5 September 2022 -- Postcard from Ocracoke

As we do every summer, we spent the first two weeks of August out on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.  Ocracoke is a 12 mile-long sandbar just south of Cape Hatteras, 11 miles of which is a National Wildlife Refuge.  The length and shape of the island are constantly evolving – sometimes drastically – as a result of the currents and tides and winds, including the hurricanes that regularly tear into its shores and flood the entire village at the southern end of the island.  It has always been so: the island and the life on it have always been in impermanent, precarious circumstances.  And someday in the not too distant future, the whole place will simply go under water for good as a result of climate change and rising sea levels.  The good people of Ocracoke, the 800 or so resilient permanent residents, are not going without a fight, however, and every summer sees more and more houses lifted high into the air on new stilts in an effort to forestall the inevitable.  Knowing that it will all be gone someday makes every day spent there that much more precious and meaningful, of course. 

I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, New York, just north of Jones Beach State Park – a massive public works project completed in 1929 under Robert Moses – which was very easily accessible by car or even bicycle via the causeway and bike path extending south from my hometown of Wantagh.  Indeed, there were parking spaces for more than 14,000 cars there!  So I spent a lot of time at the beach and grew to love it 12 months out of the year, 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather.  I would often go to the beach at night, in the dead of winter, when it was below freezing, snowing, and there was a vicious wind howling, for instance.  There was something magical and romantic about the place that beckoned to me relentlessly.  I could turn my back on whatever was bothering me, on the narrow, provincial, claustrophobic worldview that confined and vexed me on Long Island, look south or east and imagine just how big the world was, how much space was available, how much room I might actually have to move in, to live in.  I distinctly remember thinking that if I could really look south, beyond the edge of the limited and limiting visual world, beyond the horizon, the next place I would see would be the Dominican Republic, and if I looked east the next place I would see would be Portugal.  The world, as an expanding idea and an actual destination, opened for me every time I went to the beach.  It was both intoxicating and deeply comforting.  I still feel that emotional / psychic tug, that astonishing opportunity for a mental reboot, every time my feet hit the sand. 

These days the beach – that is, Ocracoke – is a deeply spiritual place for me.  There is first the delightful experience of “island time,” when the stressors and timetables and expectations of work in a culture hell-bent on speed and efficiency and productivity over health and sustainability simply lose traction, lose their hold on me.  Whatever way you go to Ocracoke, you have to take a long ferry ride for the last part of the trip, giving you lots of time to start the transition, to begin sloughing off the burden.  The ferry from Swan Quarter, for instance, chugs along at a top speed of 12 miles an hour to cover the 32 miles across the Pamlico Sound in 2 hours and 40 minutes. The speed limit in town is 20 miles per hour, which also helps you slow down, in every sense.   

Next up for me is a sense of losing myself in nature, of becoming less human and more animal somehow.  Having made the annual pilgrimage to sun and surf and sand, I get this wonderful sense that my edges are dissolving, that I am somehow shedding my ego, losing my individual distinctiveness and melding into something bigger, looser.  I’ve tried to capture this elusive sense in my song “Melt”: 

          Slip, slither, and slide, fluid I flow

          Drip drifting and dried, gleaming I glow

Fuzzy and free, down by the seaside

          I glide 

I put on SPF 50 precisely so I can roast mindlessly in the sun like a lizard – a need that nonetheless required the removal of a basal cell carcinoma from my nose a few years ago and 45 stitches to reconstruct my face.  My dermatologist says I can expect more of these.  I find that I'm oddly OK with that.  They are the price of doing business, it seems.  

After the animal phase, I simply become a physics experiment, boogie boarding until I can’t hold my arms up any more, can no longer push myself up and off the sand.  I throw myself into wave after wave after wave, feeling the sometimes terrifying power of ocean water in motion as I hitch a ride toward the shore.  Sometimes I am merely floating on top of the wave, bubbling along, taking a leisurely ride that peeters out and deposits me gently in knee-deep water.  Sometimes, however, I time it right and I am in the wave, defying friction and gravity, flying down its face somehow much, much faster than the wave itself is moving, fired like a bullet from a gun, holding onto the board for dear life until I grind to a halt on the beach, giddy, flattened out on the sand like a survivor from a shipwreck.  The feeling is so delicious that, at first, I am unhappy with myself when I miss an especially good wave or only manage a weak ride.  Time is precious, right?  We only get so many chances, right?  But then a deeper wisdom appears and insists that I recognize, in a broad, expansive way, that there will always be another wave.  Relax.  There will always be another wave.  Be here, now, in the moment.  There will always be another wave.  You haven’t missed out, you’ve haven’t lost anything.  There will always be another wave.  Simply looking up provides overwhelming, incontrovertible, objective evidence that yes, yes, there will always be another wave.   

I have complained repeatedly in recovery meetings that the images we have for God, for a higher power in our lives, are limited and really misleading.  I have never seen a burning bush, or experienced a blinding light, or felt a cool sacred wind blowing across a mountaintop, or heard the voice of God, or anything even remotely this obvious.  If anything, my experiences of the sacred have been momentary, fleeting, small, quiet, hard to discern amidst all the noise in my life.  My experiences of God or a higher power have been so unlike the reported experiences of others, in fact, that I thought I just wasn’t getting it, that I was not actually developing a spiritual dimension to my life, that I was somehow failing at it, bereft of it.  But then one day at a 12 Step meeting in Ocracoke, some wise woman whose name I never learned explained that I simply had the wrong metaphor in mind.  God, she said, or whatever I cared to invoke as my higher power, wasn’t a burning bush or a blinding light but rather a shoreline.  “If we are on the beach,” she said, “God is the waves.  Wave after wave after wave, endlessly, endlessly, endlessly reaching as far up the sand as it possibly can, as far toward us as it possibly can.  Over and over and over.  God is maximally extended toward us at all times.  The problem is that we are usually looking in the wrong direction.” 

Along with boogie boarding, I spend hours simply walking along the beach each summer.  It is always the same walk.  I begin near the lifeguard stand, where we have arranged our cooler and chairs and pop-up canopy under their watchful eyes so we can fend off our fears of sharks and riptides and actually get in the water.  I jog across the hot sand to the water and turn left, face north, and just start walking, ankle-deep in the water.  I pass the throng of other people’s umbrellas and chairs – also huddling near the lifeguards for protection – then pass groups of children playing in the sand, then pass individual people who are reading or fishing, and then finally pass the few remaining people who are also that far down the beach walking or looking for seashells.  Eventually, it is just me, the green dunes to my left, the blue-grey waves to my right, and the golden sand below, all three stretching into the infinite distance in front of me, three straight lines converging toward some misty, mystic vanishing point.  Asked what I think heaven might be like, I would be hard pressed to come up with a better answer, a more appealing image, than that of me walking north on the firm sands of Ocracoke, the sun warm on my back, ankle-deep in the surf, forever.