Every day/I see or hear/something/that more or less/kills me/with delight/that leaves me/like a needle/in the haystack/of light—Mary Oliver, Mindful
I turned 47. Here’s what I did for my birthday: I ended up on the Cape (near Orleans) while my seven year-old is visiting one of his best pals in Brewster. Their house is too full this week for one more adult, so I’m hanging near to them all by myself (at a small inn). Because it hasn’t happened in probably just about almost forever, I’m going to indulge in repeating myself: I ended up all by myself on my birthday.
Put another way: solitude (plus ocean) is bliss for a mother of four, who hasn’t left her kids practically since before the third one was born nearly eight years ago.
Although I knew I needed (I mean, needed) a breather, a little quiet, a chance to not worry about anyone else, until actually doing it I could not have known how much every fiber in my body and soul required this lack of interaction. Being by myself is so soothing.
I think I worried about leaving or maybe it was that a little quiet would make me want more (by the way, it sure does). I just get caught in all the must-be-done stuff that I forget you can pause sometimes. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel being away.
Midday, I went to the Skaket beach at low tide. While I know I’ve been to bayside beaches before, I can’t remember wandering as I did. When I think beach, I think walk and I think go one direction and walk then turn to walk back. I think roar, as in waves crash and strong winds blow. This beach wasn’t any of that: it was hard to see where to go. People were fanned out both toward the water and kind of across and there wasn’t really a difference, not exactly, because there kept being sand and water all over the place. It was quiet (relatively) and still and the sand was very, very soft, even mushy, and almost without shells.
I took it all in: the spongy sands, the still air, the grassy dunes to my side, the seemingly flat wet plane spread out beyond the sand, the way that walking through tide pools your feet are sometimes warm and other times cool even in the same small body of water. I kind of followed a pair of women, one complaining about her son not wanting to spend time with her, to chart a course across (was it across, really?) the beach. I hung behind enough not to eavesdrop, so as not to be rude. I didn’t want to think about sons anyway. I ended up feeling like I went in circles for an hour.
Not knowing what I was doing turned out fine.
At 47, I don’t know solitude so much anymore, either, and besides, it feels totally different than it did 20 years ago just before I met my dear, sweet, generous—thank-you-for-pushing-me-out-the-door-for-my-birthday by the way—husband. Back then solitude was intermingled with loneliness and anxiety that I would be alone forever. I did not anticipate ever (ever) cherishing aloneness.
I guess, to be fair, I really don’t have aloneness all that often. One day is a treat, not a way of life. Still, not knowing myself in space—on the bayside beach, alone for a whole day—it was surprisingly refreshing here in midlife when so much is known or familiar and even some of the edges—my writer’s life, at times, say, or new adventures in parenting—feel as if I’m reaching out beyond my comfort zone in an arena I, on some level, find familiar by now. The bayside beach, despite being a beach (and I know/love beaches), was—or felt—new. So did this day.
After wandering in and out of stores for a while and kind of doing a little bit of mindless nothing (something I really very rarely do) and getting a book of poems by Mary Oliver, I drove over to Nauset beach for a late afternoon walk. It wasn’t as windy as usual, but that roar filled my ears, the grittier sand acted as pumice for my feet, and high tide’s forced me up onto softer sand, thus causing my legs to work hard. My calves let me know I hadn’t been walking on the beach all that much recently.
As I walked—one way, before eventually, turning back—I watched the waves roll in. I found a few more stones I liked (I am gathering eight of them for my son’s eighth birthday next month, don’t tell). I gazed at clouds and horizon. For a while, I was alone on the beach, having made my way past the people. I watched a seal push nose from water and duck back in, disappear, and then reappear.
For now, solitude’s a temporary, fleeting pleasure. I was reminded of that in the nicest way when the dear husband and three of our kids rang me to sing, “Happy Birthday.” For now, time at the beach is rare a treat, also to be treasured. In the future, perhaps I’ll enjoy more solitude and more beach visits. For now, a frozen yogurt and about a zillion sweet birthday wishes on Facebook and one last night alone in a bed in a room away from everyone else in my family is every bit as precious as this 47 year-old could dream for a birthday to be.