Last week I found myself quite unexpectedly in a moment of complete peace and silence, reading without interruption the poem “Sandpiper” by Elizabeth Bishop, and enjoying it immensely. The images, sounds, feelings she evokes are ones only to be captured through first hand observation and experience of the Atlantic Ocean, by one who has seen many times the “controlled panic” of the sandpiper running south along the shoreline.
I thought, “Oh, she gets it. She must have lived near here.” Turns out, sure enough, she did. She was New England born and bred (with a short time in Nova Scotia), and died in Massachusetts in 1979, three years after my first view of the Atlantic Ocean, a view that would change my life.
You see, I live near the Atlantic now, but it hasn’t always been this way. I live close enough to smell the watermelon-seaweed saltiness as a storm comes up the coast; close enough to feel the fog in my bones; close enough to watch the tide rush back through my toes, to see the world as minute and vast in one moment as only the mighty Atlantic allows.
My childhood was spent in upstate New York, four hours from the ocean. My first experience of the roaring surf was in 1976. I was ten years old, and my family drove to Cape Cod for the rare vacation beyond the borders of New York state. And there was one trip not long after that to visit cousins in New York City, which included an afternoon trip to Long Island. That is where I first experienced “a beach hissing like fat” where the “tide was higher or lower” but we couldn’t tell which. After that point, I would not be completely satisfied living anywhere outside of a five-minute drive to those “interrupting waters.” It would be another seven years before I would get back to the coast – for college – and stay for the better part of my life (so far).
In preparation for this post, I read a number of critical pieces and reviews of “Sandpiper” and I came up short. You see, most analysts were looking for the “meaning” behind the words, as if the words themselves were not clear enough. Maybe Bishop was telling about her own life, as some suggest, that she is that sandpiper, all finical and awkward. Maybe there is some more subtle reading to the Blake reference. But to me, the meaning is all there, crystal clear. That is, it is clear if you have walked the pebbled beaches of New England, paying attention to sandpipers and the way the world is bound to shake as the wave pounds earth.
This poem captured me as much as it captures the sandpiper for that very reason: I have been there, and I do take it for granted. The roaring alongside as much as the millions of grains of multi-colored sand are there every single day, waiting for me to take notice. And most days I do not notice. But let’s be honest, the ocean is not really waiting for me, either. I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other that allows for this taking for granted. The beach is there with its pounding and roaring and misting, and I am here with my finite controlled efforts to capture that experience in words. Unlike the sort of taking for granted that discards and destroys, we take these gifts for granted from a sense of place, and balance, and gratitude.
When I do make it down to the beach, the experience of it is the same as the sandpipers, except without the panic or the searching obsession. There is a sense of the infinite and the finite that comes together, the vast and the minute. I walk slowly, not running to the south, but walking first east (toward the water), then slowly north and turning around to come back slowly to the south. Toes tingling with the sixty-five degree tide, I bend slowly to pick up then pocket a mottled stone, reddish-gray with lines of white running through, and a piece of broken shell.
I am both focused and preoccupied, caring too much for a broken piece of a seagull’s lunch, and not caring much at all as my thoughts bounce along the beach, following the sandpipers.
In my life, there has been nothing but walking along a New England beach to make me feel this way.