For some it’s mountains, for others, a big sky. For me, the essential landscape is the ocean, preferably the Atlantic off New York’s Long Island: jade green, cold enough to be bracing, with swells gentle enough to sail over and breakers big enough to ride in on. White sand beaches backed up by grassy dunes complete the picture. The season is upon us, and I’m delighted.
The women in my family have all been swimmers. My grandmother went into the ocean till 81 and the bay till 88. My mother exceeded her record with the ocean till 90 and the bay till 95. I remember her with her cane at 93 on Block Island, striding back and forth across hard-packed gray sand at the water’s edge with a hurricane coming in. The second the lifeguards looked away, she’d be in the forbidden ocean up to her shins, cane and all, until they shooed her out again. At 96, she still insisted on being helped across the vast expanse of sand to the very edge of the water. I had to enlist the hunky lifeguards to push her in a sand wheelchair with giant inflatable yellow tires, like a giant children’s toy, until she could feel the sea breeze on her face and dabble her toes in the skirt of foam that edged each incoming wave.
After a lifetime of beachgoing, I’m still shocked to see how many women, my age and younger, come to the beach but don’t go in the water. They could sun themselves, read, listen to music (headphones, please!), schmooze, and, increasingly, use their cell phones in their own backyards. Don’t they know the water is the whole point of the beach? How can they resist those beckoning waves? Don’t they know how good it feels? Don’t they get hot? I visited Phoenix, Arizona for the first time on my 2008 book tour. The weather was superb, as I’d always heard, blue sky and sparkling sunshine every day. But I can’t imagine retiring there, as many do. As I explained to friends and family on my return, in Arizona, every day is a beach day, but you never get to the beach!
The best emotional and spiritual cure for stress is living in the here and now: one day at a time or however you choose to put it. This is a lot easier said than done. It’s terribly hard to banish the regrets and frustrations of yesterday and anxiety about tomorrow. But immersing myself in the ocean will put me in the moment every time. Everything falls away but the crisp, clean water, the moment of weightlessness when I catch a rising swell, the sensation of soaring, the music of crash, sizzle, and hiss as the wave breaks behind me.
I used to body surf, which requires even more focus on the moment, but I gave it up many years ago after a bad experience. If you must know, I was showing off: proclaiming my feminism by going in with the guys the day after a three-day blow, while the other women stayed on the beach. My idea of heaven now is hanging out beyond the breakers and jumping the high rollers, preferably with at least one companion to schmooze with. The companionship is the hard part. When I can, I’ll attach myself to a group of adolescent girls. Treasure this moment, I want to tell with them (and occasionally do). You are lucky to have each other’s company, because it may not last. Thirty or forty years from now, not all of you will still want to go in.