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Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Atlantic Ocean, My Love

I grew up on the eastern end of Long Island and have spent most of the summer days of the first 25 years of my life enjoying the Atlantic Ocean. I have memories that date back to kindergarten of my mother bringing me to the ocean and trying to keep me from adventuring too deep into the unforgiving waves. She implemented the "belly-button rule," which implored me to stay shallower than my belly-button unless she was accompanying me deeper. I would spend the day trying to sneak deeper without her noticing me and screaming "Meg! You are going to have a time-out" at the top of her lungs, alternating with begging her to take me deeper. When we went in together, we would dive under the breaking waves and then tread water floating up and down with the incoming waves. Occasionally, I would accidentally catch one and get tumbled and scraped against the sandy bottom before emerging from the water gasping for air. Secretly, I loved when this happened, even if it was terrifying.

As I got older, I was allowed to swim by myself and I learned to catch the waves on purpose. When a wave would suck me up and drop me over its falls swirling me in the white water, I now knew to let my body relax and to let the water move me at its will, trusting that eventually I would be able to steal a breath and then the wave would release me from its grip. I absolutely loved this sensation and throughout middle school and the beginning of high school, my mom would drive me and my siblings and friends to Cupsogue, the county beach in Westhampton, almost everyday. This beach was about 30 minutes from our house and at the end of Dune Road, the only road that travels the barrier island that protects the shores of Eastern Long Island. The speed limits are tight and well enforced on this road, but it is not possible to drive quickly, anyways; the road is lined with impressive mansions of all shapes and styles with shiny cars that I never saw in my own neighborhood, and most people driving this road were looking intently at the houses and cars trying to imagine the fabulous people that lived inside and what their lives could possibly be like. Everyone in my family had a favorite house and it felt like we had some special ownership over those houses; as we drove, my mom would call out "there is Meg's house! There is Pat's!" This part of the day was fun in its own way, but I always felt impatient and excited about arriving at the beach. On holidays it was particularly painful as the road would be backed up all the way to the bridge and it could take hours to get to the beach! When we finally arrived, I would spend the days body-surfing and walking down the beach admiring the backsides of the ostentatious houses I had observed on the way there.

When I was finally able to drive myself to the beach, I stopped going to the county beach in Westhampton and started going to Ponquogue in Hampton Bays. This beach was across the street from the bridge to the barrier island, so it was much easier to access as it did not require a drive down a long stretch of Dune Road. I would buy a non-residents season pass for $200, because I lived in the next town over, and make sure that I got my money's worth. Going to the beach became a social adventure, with my classmates hanging out at a cluster of towels near the volleyball net. It was important to be present as often as possible to be established as part of the beach crew, but I really just loved the ocean, even as a shallow and superficial teenager. 

In college, I learned to surf while studying abroad in Ecuador. The trip was during J-term and I arrived back home to a frosty New York. I absolutely could not wait for the spring to spring so I could get in the ocean and start surfing at home. As soon as the trees started to bud and the days became a bit warmer, I went to the surf shop and bought my first surfboard and wet suit. As a beginner, there were not many days that the Atlantic ocean allowed me to practice. Many days the waves were big, daunting, and downright terrifying and others the water was perfectly flat, but there were a couple here and there when I was able to get in with my board and practice surfing. Playing in the waves with a large fiberglass board attached to your ankle is much scarier than diving and swimming freely. When I would fall and get tumbled by a wave, the board would drag behind me and pull me backwards, keeping me underwater longer and making it more difficult to steal some air from the surface. Sometimes the board would come over the wave and hit me on the head or the fins would scratch some part of my body. But, when I caught a wave, stood up, and rode it all the way to the shore, all the abuse and anxiety were forgotten and I was so elated it is barely possible to explain in words. Here, a whole new way to love the ocean. 

Last weekend, I flew to Florida to spend time with Jamie while he is training there. The hotel where he is living looks directly over the Atlantic Ocean. When I woke up the first morning, I looked over the balcony at the familiar waves crashing on the unfamiliar beach and felt all the love I have always known for the ocean, but later when I was laying on the beach reading my novel, I had an odd mix of emotions. Reading novels at the beach once made up a very large proportion of my existence, and here I was feeling like a tourist, out of place, at the ocean. That afternoon the sky was overcast and it was quite windy; I was chilled and the ocean was windblown, choppy, and less than inviting, so I stayed dry on the beach. The feeling of visitor, non-native, even intruder, lingered until the following day when the wind died down a bit, the water smoothed out, and I went swimming in the ocean. All the familiar feelings of elation, excitement, fear, and joy that I feel when diving through and catching waves, tumbling towards the beach came rushing back and I felt like I was home. Sometimes I wonder at how a natural formation like a body of water can make me so very happy, but seeing that the Atlantic has been one of the most constant, reliable and long-term sources of joy in my life, it shouldn't be much of an enigma. Now, I am back in Albuquerque, enjoying the crisp, dry desert air and the beautiful views of the impressive mountains, but still thinking about the next time I can visit the sweet, lovely Atlantic Ocean.