A Home On God’s Celestial Shore
He saunters through the backyard while the adults talk about money. A fifteen-year-old boy greets, with courtly eyes, the trees and shrubs that are to be his neighbors. The cedar-sided structure beside them, in quiet, unassuming Hampton Bays, though inducing little envy in passersby like the bayside manors farther down the road, has just been made a great reserve of the imagination. The keys to it hang from his mother’s finger. He is “just a city kid” no longer. The boy now lays claim to a modest one-story nestled inside a colonnade of soaring pines and hickories, hours from the overcrowded Mecca. It’s a Friday in June, a school day. A term paper for history class is due. Living here already provides a crucial escape. The frontier is points east.
“You’re going to love it here,” says the burly real estate agent before he turns for the door and drives off.
The family steps out onto the deck, into an unhurried passage of time not frequently felt on the island of Manhattan. In place of downstairs chatter, the trees murmur. Instead of the blare of jackhammers and police sirens, there is the faint call of the water across the way. The boy takes a walk to answer it.
Clean air fills his lungs. He walks head-up to see the open expanse of sky, finally free, against the jutting tree limbs; a departure from most city walking where he often dodges incoming people and his gaze rarely rises above the street. The journey takes but two minutes and brings him to a small patch of sand overlooking the Shinnecock Bay. The bay shimmers towards him and, at long last, the boy thinks about nothing. He can do just that now. The backyard has its own charm, but the saunter he sees salvific is to the bay, an overture to the daily prayer at its precipice.
The boy is now a man of twenty-four. A Suffolk County resident, he carries with him the days of errands run in the Riverhead strip malls and voyages with the Viking Fleet off Montauk. Crucial to any relationship is time. Over the years, the boy has been privileged to share in the East End’s secrets. He knows now how a moonlit Dune Road looks when the snowflakes fall and the gales roll the reeds under the night.
He puts the family dogs in the van and turns out of the driveway to see the Atlantic. The omnipresent waters provide a necessary home away from home. Knowing what’s on the other side of the Ponquogue Bridge, the dogs become unhinged in anticipation. So, too, does the boy. Local kids, believing themselves to live in an unexceptional town where exceptional drama does not happen, still have the breaking waves on the outer barrier. The Great Flood, the longest-running show of all-time, marches on. There is nothing else between that endlessly unfolding ocean and the Old World.
Crabs, upturned and lifeless, lie peppered with knots of seaweed along the shore. The surf tumbles in, softly sliding the scattered matter back to sea. The earth cleanses itself. It, too, can cleanse us, our desperations and despairs – in fleeting moments where the last rays of daylight sparkle in the Atlantic and into eyes kept open to their awe. So much misery regretting the past and fearing the future, but there is only now – and when now rests lovingly upon that terrace of sand, it is a now of reverence and wonder. The boy’s face, made dour elsewhere, softens and smiles, peering across those blue hills and into eternity.
Though the big city sends its anonymous thousands east every summer, this boy has true luxury, the luxury of a sustained correspondence with these mythic waters. In roaring swells and tranquil drifts, pelted by snow and pebbled by rain, they move, peerless in their persistence. He can count on this and only this in his existence. On the same coast in the summertime, he revels in the multi-faceted functioning of the human organism. He has seen smatterings of families and friends gather to play, to swim, to feel the sun’s heat together, when footballs and baseballs and volleyballs arc across the sky, when strangers meet and let loose a candor to one another seemingly plucked from the infinite. But nature provides us a fourfold year and these beaches in other seasons, when mostly uncluttered, are when the realest harmonies ring out. At these junctures, the earth speaks.
The boy returns home, but ventures out again, alone, taking that holy stroll to his even more provincial shore. In times deep and dark, when the house and the human drama within become imprisoning, the tides of Hampton Bays beckon still. And donning a coat of metaphysical honor, the boy still answers eagerly, still saunters across the road to his favored swerve of shore and in a glorious silence salutes the magisterial waters, from which the land under his feet was sprung and the earliest lancelets and jawless fish first stirred. On planets without bodies of liquid water, lived breath is not breathed. The immensity of the oceans and their limbs that reach inland distinguishes the earth from every other orb spinning in the universe. We ourselves are but bodies of mostly water; our very existence is owed to that mystic blue.
As the state of his soul ebbs and flows, leading him to where the pavement ends, the boy surveys the local waters ebb and flow with it. Something so seemingly simple as the gentle drift of the Shinnecock Bay floods the heart with joy, giving him half-a-thought that this present, infinitesimal moment in Eastern Long Island just may be sheltered in the heroic age. The waterfront high-rises have yet to be built, throwing shadows over the bay. Even the docks are few, and in their fewness, beautiful to see scythe through the waves. The steel trestle of the LIRR and the bridges carrying cars over the canal appear quaint considering what will be there a hundred years from now. As the boy did on the day of the closing, a tenth grader seeking summer’s approach, he does now a weathered-but-unwavering twenty-something, as he will – barring apocalyptic foreign affairs or economic downturn or the misfortune of a life snatched suddenly – a greybeard aided to the water’s edge by cane, discovering once more the universe in its shining parts, in an artless cove that once flickered fondly into the hearts of the Shinnecock and the English and the nameless bands of Paleolithic man that prowled the very same beaches before them and kept aglow their spirits. There in the curve of the bay and the moss-clotted stones at its floor are the splendid nuances of time and energy, no less magical and mysterious from Adam on down – still in its ceaseless flux. In his gait, if only for the two minutes back to the house, a fresh yet familiar alacrity uncoils. Each step alight with glee.
To gambol on a strip of beach is to seize the spirit. Return to your shores and return frequently. Feel the sea air caress your face. Hear the planetary gospels. Scamper amongst the coastline rocks, placed at your feet by the earth’s toil through the millennia. A glacier hammered away for ages so we could enjoy these sights and sounds. Glance purposefully upon the waves. They glitter with indifference to our cultural concerns, reminding us that to do so is indeed possible. Innervate the soul, that unseen something the world of money and power and status tries so strongly day after day to weaken and destroy. The torment of ego and habitual vice appears as such a trifle in the face of the celestial shores on the East End. The water rises, falls, and rolls back. On days when mortal considerations push our troubled minds to the brink, these waters await our weary gaze and greet us with the slowest, slightest of surf. This ancient spectacle ushers into our senses a feeling that our lives away from it are all vanity, its indolent elegance restoring the calm to which we yearn.
If you are adventurous enough to sojourn out as dawn breaks, to see the glasslike stillness of your local waters and the sun’s ascent over the horizon, let the beauty rise in the depths of your unconscious, and see it special, for the sun rises differently over these shores than in anywhere else in the world. That morning star – it shines for us, here, before those in New York City.