offshore: “1 – 4 – 3,” flashing out across the ocean over and over as our exaggerated dramas endlessly repeat on the beach. As much a part of me as angry teenage drives to the winter sea wall to lean silhouetted into the wind as it lashes and stings me and thrashes my clothes tight against my body, threatening to steal me and me, trying desperately to feel something bigger than my emotions trying to swallow me whole, ever tempted to answer the call.
I left the ocean at seventeen and moved to the mountains, drifting through college on a magic carpet of beer bottles and ash, Ecstasy and sorrow, and broken promises I made to myself. I crashed into the mountain trees again and again, flopping and floundering, unable to break free from the gripping branches. My legs kicked and dangled, a thousand kite strings tied around my ankles, their threads tying me a thousand ways to an old and tired heart that I wanted so badly to be rid of but instead dragged around behind me, trapped in a hopeless tangle of knots.
I spent years away from the ocean, tangled in trees then tripping on concrete, always catching a sneakered toe in sidewalk cracks and chain-link fences, my ripped-knee jeans exposing the pebbles embedded in raw red flesh, thrashing through a haze of needles and bent spoons that felt like drowning. I made occasional attempts to return to the shifting changing sand of home with painful and infrequent appearances at family gatherings to assuage my mother’s constant pleas to return to her. Showing up days late to family vacation, emaciated and covered with sores, telling the daughter that wasn’t mine anymore that I’d catch up with her on the beach in a bit, so I could scrape my empty crack pipe just one more time. She’d come back for lunch, her little brown eyes and tiny voice asking me once again to play with her.
I couldn’t (reach the sand).
Years of concrete and mountains passed by and seismic shifts tore the ground out from under my feet each time I thought I found a foothold, sending me careening and only half-heartedly searching for something to grab onto to stop the downward trajectory towards what might be death, or might be something better. It might be the kind of darkness that would envelop me completely, shutting out all the light and warmth and leaving me in a perfect void.
“But wouldn’t that be lovely?” the ocean sings to me softly.
I take the ocean’s hand each time and step into darker water.
When the light finally came, I almost didn’t see it. It was just the usual endless darkness. But then suddenly this tiny thread of light shows up, like when you’re in the deep dark water just a moment too long and you look up, reaching for the sky and air, for breath (life), and they seem so far away, an impossible distance. But there’s just this hint of light above, and you know it’s there, the light, the breath, the beach. And you know you must reach for it.
I finally reached.
The light grew.
And the kite strings started to uncoil and fall away. I brushed the pebbles off my knees, I rotated my ankles, flexed my toes, felt the beauty of my own two bare feet in the earth that would carry me home.
The ocean sings, and the sand shifts. I feel every grain individually now, in the space between my toes, in the creases of the pads, in the way each one washes ever so gently across the sensitive skin on top. I feel calm in the water again, at peace in a way I’d never thought to long for. The deeper water still gives its familiar call, the current sweeping the sand softly, subtly out from under me, and I feel it’s temptation to let go, to allow the tide to take me from shore and pull me under.
I remain in place.
For years I’ve remained in the sand, feeling it ebbing and flowing, the water often caressing me calmly, peacefully. Sometimes it’s desperate, angry, thrashing against my legs, threatening to knock me off balance and sweep all of the sand away from under me, the waves reaching up for my heart, my throat, hungry to take hold of me once again. Sometimes it feels like I have no grip on the ground beneath me, like the sand doesn’t exist anymore, like I’m not standing on anything at all, just being swept on a current to unknown waters. I’ve grown more calloused to its selfish desires over the years but recently, it’s called me more urgently, its song louder, a serenade in a minor key, crescendos of crashing waves trying to deafen me. A murmuring riptide under my feet, waiting for a chance to steal me away.
But still, I stand. I breathe in the softness of the breeze. I feel the sun heat my face, the salt sting my scars, and the grains of sand cling together in the creases under my feet. I watch the slow pulse of the lighthouse over the water, “1 –—- 4 –—- 3.” It anchors me. I remember where I am. I’m home, as much as anyone ever is. The wind blows, the sand shifts, the tide changes and the ocean calls my name into the darkness, but I remain. Home.