we have gone to the beach

After spending time at the beach, I sometimes think of Cynthia Huntington’s book of poems, We Have Gone to the Beach.

It’s a well loved book of mine – one of the ones I’ve travelled with. The book itself is dog eared, worn. The pages are familiar to touch, having been read so many times. Something spilled and seeped into the book at some point, leaving rorschach prints and stains on wrinkled paper. This early book of poems and her memoir, The Salt House, are still with me, and have probably influenced me in important ways.

I grew up in Long Island, New York, with a mother who was deathly afraid of the ocean. Her fear was not unwarranted; she had almost drowned twice. As a result, our trips to the beach were very infrequent. My sister and I were not allowed to go past our ankles in the ocean, and even that was risky. Thankfully, we were content just to be there, to create elaborate sand castles, collect shells and rocks, and look at the ocean.

Neither of us inherited her fear; to my mother’s credit, she brought us for swimming lessons starting at an early age, and each summer, we were to be found at the local swimming pool. I love the water, any body of water, really. But there really is nothing like the beach.

There is something about the enviornment, the way the ocean drops into the horizon, the way the tide moves, that soothes me in a deep place.

The beach at night is beautiful, mystical even. There is so much space, salt and sand; the sky is all stars. The moon is reflected in the ocean, glittering on the surface, drawn by the energy of her changing face. The beach during the day is still beautiful, but usually there are more people, so the energy and dynamic is different. Yet, it is impossible not to feel the power of the environment – sea, sand, sky.

So tonight, after dinner, I took my children to the beach. It’s something we do, it’s part of our summer routine. After 6 and until sundown, the beach is still open and it is free. Throughout the summer, bands play at the Jones Beach Theatre, and the acoustics lift the music into the surrounding air.

It is a ridiculously short drive, but expansive. In the car we listen to music and talk. The children point out things they see – something funny or interesting on the bike path, clouds in the sky, the sun, an early moon, boats, water, people fishing. We sing. It almost feels like as we travel towards the beach, we become lighter.

We have gone to the beach. We left our shoes in the car. I walked behind the children as they ran across the sand to face the ocean. Then we walked over the wet hard sand, letting the rushing tide swell around our ankles.

We have gone to the beach. The children wrote their names in the sand. They collected shells, some to keep, others to make into necklaces and still others to paint. We passed a beautiful sand castle, impressively large and decorated with a pattern of spiraling clam shells. We passed a sand sculpture of a turtle so detailed, big enough to sit upon; we were in awe.

We passed families, groups of people, couples kissing, moms and dads, little kids, big kids, old men and women. We passed people fishing, poles stuck into the ground; people flying kites, tossing frisbees. There were people walking, people standing at the water’s edge, people sitting and staring at the ocean. We have gone to the beach.

We didn’t really talk. We walked, we picked up shells. We ran from the rolling tide when it came too fast. We laughed at a seagull carrying a crab in flight. The sky was such a clear blue, turning so many different shades. The sun was a hot orange glow, burning into the horizon. And when we left, it was like something had been healed, something I didn’t even realize needed healing had been restored.

We have gone to the beach.

Is that all?
Is there nothing else to say, no ending,
before the song takes over, beating
to swallow up instances – save one more thing – you
wonder why there is no ending, why we can’t look back
without undoing the story. I don’t know how
to step out of it and make a talisman of incident,
to say “this” before we’re taken, swallowed up
in that endless complaint of song and calling back
and moan. Then memory sets life beside life.
As if you could choose.
And if I choose to write you: “We have gone,”
it is another we
or it is in the past already, altering,
unless you follow and find me, today among the others
who we are, the ones we have gone away with.

excerpt from
We Have Gone to the Beach, by Cynthia Huntington


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