Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Message, sans Bottle

One of the rewards of living on a barrier island is that, come October, the summer visitors have gone home again and the island is deserted except for the ones of us who live here and are more winter-hardy.  Houses along the beach today are mostly vacant, windows boarded or shuttered, and the balconies are wearing, again, their colorful "For Rent" realty signs.  The dunes are being slowly washed inland by the sea's punishing hand, back onto the Route 12, where they'll remain until early December - end of hurricane season - when the yellow-orange Dare county backhoes will shovel them back into dunes. 
I know this beach by now in the way I still know by heart old maps, the ones I memorized in childhood so I would recognize a place should I ever find myself there - wherever there happened to be - so I could know it for what it used to be before it changed its shape and spirit. In fourth grade, I learned, from a pastel-colored map of central Europe, where the slightly kidney-shaped country of Czechoslovakia lay on its side, a satellite state within the Soviet Republic. In its northern-western region, lay the city of Terezin where Theresienstadt had been built and where, Mrs. Jones told us as we patiently colored-in our maps,  Unlike other concentration camps, all the children who were brought into that work camp continued their schooling.
It was many years later, when I was working as a nurse myself and just starting to write, when I learned that Theresienstadt was where Ilse Weber - poet, writer, and musician -  had worked as a night-nurse in the children's infirmary, a nurse who had volunteered to accompany a transport of children to Auschwitz where she, her young son, and those other children were sent to the gas chambers as soon as they had arrived.  The unsavory details of history were kept from schoolchildren like we were in the 60s but, even as a girl, I only had to look around me to see how short-lived any place could be, how brief and mutable any topography is, how one storm can alter forever a shoreline, or a community, or a dock that had weathered many storms.  I knew first-hand how a "planned community" could rise from where there had once been a vast forest or meadow of wild grasses, how a family's failing dairy farm could be bought and a slaughterhouse/feedlot could be quickly erected so the industry of satisfying Americans' ravenous appetites could continue.  I learned early on to close my eyes and to distinguish the serene lowing of the dairy cows from the sounds animals make on a crowded feedlot.
There is something appealing and haunting about a lonely beachhead, the melancholy chaos of waves unbroken by human "partying" and vacation noise, the beach unburdened by food wrappers and drink cans and bright beach umbrellas, fine grains of wet sand shifting into and out of small tide pools, rearranging the shoreline. Today this familiar stretch of beach is deserted again:  there's not another person in sight for as far as I look in either direction.  No wild brown ponies graze in the sea-grasses. Even the pelicans aren't flying in formation over the tide-line as they often do.  Just me and a few scavenging gulls. I've come here to clear my head for a while and to let my little dog run free, happily snuffling at whatever tender bits the sea washes her way. . .though she doesn't like the water.  Not one bit.  We are a bit alike in that, the dog and me, her with a deep love of sand and detritus and small shells emptied of crustaceans, and me with my old terror of drowning, of being utterly washed out of myself.  
I like walking in the sand because, when I do, my limp is disguised. I look like everyone else looks walking along a sand-deep beach:  crookedly heaving, rocking along back and forth on the feet, trying to stay upright, lurching around to accommodate the shifting depths of wet sand.  Only animals seem to manage a beach walk with any real grace.    
As often as I have come to the shore in these days after the storm, I have never seen a bottle wash up on the tide, whole, corked, bearing a message inside, some letter from a stranger whose fate I cannot know.  I confess, though, I want to find such a message, not just these smashed-to-bits, tide-polished remains of tossed bottles: those beautiful blue and green shards of sea glass that the tourists valiantly search for so they can carry them home to their jewelry-makers who will wrap them in silver and suspend them from sterling chains so they can carry some bit of the sea's handiwork with them.  
Maybe I believe something written and sealed and hurled into the sea would be something important, something I'd want to know, something that might change the way I understand who humans are when under duress.  Maybe I hope that one message will get through of all the ones that have surely been thrown into oceans across the world.  Maybe that dreamy schoolgirl who loved old maps has become a woman still a little in love with the idea that someone wrote an urgent letter long ago, threw it out into the tides, in hopes it would arrive one day, found by some stranger who would happen upon it and read it and be moved, be utterly changed by what was written there.  
I know. The stuff of old movies and romances. 
Now, the dog's adventure is finished and my search of the tide is coming up empty again, so I'll head back up the big dunes to the wooden sea-steps that will take me to Highway 12 and then home again and that's when I see it: one large, oblong concrete block from the old sea-wall, abandoned in the dunes…one of many that were brought in last fall for Hurricane Sandy, blocks solid enough when they were lined up end to end with others to keep the dunes from being wholly eaten by the sea. This one still retains the heavy steel loop embedded in the top by which it had been carried and lifted into place by heavy machinery. It has the distinct, dark mark of mildew along the bottom third, that watermark where the sea and the shore encountered each other.
But there's also something more here: something written by a traveler who wayfared here after the last storm. Along the back-side of the block, someone has written in inelegant graffiti, LOVE ME, except that the “O” in the word LOVE has been replaced by a black heart. And, on the top of the block – in salmon-colored letters – another, smaller, perhaps more desperate entreaty: Please?
Maybe I never got the message being sent before because I've been looking for it to come to me in the way all the old stories say it will: in a corked bottle floating to shore, tangled in seaweed, lurching about in the froth at the tide's edge.  Maybe the real message about what humans feel in some desperate final hours of a cataclysm – the important message anyway – is written on an abandoned concrete seawall block, tucked out of sight in the dunes, being slowly overtaken by shifting sand. Maybe the message was somewhere too in a child's map, pastel-colored, borders and topographies long ago erased and redrawn by time, by the hand of histories we weren’t privy to.  
And maybe, in the middle of all these the ordinary days when feel like we're being shipwrecked, slowly, certainly, we go in search of the message some wiser, sea-weary person has sent – even if we're not wholly-aware that it's what we're looking for –  some last, urgent words to remind us what it is we've come here for, a reminder of who and what we are – good-hearted or black-hearted –  and what we most long for.  Maybe the message is always going to be the same, no matter in what form it comes to us:  LOVE ME. Please?