I walked on the beach last night, then back under the pier and along the water. A heavy fog settled in early and the ships sounded their horns out in the dark. All the pubs along the boardwalk are coming back to life as the season settles back on this tourist town, but it is quiet along the ocean at that hour, nearly a different world, even on the busiest of nights at the hotels.
I stopped at Ocean Eddies for a drink and then kept walking. The air was wet from the weather, but the water is calm, and the further north I walked into the residential area at North Beach, the less I could hear anything at all except the ripples of the water at my feet.
This morning I walked again, this time noting the proverbial line in the sand of my life which divides what has been for three decades and everything that comes next. I’m in that period we all face with a major change: some sort of blending occurs where those whom I’m leaving ask about the future, talk about what’s next, and the inevitable remnants of a thirty-year career in the form of paperwork and some possible unfinished business. But I suspect these two worlds will separate for good sooner rather than later. It reminds me of a song by a New England folk singer, in which she writes, “Getting used to saying ‘let’s keep in touch’ though I know we probably never will; probably never will.”
And the sun came up today; I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. People out on the highway heading to work, rubbing their eyes. People on the sand set up umbrellas, called to kids, and music spilled out from radios, the smell of sunscreen, the taste of salt in the misty rise from the breakers. I find refuge in this routine. I am encouraged by its predictability. City workers planted new flowers along the bike path, and a yoga class positioned themselves right at the water’s edge as they do most mornings.
Eventually I made it to what is known locally as “First Landing”; the spot where John Smith came ashore before settling in Jamestown, ignoring the presumptuousness of being the first when in fact the Spanish trumped the Brit by a century. My mind slipped to the Middle Passage which started nearly a century before Smith’s arrival, but which he helped usher to the mainland. I’ve seen both sides of the Atlantic: obviously from these shores for most of my life, but once, briefly, just over thirty years ago I stood on Goree Island near Dakar, off the coast of Senegal. It was used to hold African men and women before they were chained aboard slave ships for transport through the process until they were enslaved on plantations, some of which still stand not far from my home. There’s Church Hill Plantation standing in all its dark history just across the road from where my son went to elementary school. And River View Plantation dating back to the early 1800s, which grew tobacco slaves harvested and loaded aboard ships in Urbanna just up the Rappahannock River from my house. I am surrounded by history; sometimes on quiet mornings when skulling the Rap I can almost hear history screaming from the fields and foundations.
At lunch yesterday, my friend Tim and I talked about Zora Neal Hurston’s book, Barracoon, in which she interviewed the last surviving slave who came to America on the Middle Passage. History ebbs and flows in our lives, spilling into and sometimes flooding us with emotion, and other times history recedes so far it is hard to remember what it is that connects us to begin with. Until I stand on the sand, not far from the cross which marks that landing four hundred years ago, and look toward the rising sun. It is important to look back carefully.
Our past is always present, swirling around our ankles, pulling us into the wet sand, always the shifting wet sand beneath our feet. And it does this again and again as long as we stand still.
No. It is important to keep moving. Sometimes the only value we can find in looking back is the lesson in not following that path again. It is a difficult balance, knowing which parts of history to remember and which parts to bury as deeply as we can. But the older I get the more I believe we should never ignore history, pretend it didn’t happen, or relegate it to the dusty corners of losing touch. With the right balance of emotion and intellect, history can serve our Institutional Memory so we don’t get caught again falling into the same undertow of time.
I’m metaphored out. i’m going to go find the beauty of a rose which has not yet bloomed. There is nothing left for that rose to do but to bloom.