Lessons from the Waterfront

Written By: Cal Ritterhoff

I did much of my growing up in Montauk, I think. Although I only ever spent the summers here, my home on the Sound has been as part of my development as anything could be, and so for me to talk about Long Island is always to talk about what it has taught me, and there is much I have learned from the ocean.

I have often thought about love in terms of water. Consider the first time you were in love, reader. I say in love, not loved, because I refer to the first time you felt so deeply that your head slipped beneath the surface, that you felt your chest contained a sea unto itself, vast and eerie, and that it might spill endlessly from your mouth and fill the room, and drown you, if for a moment you were careless. Consider this and consider the ocean, reader, and tell me I am wrong.

Heartbreak, too, I understood with the aid of the Long Island Sound – I would often sit amidst the grass behind my home and peer out at the grey horizon, and reflect on all the things that were not mine to grasp. I watched clouds heavy with rain settle somewhere distant, heard waves crash on stone and saw the wind whip the water to a frenzy, and it seemed to me that I was witnessing a world of could not – depths I could not plum, horizons I could not see, men I could not become. It is a frightful lesson we must someday learn, reader – that we are born too small for the world we live in, our hands too meager to hold long what we desire.

But I have also learned about vastness, a kind of scale that must be seen to be understood. I remember one Fourth of July I stood on the deck and watched the horizon smoulder and spark. From my place across the water I could see a hundred celebrations, like flickering candles that burned the sky itself, and in that moment I was struck by a sense of smallness I doubt I shall ever forget. With smallness came a kind of comfort, and though I remember little else from that night I like to believe I wore a smile on my face, as I watched the world smoulder with distant fire.

The sunset taught me about impermanence, and a girl on the beach made me learn how precious my own time was. I first understood beauty in terms of rain on the water, and to this day I can think of nothing more amazing to see. I remember once I watched a storm break upon the sound and wept that my eyes could not make that moment permanent, and so I suppose the water taught me about grief, as well.

All my life, the ocean has whispered to me, in the sound of waves on the beach and seagulls in the sky, in the feel of the sun on my back and wind in my hair, in the sight of tall cliffs and distant blue plains, and it has told me this: That space is vast but time is precious, and that we must get busy chasing the things we want. That we may never hold in our arms that which we desire but we will always have the sky, and the sea, and that a thing is not beautiful because it is ours to keep. May we live in the light of the Long Island sun, and never forget how small we are.

And let us love like the ocean: deep, and strange, and always.