The seaweed fingers of the ocean laced themselves through Friday night’s post as I dreamed of a Cape Cod childhood. The specter of all I didn’t really appreciate living with the ocean so near to my door sweeps ever closer as I delve into the essence of place.
We are steeped in the language of landscape – after all, this corner of the blogosphere is stated to include notes from a spiritual quest, and what is a quest if not a journey along a path? Only one part of me envisions a trail through a forest; the rest of me relies on the abstract – images of neural pathways or a trek up a spiritual mountain with little reference to reality. We have reached a point where we move through life without ever risking blisters as our feet never touch the ground. William Blake’s vision has been realized in so many ways: “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”
So often in my life I have lived this creed, devouring poetry for the sway of the verse rather than to feel the rise of the hill being glorified on the page. We can discover countless aspects of the planet with such speed and alleged accuracy, but still I am left to wonder if I have ever actually seen a moose by the side of the road or if I have just watched the opening credits of Northern Exposure often enough to feel I have that big mammal all figured out.
At last I am beginning to realize that my moments of greatest unhappiness (often after heady flushes of joy) generally swallow me when I am most oblivious to the cycles of nature, the constant spin of birth and death that exists well beyond my narrow scope. It strikes me as strange that we can completely forget the ground beneath our feet. Does a sailor ever forget the ship that keeps him from slipping into the sea?
These considerations come at a time when my husband and I talking about where to set roots for an eventual family. Back to the Cape, back to Europe, some foolishly warm part of this country, or perhaps just embracing the community in which we currently find ourselves. There are so many factors that would inform that decision – occupation and livelihood; the proximity of family and friends; whether residents of these new places would seem to be “of our tribe”; is it too hot, too provincial, too landlocked? What would it mean to make the decision not only in light of such practicalities, but because of the pulse of a place, the language of the land itself rather than the vocabulary we have thrust upon it?
I was born a Cape Cod girl with salt water in my veins (though I would not realize this until the ocean was no longer a mile from my door). I discovered my fairytale soul and soaked it in romance on Prince Edward Island (not recognizing until later the dangers of treating my teenage self with such painful earnestness). I became a Galway girl and parodied the Normans to be “more Irish than the Irish themselves” (not that I would have owned that dubious distinction at the time). As the shine of childhood and collegiate entitlement began to dull, I resigned myself to be someone caught between being a chameleon and a fish out of water and lived in a few landlocked spots that meant nothing to me at all. I have tried on more than a few guises and landscapes trying to find my own true home. Now, after nearly four years in a little town in the Hudson Valley at the foot of a ridge that leads to the Catskills I am beginning to realize aspects of myself beyond ocean and nation and alienation. At the same time, I am also able to recognize that the identity I forge is still built from the stuff of sand dunes and sea grass.
More and more I am coming across references to the essential nature of place and the way that location is an active participant in the events of one’s life. In so many ways this is a quaint notion that seems to apply to people who find joy in composting or who hail from a line of wisewomen and men stretching back to time immemorial. It is a luxury that seems to apply to people with large families in spots that are either too idyllic to leave or too destitute to escape. As I read about the vibrancy of some seem to see in their homeland I wonder at the privileged and the blighted few who enjoy such intimate knowledge of each stone and leaf.
Somehow in reading such texts I forget that I grew up with a list of my top five favorite beaches – one had the best waves, another the best sandbars, another the best rocks upon which to figure out the allure of sunbathing (this redhead has still to sort out that mystery of adulthood), etc. I was raised by people who chase across our peninsula on the three or four most perfect nights of the summer to see the sun set and the full moon rise on opposite sides of the sky over different faces of the sea. Just last weekend my mother and I rolled a busted buoy far further than might be considered sane to enhance a driftwood and debris sculpture and make part of that Chatham shoreline our own.
I spent eighteen years on a world famous arm jutting into the Atlantic with parents who love to sail and collect heart shaped rocks and still don’t mind if the dog jumps into the water minutes before getting back into the car, and somehow I have managed to feel disconnected from an authentic sense of belonging, from a place that seemed to know my name as well as I knew its.
Now we can point to a global society riddled with modes of communication that has afforded us the ability to eat strawberries in February and play Scrabble with friends in Budapest in the middle of the night as the source of this separation from the land. This new parallel existence has also allowed us to trade organic “place” for self-determined “space” so that we get to define our world rather than letting it define us. I know that I gain infinite wealth from this wired world, just as I profit immeasurably from the first frontier that separated us from the earth around us, the printed page. At the same time, I am beginning to realize the reciprocal relationship that exists between me and the corner of the planet that gave birth to me as surely as my parents did. Nature is calling out to cradle us as sweetly and as strongly she always did, if only we are willing to listen.
The next mystery to sort out is how loudly the waves are calling me home…
Only a Cape Cod girl like me could find great liberation in visualizing herself as a mollusk, but at yoga class this morning that image brought me pure bliss.
This week I have been trying to sort out the proper responses to the people and events in my life. The unexamined bits of myself that constitute the mask I so often show the world thrives upon reacting to everyone who looks at me cross eyed or treats me like a secretary. I feel entitled to my (un)righteous rage and revel in the version of me that is stereotypically fiery and red-haired and well-soaked in sarcasm. At the same time, I think of Stephen Cope‘s measured voice describing one of the basic tenants of yoga, letting experience roll through me like a wave, not reacting, but simply being present in the world. I return to the former set of responses again and again because I am afraid that embracing this nonreactive sense of self will obliterate the me that has taken 28 years to cultivate; my negativity may not be something I am proud of, but it is mine, and I will be damned if I am going to trade my identity to be some vessel through which life just passes.
Today, however, I realized that there really is nothing wrong with letting life flow through me, because that has nothing to do with life passing me by. In fact, it may be just the opposite since I can actually enjoy the world and see it fully instead of losing precious time composing scathing comebacks for the next time someone crosses me.
My teacher was describing ahimsa: living without harming or living the practice of universal love. I have always loved the music of the word and have invoked it often when I am trying to avoid cursing my body for its inability to conform to my will (or the confines of my jeans). Somehow the word had new resonance this morning and it conjured the ocean for me, Cope’s waves of experience rolling in and out, a constant opportunity for renewal.
My relationship to mussels and clams and conchs, those amazing, simple creatures who filter the waters of our shoreline and then litter the sand with their abandoned homes, has largely been quite the opposite of ahimsa. Making a meal of something or collecting its remains to adorn my windowsills may be an odd way to embody “selfless service.” This perspective changed when suddenly the absolute simplicity if their existence – pulling water through for nutrients it can provide, allowing the ocean to pass ever through them – was my moving metaphor as I gave myself over to my asana practice more fully than I have in some time. I just felt cleansed as I allowed the sea to flow through me, as I allowed my life to flow through me.
Somehow this image feels so renewable, something that I can recall and that can resonate at any moment of my life just as I can always carry a seashell in my pocket.