Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dreaming of Blue Skies (The Happiness Challenge Day 15)

I woke up this morning thinking about Blue Skies.

Blue Skies is the name of the beach house my dad and stepmom rented one week each summer for six years. It sits on North Topsail Beach in North Carolina and its two decks look out on the vast and unknowable Atlantic.

The first year we went to Topsail, we came up to the house on the street side. We lugged our suitcases to the bedrooms on the second level. It wasn't until we went upstairs to the third level living area and I looked out onto the deck and past its chipped white railings that I truly saw the view. It's a cliche but so true - it took my breath away.

When I woke up today, memories of Topsail heavy on my mind, I thought about how you begin to feel the presence of the ocean before you see it. As you drive toward your destination, there is a change in the air, in the way it feels on your skin, in the scent of the breeze.

Is there a better feeling than that moment? Somewhere along a back highway, hours after you pulled out of your driveway and began your journey to the coast, you roll down the window and you say to your fellow travelers, "We're almost there."

Ahead of you lies an entire week of playing and sleeping and reading, of sipping cocktails and playing boardgames, of sitting on the deck each evening watching the blue sky turn pink as the sun dips behind the horizon. All the while you are tucked up against a force of nature, something that inspires awe but also inspires calm. There is a whisper in the crashing of each wave and that whisper says, "Bring me your troubles. I will wash them away."

At Blue Skies, we had a set routine. Each morning, my dad and stepmom were the first ones up. My dad set up our chairs and umbrellas, staking our claim on the area right in front of the house. From the deck, we watched the dolphins swim northward or leap among the waves behind the fishing boats.

Before I'd give in to the gravitational pull of the lounge chair, I'd walk on the beach. I never knew how far I walked, tracking the distance only by the songs of my iPod and the amount of sea glass I found. A walk along the shore always rewarded me with at least one piece of glass, something broken and discarded that had been smoothed by time and the power of the ocean into something soft and pretty.

After a walk, I'd join the family in our chairs. I rarely sat under an umbrella. I am an apologetic tanner. I know it is wrong. Yes, yes, I have read a million and one articles about sunscreen. So I started the day like a good girl and I slathered on SPF 30. Then I sat all day in the sun irresponsibly hoping for a toasty glow.

And I read. One year, I read eight books in six days. That was my record. If you asked me to, I could pull off my bookshelf some of the novels I read at the beach. Much like the feel of the sea glass in the palm of my hand or the sound of the surf, these books have stayed with me as part of my beach memories. I remember I was the last one on the beach early one evening - my dad had already pulled up the umbrellas and carried the chairs back to the deck - when I finished Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. It's a tiny novel about how we destroy ourselves and our relationships with the things we don't say. It is lovely and heartbreaking.

Pretending to read or that kid's a genius. Or both. (It's both.)
My beach bag has as much literature in it as it does issues of In Style or Entertainment Weekly. I will, however, scarf down several James Patterson novels in a short amount of time. They're satisfying yet never leave you feeling full. I'm not a reading snob (except when it comes to Twilight which is indefensible crap). There is a lot to be said for murder mysteries with chapters that are one page long or chick lit where I know the well-deserving single mom will end up with the hot firefighter/bookstore owner/doctor/musician/fill-in-the-blank cool profession.

The day's schedule involved a lot of reading. My dad and stepmom read, too, and always brought a huge supply of books.

At random times, we all made our way in for lunch, usually sandwiches or leftovers from the previous evening's dinner. Then it was back down to the beach chairs where I might crack open a Corona or two. A few days of the week, my dad would blend up pina coladas.

The kids went in and out, taking regular breaks from the unrelenting sun or the waves that tossed them around. I bet each one of them changed in and out of their bathing suits at least four times a day.

As the sun would start to slide down behind the house toward the marsh, everyone would head in for the night, carrying in beach toys and chairs and umbrellas and stray towels. I was usually the last one to go in.

