The Bones of the Beach

I grew up pretty near the Pacific Ocean. It was a matter of a couple of hours to get to its shores from home, and mere minutes’ drive to Puget Sound, and I have always loved any chance to spend time along the water. At home in Texas, it’s not so easy: there are a few man-made lakes within a short drive, with a few public beach spots along the edges of each, most of the time too hot for strolling, and that’s about it. So that recent trip to Puerto Rico was a brief but lovely reminder of what pleasure I find in wandering the beach when I can, absorbing not only a bit of salt water through my happy bare feet and the tangy air through my expanding lungs but also the great sense of history and adventure inherent in all of the findings strewn along the tidal brink.Digital collage: Beachcomber's Trove

Despite being so much a water-baby at heart, I’ve never so much loved open water swimming—after all, my people are the pale, easily fried folk of Norway who transplanted to the familiarly brisk spank of the coastal waters to fish and farm and forest-hunt as they’d done back in the old country. But I’m drawn all the same to explore the tide-pools and comb through the heaps of hidden-and-revealed treasure that line the beach, sucking deep breaths of sea breeze happily right down to my soul. I love to see all of the bits of shell and bone and stone piled up and intermingled with molted feathers, ship detritus and the petrified lace of corals and seaweed. Every tiny piece seems to hold such a storied past that I can stare and sift and dream endlessly.Photos: Beach Bones

What caused that lone shoe to wash up here from unknown shores? Why are those pieces of sea-soaked driftwood burnt but not in the fire pit, rather appearing like a dragon-singed skeleton in a distant heap down the shore? How did so many colors of ghostly and sandblasted beach glass come to bejewel the line of the tide together? Who were the creatures that fished the shore and left bleached fish bones here, a crab shell there? When did the storms kick up such a foment of foam that the inland side of mean high tide has a gloss of it lacquered firmly across the surface of its sand? Where are the children whose sandcastle ruins are still tucked behind the biggest boulders on the beach, waving flags of leaf and kelp from their stunted battlements? And most importantly, when can I return to the beach to stroll and dream of such things again?

Memento Quod Vivitis

The longtime artistic tradition of the ‘memento mori‘ has always appealed to me. I think it’s valuable to recognize our mortality and the limitations of our time on this plane to devote to earthly enjoyments, the better to value them fully. Not to mention that I love skeletons and a lot of that stuff so often used symbolically in these works. I’m not disheartened, horrified, or unsettled by death and the subjects surrounding it, under everyday circumstances, in the way that some people are.digital illustration from a photoThe main thing is, I think it’s even more important to (as my guesswork-Latin post title suggests) remember that you’re alive. It’s not enough motivation to live a full, meaningful, rich, purposeful life just to know that you’re going to kick the bucket one day; everybody knows that, and it’s probably not even a majority of our kind that actually give serious thought to being fully present in their lives and making the most of their life spans. I know for certain that I haven’t always been especially good at such things.photoSo I’m rather happy to have an eye-opening, soul-tweaking glimpse of my little collection of death-defying totems, kept in view around my home and work spaces, at any moment when they happen to some into my field of vision. Not a bad way to refocus me and make me feel especially alive.

Foodie Tuesday: Autumnal Comforts

You know that I love the Fall season, even though it’s very late and short here in Texas. Perhaps it benefits from my love of seasonal change in general, but I think the romantic leanings that come in autumn, that sense of impending death softened by the comforts with which we pad ourselves and by the death-defying renewal of the beginning of school and art seasons, have their own peculiar attractions. And of course, there is the bounty of foods that are best appreciated as we slide from the fall equinox to the winter.photoThe World in Autumn

Thin branches caging up the sun

In willow-wavy lacelike hands,

All skeletons and ampersands,

Hold clouds together in the one

Unreadable yet literate

Equation of the interstices

Whose elated season this is,

Crisp and quite deliberate

In tracing every moment in it,

Hour, year, and state of mind

Among the bones of humankind,

As though these things were infinite.

photoOne of the delights I most admire in this season is earthy flavors. An abundance of root vegetables and mushrooms signals time for soups, stews and sauces whose savory riches warm body and soul and recall me to the embrace of home and childhood in many ways. A simple creamy soup loaded with mushrooms is hard to beat for succor on a grey and blustery day. A bouquet of cauliflower roasted with nothing more than a quantity of butter and salt and pepper until just-right is heavenly; adding sage leaves to the butter and a handful of shredded Reggiano to the top of the cauliflower just when they’ll have time to crisp and brown lightly moves the easy dish to a higher floor in the heavenly skyscraper.photoRoasted vegetables of any kind are especially welcome in the cooler seasons, and so easy to toss together with a little olive oil or butter in the oven while everything else is being prepared for the table that it’s almost a crime not to put them in the oven. Throw a chopped lemon in to roast with them and they are sauced in their own juices. Put the remains (if any) the next day into a bowl with a cup of hot homemade broth and a poached or soft-cooked egg or two, add cooked rice or noodles if you like, and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, (or bi-bim-bap!), you have a bowl full of nutritious, delicious, and not at all ambitious goodness right in your own little corner of this magical autumn season.

Another Totentanz

digital illustrationTo Rest in Peace

Alas! for shadows carve my collarbones

and misery is lapping at my heels;

Death’s machinations turn, wheels within wheels,

and grind me for its grist between cold stones–

And yet, as dust-dry as I turn, breath blooms

persistently, a torture to my soul

when I had rather be devoured whole

and go on into Peace’s empty rooms–

Still, here I stay, lie atomized, forlorn,

forgotten on the fringes of what life

and loves I knew once, when my days were rife

with possibility as a new morn–

Let me die now, not live without a chance

of altering this endless Totentanz.

Lest you think me suffering myself, or pessimistic, I assure you I am alive and well. It’s just that I have seen many others struggle with prolonged and pitiful end-of-life dramas and was reminded this June when I saw the beautiful antique gravestones in Boston of how different things are now, when we have such nearly unbelievable powers to keep ourselves alive for tremendously long lives but have lost touch with when it’s acceptable or even desirable not to do so. If our skills for ensuring or encouraging genuine quality of life are far outstripped by our skills for lengthening it, what does that say about us? Generations removed from our forebears, whether in Boston or elsewhere, who knew much more primitive medicine, greater physical dangers, irreparable injuries and the concomitant shorter lifespans we have apparently long since forgotten, do we know how to accept death as a natural end to life and treat dying as a passage to be eased to the fullest extent instead of forbidden?