March 16th, 2010

The Breath of the Ocean

I’m in Florida this week (Sanibel Island) on vacation with my family. It’s my first voluntary beach/tropically-oriented vacation in years.

When I was a kid, we took a few family vacations that involved beaches. Unlike many people (it seems), I never felt much of a fan of the beach. I found the ocean 1) dirty, 2) scary, and 3) something I wasn’t personally interested in but felt forced to visit because that’s what my family “did” on vacations. This impression of beaches has generally remained in me as an adult, and I really haven’t deliberately spent time on a beach since those vacations when I was a kid. There was a small post-midnight excursion in San Diego in 2001 during which I was, um, distracted, and though my sister got married in St. Lucia in 2006, I don’t remember going to the beach much except during the actual wedding.

My family searches for seashells so seriously that “shelling” is a verb to them. This was something I also remember being forced to do engaging in as a kid, again because it was just what we “did” when we went on vacation. At that time, it also seemed necessary to the powers that be (read: my father) to get up literally before dawn to have first pick or some such thing at the shells washing up on the shore. I clearly recall feeling resentful that I had to get up earlier on supposed vacation than I did when I had to go to school.

So yesterday was the first time in probably more than two decades that I went on my own to specifically spend time on a beach. Especially given that most of my life I have felt a resistance or non-attraction to this environment, I felt surprised by the way I experienced it.

I wandered in the afternoon down to the beach by myself. I stood staring at waves, watching their swell, hearing them break, smelling the salt. I knelt and dragged my fingers through a smattering of seashells and instantly recalled how much I love the sound of shells clicking together. I grasped a fistful of wet sand and noticed there is no other feeling like that. When dry, I found sand feels in its own way like velvet, and up close the grains look as sparkly as crystal. I stared at it covering my skin, aware that it was a result of an eons-long process of dissolution into this foundational powder that fills beaches and provides the whole floor of the ocean.

Then last night, I chose to look for shells of my own accord. Having been away from them in their natural environment for so many years, I was struck by how astonishing I found them. Even the shells considered “common” or “dull” looked extraordinary to a shell amateur (or at least one way out of practice) like myself. There is a stunning quality to me in all of these shells, these amazing intricate extensions of animals that have created and live in them. I find it truly fascinating.

The simple opportunity to observe and ponder waves in the context of “shelling” further fascinated me. Like the breath of the ocean, the constantly forthcoming, uninhibited waves deposit each time a display of unpredictable uniqueness. Nothing is the same each moment as it was; it is a tangible invitation to an orientation toward Now. Sometimes something may come forth that isn’t quite reached in time, and it is let go. But there is no knowing what new may then be offered in the next breath. There is a forever flow, invariable opportunity, constant beauty, always unknown.

It reminded me of writing. And sex. And life.

As I wandered in the dark shining a flashlight on the waves, the realization was consise: The ocean is fucking phenomenal.

I won’t say I don’t still find the ocean dirty and scary. But it is phenomenal encompassing those things, its mystery, danger, glory indivisible as an entity foreign to yet universally connected to us. I appreciate this opportunity to be so close to its energy.


“Gotta find a way to flow, in a host of things that grow…the mouth of god is wide, so let’s just fall inside, and let every damn thing go, and flow…”
-LIVE “Flow”

11 Responses “The Breath of the Ocean”

  1. Jo says:

    Yup. The sea is emotion… shifting, endless, unquantifiable. And I love the sand, digging into the cool grainy wetness of it. The sound of it. The pressure of it when it covers part of you. I always did.

    I’m more of a pebble than a shell though. Where I live the beaches tend to be stony, and the sound of the waves at the shore is magic.

  2. Funny, I’m not a ocean guy, though I do appreciate it on a certain level. We used to go to the Oregon coast when I was a kid. I enjoyed it, made the most out of it, but give me mountains and some cold river to dip my toes in anytime.

    That said, the sensual way you describe reintroducing yourself to the elements of the shore make me think maybe I need to do the ocean thing for old time’s sake.

    You did a great job of unlocking some of my ocean memories with your thoughts on your trip.

    Thank you for a beautifully written post, and for “taking me along” on your voyage.

  3. ste says:

    What a great post!

    I went to one of the local beaches at high tide on Monday. It was cold and windy, and the sea was the colour of mud… but it was wonderful.

    I don’t actually go down to the shore all that often, but I think I’d miss knowing the sea was close by if I lived somewhere else.

  4. Emerald says:

    Hi Jo! A stony beach—that sounds charming in its own way to me, indeed.

    I have the impression Sanibel is known for its “shelling” (I still find it funny to use that as a verb). The picture with this post is a small portion of the shells one of my parents has found this trip. The counter in the kitchen is almost covered with them. :)

    Thank you for coming by!

  5. Emerald says:

    Hi Craig. Thank you so much for the flattering way you described my descriptions. :) This really has seemed a fascinating experience to me—for many years I have felt virtually zero interest in the beach, and I have found the ocean this time so, as I said, phenomenal.

    It actually has me pondering how much childhood experience may have influenced seemingly external things that seem separate/unconnected to me — for example, I’m wondering how much of the disdain I felt for the beach was related to feeling that I didn’t have a choice in the matter when I was a kid and had to get up ridiculously early to do something I wasn’t interested in doing. It did seem significant to me this time that I seemed to be doing this all of my own accord…perhaps the beach held associations with me I didn’t consciously realize, and I attributed it to the beach itself — perhaps erroneously.

    Ramble ramble, lol. :) Anyway, thank you so much for coming by; I much appreciated your comment.

  6. Emerald says:

    Ste!! Lovely to see you!

    Thank you so much. I dated someone years ago who had been born and lived his early life in Portugal. When we met we lived inland in the U.S., and I recall him speaking frequently about missing the ocean.

    Funny you mention the cold and windy weather — it has actually been raining here this morning for the first time this trip. Even though I find it a bit chilly, I have noticed that to me it still looks beautiful, and in fact there seems a distinct mystique about the beach in the gray/cloudy atmosphere.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and for your comment!

  7. Hi Em,

    In the words of Led Zeppelin, “Ramble on!”

    I think so many of our reactions to a place can be traced to something we experienced when we were young; a bit of transference. I can see where a young person would be put off by having to do something they didn’t want to.

    I’m just glad to hear that perhaps you’re finding your way past yours and are finding a new joy.

  8. ste says:


    Yes, an overcast day at the shore can still have its own appeal. Though the view at the beach I mentioned was a little forbidding, especially with the heads and shoulders of some of these statues appearing and disappearing as the waves rolled past. They do give the beach something of a spooky air at times.

  9. Emerald says:

    Thank you Craig.

    Wow, ste, I can only imagine…. I’d never heard of those. Ha, I feel like I’ve never needed extra incentive to find the ocean frightening! :)

    I’m leaving Florida today…I really feel like I’ll miss it here.

    Thank you again to both of you for joining this discussion of my experience here.

  10. This is beautiful, Emerald.

  11. Emerald says:

    Thank you so much, Janine!

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