But going in didn't mean staying inside. When we were at the beach, I was always determined to keep the ocean view in sight as much as humanly possible. We'd gather on the deck for evening cocktails. We'd watch the dolphins swim south again, back from wherever they'd gone that morning. Maybe we'd do more reading. Sometimes my dad smoked a stinky cigar.

Near the end of the week, there was always one night when my dad would take his cocktail down to the beach with him. He'd walk along the water and look out at the ocean. I always wondered what he thought about while he stood there by himself. You don't really begin to wonder about the inner life of your parents until you are grown and your own inner life is complicated and obscure, a mystery you are constantly trying to solve.

Eventually, we'd go in for dinner. One night we would have crab legs, dipping the meat into small bowls full of melted butter.

We often sat on the deck again afterward and remarked on the brightness of the moon or we would catch sight of someone along the shore shooting fireworks leftover from the Fourth of July.

A few nights of the week, we went back down to the beach to chase sand crabs, scooping them up with nets and dropping them in plastic buckets, where they would stand up and stretch their claws as if they were striking karate poses.

During these searches in the dark, armed only with our flashlights, there would be a lot of shrieking and running around, trying to avoid the hideous little beasts we were also trying to catch. When it was time to go in, someone would tip over the buckets and those crabs would scurry off while everyone jumped up and down and screamed and laughed and felt that shiver of fear run up our spines at the thought of those angry little creatures skittering across our bare feet.

After that, we would go in and play board games. My sister Katie loves board games. The kids, I suspect, liked the opportunity to yell out answers and get in arguments with each other. I'm not a huge fan of the evening games, but a vodka cranberry or two made the pain bearable.

Eventually, my stepmother would put a movie in the DVD player and it would be one of several movies we had all seen at least twenty times, something we'd watched every year at the beach for six years. My stepmother is a big fan of uplifting films. She's no cynic. She's a believer. She has a soft heart and a Kleenex box at the ready for tears. Even if we cynics in the group teased her and made fun of the heartfelt films, we'd all end up crying at the end of the movie, anyway.

In 2009, we were visited by a sea turtle.
The next day we'd do it all again.

The next year we'd do it all again.

It's been almost three years since one of our trips to Blue Skies. We all miss it but, like a lot of other people, we've all been hit by hard times. Making our way along the Interstates and highways and two-lane roads to our favorite spot on the sand hasn't been possible.

We talk about it. We wish for it. We hope one day to be there again. When I woke up this morning, thoughts of sun and sand and surf on my mind and heart, I was wishing it could be soon.

I thought about those walks I would take on the beach, how I would tell myself, "Remember this. Hold onto this. Take this home with you for all those days when you need help breathing in and out, when you need a piece of calm amidst the chaos. Carry this with you."

Sea glass 
And those memories are there, ready to be unpacked when I need them. This is something I think about a lot, this idea that we pack up those good memories and we store them away. We leave the negative memories out so they are on full view all the time. If my mind is a living room, have I decorated it with photos of the worst thing I know and left the scattered snapshots of hundreds of good days layered in a cardboard box, jammed into a closet, hidden from sight?

Happiness is shining a light on the good times. Happiness is decorating your space with the reminders of the things that heal you. We are like those pieces of sea glass, broken and lost and swept along by powerful currents we cannot control, but along the way we can be transformed into something soft and beautiful, something made up of all the colors of the water and sky, carrying the promise of renewal, no matter where we are.

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  1. Damn, you are just so good at this. Your writing is amazing. Your words about your family's beach trips take me right back to my family's beach trips. For us, it was Fripp Island in South Carolina. Damn, you are just so good!!

  2. I think that, in July, we should load up Todd and Charles and Laurey and Erin and anyone else we deem cool enough and head down 331 to Alys Beach or something. For no less than 5 days.

    1. I am totally on board with this fantastic idea.

  3. I've always ached for a family vacation like this. Too many people take it for granted. How beautifully you describe this special place & how clearly your appreciation shines in your words. Thank you for sharing.


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