Life by the Ocean

I learned a made-up word some time ago on John Koenig’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. I enjoy it because it gives name to a phenomenon that I experience fairly regularly.

The word is sonder, which this delightful dictionary defines as:

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness — an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

I found myself in the middle of such a daydream recently and through it fixated on the simple fact that everyone’s childhood memories are very specific to the environment in which they grew up. The literal environs; the geography, ecosystem, and climate. And my thoughts drifted to where I recall making most of my own memories, what specific habitat had left the deepest impression on my psyche. What was the defining feature of a childhood in Central and Southern California? Of course, the answer is the beach.

I grew up in Santa Barbara, on the East Side. The house I grew up in is less than a mile away from East Beach. We used to walk there, every summer, and stay until our fingers and toes were pruny and the sun had bleached highlights into our hair. My cousins, my sister, and I.

There was the time we were towing my younger sister and cousin along with our beach supplies in a wagon down the sidewalk, and the wheels of the wagon caught on a broken curb, causing it to topple and spill everything (everyone) into the street.

On the Fourth of July our whole family would walk down to the beach to see the fireworks. We brought towels and blankets and drinks and snacks and dug out seats for ourselves, cradled by the cold sand as we watched the night sky light up.

They say that breathing ocean air is good for you. I don’t precisely know who ‘they’ are. Nor could I tell you what exactly about the ocean is supposed to do the healing (the salt in the air? the negative ions churned up by the waves? Vitamin D reflecting off the glassy surface of the water?) But I do love that smell, and the feeling of the breeze, and when you’re lucky enough to experience that rarest of encounters where someone tells you that something you already love is also healthy, you don’t bother to ask for citations.

After thinking about all this for a while, being flooded with memories of sun, surf, and wind, I realized that I haven’t been to the beach in a long time. Years, probably. As I got older and moved from place to place, that walk to the shore became longer. Most of the places I’ve lived in have at least been beach cities, but no longer a quick walk away. Occasionally I’ve even ventured inland where a drive to the beach is a mission rarely accepted. There’s nowhere to park at the beach. When the weather is good the crowds are unbearable. Sand. The days of packing up a little red wagon with subs from the Italian market and walking down a single street until the horizon suddenly opened up blue-green in front of you are long gone.

I don’t think my health has suffered for this absence. I haven’t fallen into a deep depression. My organs are still functioning. The unsalted air I breathe continues to sustain me. And yet, when I think about how many of my memories are tied to the ocean, what it’s like to be there, how long it’s really been, I can feel it. Calling me. Pulling me back.

I wrote a poem in high school about a girl walking into the sea. She heard it calling her and followed the siren’s song, finally entering a strange and mysterious world that the reader could not see. I thought it was dreamy, mystical and comforting. When I showed it to a friend they said it was sad, and thought it was about suicide. I didn’t understand. The girl didn’t die.

Perhaps the sea has burrowed its way inside me, permanently. Maybe that’s what it means to be born and raised less than a mile from the heartbeat of the world. All I know is when I close my eyes and imagine the sound of the waves, the sand at my feet, the crisp gusts of wind nearly pushing me headlong toward a destination unknown…

…it feels like home.

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