These days when I leave New York for a day trip, I have this irrational fear that something will happen while I'm out of state, like a war or another pandemic, and that New York State will close its doors and ban everyone--even New Yorkers, from entering or returning, leaving me helpless and homeless.
I thought about this as I drove with friends for a visit to the Jersey Shore. All 3 of us wore masks in the car and kept the window cracked for the entire ride. We celebrated arriving in record time, paid the $15 entrance fee and found a parking place close to a bathroom where we unpacked the car, applied sunscreen around our masks and found the perfect spot to set up close to the water.
I dropped my stuff into a heap on the sand, stripped down to my bathing suit and looked out to sea. The enormity of the ocean always startles me; I half expect it to shrink a little and grow frail as it ages, as I will. Not yet, we’re both in good shape.
The day after our visit, my sister Heather would warn me that sharks had been seen along the beaches of New York. "We went to New Jersey, I reminded her." And then a few days later my friend Dianne would send me a video of a shark eating a seal in shin-high water in Cape Cod two summers ago. What a relief that these dire warnings didn't come until after my beach visit; the last thing on my mind was being subjected to a shark attack.
There’s no sheik way to walk into an ocean, you try to jump over the moving, crashing waves or duck under them without getting dragged around. A row of onlookers sat at the edge, watching as people dared to venture in.
It was my turn. I walked slowly, one step after the other, and then right after a wave crashed into my knees, I ran the rest of the way and dropped into a full-on swim. I swam underwater, stretching my body and used all of my limbs to find my way to deeper water.
It felt like I had returned home to this ocean that both held me up and forced me to swim. I dipped under again and realized that the water wasn’t that cold and wondered if I hadn’t noticed the temperature of the water because I’ve been mostly numb over these past months.
I floated with little effort and looked back at the land, as if it were a security blanket—just a swim away. In my mind It felt like I was miles from the beach and had to use my x-ray vision to spy on the goings on there. From this detached state, I slowly attached to my new surroundings: look at those colorful umbrellas, look at those people laughing-swimming-splashing, look at those babies squealing, look at those lovers swimming while holding hands, look at those distracted lifeguards.
In a time that defines each person as either an “Us” or “Them,” we beachgoers were an “Us.” We socially distanced ourselves, even while swimming and knew we were the lucky ones who escaped the world of worry, choosing to spend the day in a National Park at the tip of New Jersey where there was more than enough room for all of us to relax.
Floating in the ocean, my worries dissolved. I felt as if I escaped from the pandemic and my country’s meager response to it, and the lack of civil rights broadcasted by the Black Lives Matter movement, and my return to teaching kindergarten where I would have to label children “BAD” if they tried to hug me,
and the newest thing I was trying to forget: China is holding a Muslim minority group in internment camps where they are “reeducated” away from their Muslim beliefs and forced to work in sweat shops and separated from their family members and as the world hated on the country for this modern-day holocaust, China changed its mind and moved up to half of the Muslims into prisons, stating that they were law-breakers.
At the beach, none of this existed. It was my guilty pleasure to let go of the world for a few hours by tuning in to the waves lifting me up, down, up, down, and watching as that same wave that gently lifted me up and down, now crashed into other people’s kneecaps as they dared to enter.
The birds cawed as they flew over me and I tasted salt in my mouth even though I didn’t think I’d ingested anything. I swam for a long time and regretted leaving the water.
Back on the shore I dried off, set up my shaded chair and announced to my friends that I was going for a very, very long walk and half-heartedly asked if they wanted to go. They half-heartedly said they’d rather stay, but I could tell they would join me if I wanted company.
I walked along the shoreline where mobs of people played in the water while they demonstrated a vacation state of mind, and walked on to find a bunch of fishermen and fisherwoman standing next to fishing poles buried in the sand and laughing together as they pointed to where the hungry fish probably hid and displayed generally good moods as if they found fishing from a beach in New Jersey a folly, and I smiled with them, liking folly myself.
As I continued there was a long stretch of beach without people. I inhaled more of this cleaner air and bowed in gratitude to the ocean that made the beach. I loved the feel of the sand massaging my feet as I walked, slowly, along the water’s edge.
I saw Manhattan in the distance, as surreal as if I were looking at a foreign city floating there, just on the horizon, smoldering in the heat. I knew that the people in New York City were also hot and stressed, so, in my mind, I shared some of the ocean’s breeze with them, so that they might share a worry-free moment with me.
I walked all the way to the farthest tip of the farthest beach and couldn’t wait to see what was around the bend, so wanting to reach the edge of something after walking for almost an hour, but when I turned back to see where I’d come from, I saw a threatening cloud hovering over the beach where my friends sat. Was it raining there? Were my friends packing up, frantically looking for me? Were they ready to leave?
Julie had asked if I was taking my phone on the walk. Nope. No phone.
So I turned back and walked faster through my past: the long stretch of beach without people, the fisherpeople still in glorious moods and the throngs of people splashing in joy.
I sent out invisible high-five’s to the parents who stood just out of arm's reach as I passed by and let the waves topple their young children, forcing the kids to scramble back to their feet by themselves, and I noticed the parents who refused to hold toddlers’ hands as they bent to discover the rocks at their unsteady feet.
Invisible high five for you. And you. And you.
These children who have already learned independence and balance will find learning and school easier for their entire learning careers. I accepted this as a good omen for teaching in the future, tucking the memory into the back of my mind where I could visit it when things grew bleaker.
I walked on, splashing through the water where I could, and walking around people standing along the water’s edge when I had to. I searched the shoreline trying to find the area where we set up, between two lifeguard chairs. Why don’t they label the identical lifeguard chairs so I could find my way back?
I climbed onto the hot sand and noted that that ominous cloud had drifted south as I walked amongst strangers and towels and chairs and umbrellas until I found my friends who were sitting under a sunny blue sky.
“Oh, there you are.” Gayle said.
And she was right. I had fully arrived, and I was ready to float again.
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