Quiet Season

This weekend I have been reminded of the beauty and peace to be found in quiet. In dialing back and dialing down from the hype and the shouting and the constant bombardment of, well, almost everything these days.

A good friend joined us for a lovely and simple Thanksgiving dinner accompanied by the view of the creek and wildlife outside our Ocean Pines home. We are at the stage in our lives where holidays don’t always involve complicated meals planned and prepped for days for a crowd around a dining room table laden with china and crystal glassware. Not that I don’t occasionally enjoy hosting meals like that, but I’ve discovered  turkey tastes just as good eaten from Corningware plates using unmatched kitchen silverware.

Assateague pony (2)Ocean City, minus the crazed summer vacationers, gratefully sets aside all the trappings of a resort and reverts back to its charming small-town self. Walking the pathways and beaches of the nearly deserted Assateague Island looking for ponies feels far more productive than rushing to spend money on more stuff we don’t need. Sitting in a nearly empty theater watching Tom Hanks work his magic in the movie about the life of Mr. Rogers was a profound testimonial to the power of gentleness and remaining quiet, of taking the time to listen and really hear what others are saying. There is a scene in the movie where Mr. Rogers asks the troubled man with him to “close your eyes for a full minute and think about all the people whose love brought you into being.” I suspect everyone in the theater did the same thing.

st Paul's by the sea (2)On Sunday, we attended our home-away-from-home church a block from the boardwalk. It is a small church with a dwindling congregation and yet there is always a moving and powerful message from the rector and a warm welcome from the parishioners who know us as “the singers.” I am grateful to be part of a denomination which cherishes the quiet anticipation of Advent instead of rushing headlong into Christmas. Our sanctuaries are unadorned with greenery until that final Sunday before Christmas, and we sing beautiful Advent hymns rather than Christmas carols. I love my over-the-top Christmas trees and the excitement of the season as much as anyone, and yet, the older I get, the more I appreciate the feeling of expectation, of saving the best for last.

We’ve been coming to the beach at Thanksgiving for years. When we were both teaching, it was a brief respite from the crazy schedule of concerts and school obligations that filled our Decembers. The days when we decorated Christmas trees late at night and tried to cram in pre-internet shopping whenever we could. Our lives are considerably less frenzied now and yet, perhaps more than ever, given the social and political climate in which we live, I need to watch the ducks floating by on Manklin Creek while a heron soars into the sky on its majestic wings. To see the rough-coated ponies of Assateague meandering down the road, stopping to nibble some grass, flicking their tails in the late afternoon sunlight. To hear the eternal sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore as a hardy and brave surfer emerges from the icy cold water in his wetsuit. To curl up on the sofa and read the stories of Wendell Berry for the first time.

Tomorrow, we go home to rehearsals and appointments and getting the Christmas tree and stressing about everything we read and hear on the news. We go back to texts and emails and to-do lists. In the midst of this over-commercialized time of year, in the midst of angry words coming at us from all directions, in the midst of unrealistic expectations of Hallmark-movie-perfect holidays, I remind myself to hold fast to quiet season at the beach—to the beauty of nature undisturbed and being still long enough to hear the voices around us.

Assateague ocean

Beach Memories

 I’ve been a beach person since the days when my family would go to Stone Harbor, New Jersey, stay in a seedy motel painted green with a  lobster on the outside and where the bathroom sink was in the same room as the beds. From there, we moved up the coast to Ocean City to stay with my mother’s best friend who  lived  there year-round. Adulthood brought annual treks to the Outer Banks with a group of friends and now I happily set up my beach chair on the Maryland shore where we have a vacation home.

Our Outer Banks trips always included a dear friend who we lost at way too young an age. When several of us were sitting on the beach in Ocean City recently, (during the week with beautiful weather, not the monsoons) I couldn’t help but think about her, especially since last week marked twelve years since she’s gone to heaven.

She was one of a kind. Her soprano voice could make the angels weep, she constantly won radio trivia call-ins, and had amassed a vocabulary of truly spectacular profanity. One minute a prim and proper elementary teacher, the next a potty-mouth who would make us all burst into laughter with one of her creatively obscene expressions. She loved the Outer Banks and when she was there, her appetite knew no bounds. One of us would be foraging around the kitchen for a snack and she’d give us a guilty look—“Umm, the salt air makes me so hungry, I sort of ate the whole box of Wheat Thins.” Her first question in the morning was where we were going for dinner that night.
Deb eating 2

We spent our Outer Banks evenings watching movies (she knew almost every line from “Finding Nemo”) or sitting in the hot tub under the stars, sipping cocktails, eating Twizzlers, and solving the problems of the world. How were we to know that those movie and hot tub moments were so fleeting and precious, that in a few short years, we would look back and desperately wish for one more movie, one more night in the hot tub?

