Arriving, I remember everything exactly as it was – the sights, sounds and smells of a place I have often visited in my memory these past 37 years. White Calla Lilies tucked among the wild grasses alongside Stinson Beach in winter, hawks kiting into the wind, wings outstretched, suspended above the surf. Fog, guardian of seaside mysteries, shroud for molting Eucalyptus, billowing a warning to stay off the winding mountain road, yet beckoning one onward. Sunglasses lightly misting over with sea spray, ears cooled by the coastal wind, dry lips salted and licked. Sea foam and kelp bulbs, children giggling and dogs digging, and cold wet sand rising up through painted red toes.
On leaving, my need to remember certain sensations and vistas verges on desperate. The last bit of sun faded by haze as it slips beneath the horizon. The last bit of warmth on my skin before goose bumps rise. The last turnout at which to contemplate staying forever. The last lone cyclist hugging the cliff’s edge, as reluctant as I to turn his back to the sea and head for home at the end of the day.
I do not have the ability to say goodbye, I never have, to any person or any place, really, but particularly to landscapes in which I’ve lived. Scattered traces of my soul linger like ghosts across the countryside, over the sagebrush strewn deserts of Northern New Mexico where I grew up, in the valleys and ridges of the Shenandoah Valley where my husband and I have a home, in Kentucky where I too have soared like a hawk, the wings of my small plane outstretched and kiting into the wind, in the Po River Valley of my father’s agrarian ancestors, and in New York City, where I have lived for 35 years.
But not even that zucchini blossom-laced Italian panorama occupies as much of my heart as the rugged coastline north of San Francisco, which I would visit often in the two years I lived in the City by the Bay after graduating from college.
Whatever my inability to bid anything or anyone farewell, I more than made up for with the courage to set down roots in places where I knew not a soul. Off I have moved to unfamiliar cities, in search not merely of a good time, but of proof that it was possible to trace an unpredictable trajectory through life. It is an agricultural endeavor, digging furrows into the earth in which to plant the seeds of life. It takes a non-academic, but knowing pluck. Yet as instinctual and genetic it may have been within me, still I brought no real consciousness to my move to San Francisco; I was just another graduate awash in debt, in need of a job, new clothes, a car, and a sense of purpose.
In uninspired fashion I traded my predictably safe and oh so female secretarial skills for a job at CBS Records, where, after nine months I arrogantly, but confidently, demanded of the branch manager that he promote me to a position for which I was wholly unqualified, suggesting in addition that he co-sign a loan that would allow me to buy the car I needed for the job I was certain he would hire me to do.
He laughed, and gave me the position. He agreed, and co-signed the loan. And it was the beginning of everything in my adult life. A shift in my colossally untrusting nature, like the shifts in the Earth’s plates that would move from time-to-time beneath our California feet. The nascence of my professional creativity and the birth of friendships with men, men who were not my family and not my lovers, but colleagues, comrades in work, allies in a mutual love for music and performance. I learned to laugh and smile when my photo was taken. I was included and respected…and allowed myself to be teased. I started to reclaim my emotional life, which for so many years had been diminished and dulled by my mother’s lingering depression over my father’s death. Slowly I learned to breathe again.
My new wheels took me to Muir Woods, the Redwood forests, Napa Valley, Yosemite, and the Pacific coastline, along which I would drive for hours, mesmerized by the roiling surf, the sounds of seagulls, the sudden appearance of that dense and dreamy fog, and trees sharply angled away from the sea wind like crew cuts on suited sailors. Once I discovered Pt. Reyes, an ambling grass-covered promontory that rolled and looped down to the ocean, I would return to its beaches often and sit and watch the waves wash over the sand, tracing an unpredictable trajectory across the ocean’s fragile offerings of miniscule shells, polished sea glass and driftwood.
I had no idea that many of the friends I would make in those giddy girlish days – when I shared a flat with two roommates and slept on a mattress perched on cinder blocks, when the only sheets I could afford were roughly woven at 200 threads per square inch, but I always had enough for an occasional breakfast at Doidge’s Kitchen – would still be in my life when I revisited my favorite beaches 37 years later. That these friends might freely come and go like waves, tracing their own unpredictable paths through life, but if I only looked or asked I could find their gentle spirits hovering like a protective fog drifting over grazing Tule Elk on Pt. Reyes.
But I, too, was a fragile offering, who discovered that a job and car and money and friends were not enough to heal her dampened spirit. So I returned to the sea over and over again, where I always felt welcome, like a piece of burnished driftwood washed upon the shore.
I have always been attracted to wild weather, to storms and tornados, lightning and thunder. But as for the sea, unpredictable and dangerous, graceful and serene, ever present but never the same, it holds within a combination of attributes I am never allowed to be, a knowledge of life humans cannot fathom, a temperament lovers find impossible to embrace.
Alone in nature I am more able to accept the vast array of my own continually shifting mood tide than when in the presence of friends, even those I deeply love. At the sea’s side I am rejoined with my shadow spirit – as I am in the deserts of New Mexico, the ridges of the Shenandoah Valley, the farmlands of Emilia-Romagna, and the wind buffeted skies over Kentucky. And at the moment when I have finally breathed in enough salt air and sea mist to sustain me on the long flight to New York, I turn my back to the mysteries of the Pacific and head for home.
But I have not gotten any better at saying goodbye. When my plane touches down, I hear not the roar of the engine, but the roar of the sea.
Spring and Fall
to a young child
MARGARET, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)