She did things that made us cringe and roll our eyes—powdering her sweaty underarms in the lobby of a restaurant, singing  an impromptu “Lonely Goatherd” from the open sunroof of my car while waiting for the Ocracoke ferry, (she was obsessed with “The Sound of Music”), vividly describing an erotic dream in the dining room of a bed and breakfast. She was unabashed, uninhibited, and completely her own person. She was also deeply spiritual, devoted to her God,  her family, and to her students at the school where she taught fifth grade.

She fought her illness valiantly. She lived Dory’s line from “Finding Nemo”—“When life gets you down, you know what you gotta’ do? JUST KEEP SWIMMING!” I can still see her getting in our faces and yelling that when we were whining about something. She showed us how it’s done.

Dory and Nemo

Twelve years later my friends and I are older, crankier, more set in our ways. After she died, it was like a tire flew off the vehicle of our friendship. Part of what we had together became like those truck treads you occasionally see along the road—ripped from the wheel and left shriveled and abandoned. We were torn away from her joy in life, her wonderful irreverence. The loss of someone we could indulge with an almost parental love, left us off-balance and we’ve never fully regained our equilibrium. Now we occasionally find ourselves driving along with clenched teeth, gripping the wheel too tightly, earnestly insisting that we’re still having fun while the car skitters from one side of the road to the other.

The sand and surf bring the memories tumbling back. Three of us who shared those Outer Banks trips with her stayed late on the beach one day last week, enjoying the quiet after the crowds left, watching the evening ritual of life guards pulling in their chairs and whistling everyone out of the water. We sat reading our books, sipping our drinks, and passing around the bag of slightly sandy Twizzlers. The ocean was calm, and it was one of those rare, perfect summer days you don’t want to end. I closed my eyes and I could see our beloved friend coming back from her usual late afternoon walk. She flops down in the vacant chair beside me, reaches for the bag of Twizzlers and says, “I’m starving. Where’re we going to eat tonight?”

obx Kay, Carol, Me (2)

 

 

 

 

 

Sand Buckets and IV Bags

We’re at the Ocean Pines house this week for some fall clean-up after the last rental of the season. It’s beautiful this time of year. The crowds are gone, the weather is still pleasant enough to enjoy the outdoors, and life just moves at a slower pace. No more summer frenzy. As we walked along the boardwalk today, I couldn’t help but think about the family we saw on the beach when we were here in early September.

They had arranged their chairs and umbrellas in a circle, so you couldn’t see what was in the middle. A little girl scampered around, playing in the sand, running in the surf with her dad—just being a kid at the seashore. Parts of her scalp showed through a thinning web of long black hair, and in some places, her hair was completely gone.

The little girl began to chase the seagulls, straying further from where her family was sitting. One of my friends, a daycare director whose wandering child radar kicked in, took her by the hand and led her back to her family. She beamed up at my friend, pointed to the birds, but didn’t say anything.

As we were leaving, they were packing up their chairs and umbrellas. In the sand stood a metal rod that I at first thought was a camera tripod. When I looked more closely I realized that it was an IV pole with an empty plastic bag and tubing hanging from it. The child had been given medication while she was at the beach. That family circled their wagons to surround her and make sure she got what she needed. Whatever it took. Salt air and liquid nourishment. Or liquid poison if it was chemo. Sand buckets and IV bags. Chasing seagulls and chasing cancer. Lord, have mercy.

I keep seeing that IV pole in the sand. I can’t decide if it was a beacon of pain or hope. How does a parent stick a pole in the sand so they can stick a needle in their daughter to keep her alive while she’s playing at the beach? Do you shove it into the sand proudly, fiercely, like planting the flag on the North Pole, saying, damn it, we will conquer despite the odds? Does her family say, “We claim the life of this child as our mission even it means packing bags of medication in amongst the boogie boards and beach towels.”? Did they arrange their chairs in a circle to hide the reality of serious illness from the rest of the vacationers, or did they do it to bring themselves closer to her, to provide her with a canopy of normalcy in what must be a terrifying world for all of them?

I am at the age now when little jolts of illness are starting to spring up among my friends. A cancer diagnosis here. Diabetes and a mild stroke there. Like kids setting off firecrackers on the Fourth of July–snap, pop, an occasional boom. You know to expect it, it’s some distance away, but you’re still startled by the sound. The increasing vulnerability of our bodies comes with the territory. Our warranties have expired and frequent maintenance is essential. It should not come with the territory when you’re three years old. But sometimes it does and if that means bringing chemo to the beach, then that’s what you do.

I wonder what that family thought as they stared out at the ocean. Was the sound of the surf as soothing and relaxing for them as for the rest of us? Or did the constant wash of the tide rolling in and out cause them to think too much about the passage of time? Will we be here again next year? Will all of us be here?

When I was a child, the last day we were at the beach, I would trace the year in the sand, as a sort of good luck omen that I would be back next year. On that day this summer, I wish I would have run down to the water’s edge and written 2017 in the wet sand. A prayer for that little girl.