I just returned from seven days at the shore. Outer Banks, North Carolina, to be exact and it has been a while since I’ve taken a trip with just my tribe. Last summer’s trip to my hometown of Buffalo, NY, and summer childhood playground of Bay Beach, Lake Erie, Canada was a bit of a shitstorm (the weather was great, truly, but another atmospheric energy vacuum disturbance was at play) and the fact that this is the first time I’m mentioning it should tell you how taboo the content is. Nonetheless, despite my body’s awareness of the angle of the sun and the lift of the heat and inner knowing that I’m not usually below the Mason-Dixon Line this time of year, I packed up my stuff with my team here and we went south to the OBX.
It was glorious. It was some of the most primitive and expansive beaches I’ve ever seen. It rivaled the Pacific Coast in its big sky, boundlessness. I never felt so small and yet so alive at the same time. They say that there are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand ALL OVER our Earth. I’m good with that now. It used to intimidate me because I would think, “Why bother?” But now, the obligation to be a person of purpose — no matter what that is: trash picker, photographer, pasta cooker, laundry folder… is too great. The odds that we are here because God, the fates, the universe deemed it, are too fine. We must live well. It’s our duty. Just do it with love.
The weather was sublime, the people were kind and patient and everyone was on vacation — even seemingly so the people who were working. The owner at Uncle Eddy’s mini golf and custard, a Texan at heart, was all North Carolina sunshine and fleecy clouds. His young co-worker, a bespectacled ginger with an odd personality who took it upon herself to tell me about the houses she had just cleaned the day before, “One has six bathrooms, two of those with a bidet, and eight bedrooms. It’s real nice, it’s got granite counters and stainless steel kitchen and a hot tub and a pool. Hardwoods in the foyay and marble floors in the kitchen (ouch, sounds like it should be the other way around and in Manhattan). Each bathtub is a jacuzzi (back when those were in vogue I guess) and the carpet is real nice. Chandeliers and giant windows… I don’t do windows…” Of course not.
As we were in our hovel, compared to the place she mentioned, I marveled at the austerity of the place and how important that austerity is to truly let the mind and the spirit relax and retune. There were maybe no cookbooks anywhere and maybe a handful of family portraits. The “artwork” (mostly cheap prints from shops on NC-12, the main road in and out of OBX) depicting dolphins (thus denoted with the caption “D O L P H I N S” beneath) and wind-tamed dunes on the walls had all succumbed to the UV rays that blast through the glass facing the shore and had taken on that cream-pink-blue tone, where the image starts to fade / bleed into the empty space, a sure sign of the deterioration of the paper upon which they were printed. What was funny to me in retrospect is the placement of some of the images: they were also on scant mountable surface area of the very walls that faced the sea. Call me a jerk, but if the choice is between watching the rolling tide of the Atlantic, witnessing real d o l p h i n s actually do that thing they do when they swim, and watch the occasional flock of pelicans fly amidst the wind drift just above the water, versus glancing at artwork (shit or Renoir), I’ll choose the sea. So about that austerity thing: discern. If you’re going to decorate scantily, just do it well.
The house had a washer and dryer. I told my children and myself: don’t bring more than you really need: 3 of everything, nothing fancy. I ignored my own instruction and overpacked (not terribly). However I wore everything I packed. And I did. Except one t-shirt and one pair of shorts. I did bring three swimsuits. I wore two. Of the two I wore, I wore only one once. I own this. So I lied. I didn’t wear everything I packed. I know you might think this is not a big deal, but for some reason, it bugs the crap out of me. Ethics. Do what you say. Say what you do. The inner “disturbance in the force” of my own mind because I know I have too much shit in my life to begin with. And to top it off, I bought things while I was there. Two t-shirts and a pair of sunglasses. And a hat. And a Turkish towel; the real kind, not the fluffy kind. My husband bought me a hammerhead shark plushie, much to my squealing delight.
We packed enough sunscreen though and that was super important because my middle son, Thing 2, decided he didn’t need sunscreen — he wanted to correct his farmer’s tan, so without my knowledge he went all day on Sunday without SPF. That was an unwise choice, and he paid for that for days, but he was pretty good-humored about it. My youngest son, Thing 3, simply didn’t put any on — there wasn’t a plan. He rather fancies his alabaster, blue-hued skin tone and because he is the third of our three children, we simply forgot about him. Not true, but essentially it’s become somewhat of a pattern here. We used to call him “the merry wanderer” (because he’d just take off) until he burst into tears because he thought we were calling him a girl, “Mary Wanderer.” When I explained the distinction, that “merry” meant “happy” like how we say “Merry Christmas” which only made things worse and began a whole new trip down the idiomatic rabbit hole and I gave up. So we only call him “the merry wanderer” behind his back now. As a joke now, whenever I’m unsure of where he is before we leave anywhere, I pretend I’m Katherine O’Hara in “Home Alone” and freak / shout, “KEVIN!” like she did from her first-class seat to Paris while Kevin (McCauley Caulkin) was back home in Lake Forest going through his brother’s stuff and eating ice cream pizzas for breakfast. Anyway, true to form, he had no sunscreen on for about 2 hours and that did him in for a couple days. On our penultimate day, weary of his excuses to not be outside, I bought him a board shirt for $35 and he wore it for 90 minutes until he complained so much about where we were (the sound side of the island, now referred to affectionately as “Shit Hole Bay” for many reasons, primarily amongst them that the water is probably 90˚ and foamy). My eldest, bolstered by his own experience with sunburn and his equally fair-skinned girlfriend’s presence on the trek, was pretty good about his skincare and only got burned where his skin rubbed against the boogie board and where his shoulders would’ve taken a beating from the waves. So, pretty much everywhere.
Yes, we invited our son’s girfriend. Yes, that sounds like a big step. They are their own pod; I make no inferences. She cheerfully and naively consented to subject herself to our randomness for two 6-hour-long car rides. Her parents were also going to be away for the same period we were and I didn’t want her to be alone. She’s a really great girl: super bright, energetic, optimistic, real, game, human, female (so important for me — surrounded by nothing by males in canid or human form), patient and so kind to our youngest — like the type of kindness you read about — and she had her own room directly across from ours. She was an asset and we loved having her there.
We also forgot things: butter, salt. The boys didn’t pack their own shampoo. I’m really glad they didn’t remove the toothbrush, tooth paste and dental floss kits from the car when they last visited the dentist, as they came in handy.
We also brought a bunch of stuff we know to NEVER bring again. There’s a reason this area is the birthplace of modern aviation: the wind. So that means for us, people who really just want lie on the beach and maybe paddleboard to not bother there because the winds are so constant and so beautiful that you will get pushed so far away from where you started that a sail really is not just a cool-looking accessory. We also realized that it’s folly to bring any of the following beach games:
- Ladder toss game
- Track ball
- Spike ball or slam ball
- Beach ball
Things to bring next time:
- Flying suits
- Anti-gravity gear
- Jet packs
- Vitamix (I missed my blender)
Despite their natural spartan appearance, the beaches at night were abundant with ghost crabs. I used to like them. I recall walking along other Atlantic coastlines and seeing maybe half a dozen in an hour’s time. Not here. It was like the invasion of the laterally locomotive diaphanous exoskeletal amphibious arachnids. In less than 30 minutes I avoided stepping on or freaked out from seeing about 30 of them of all varying densities and intensities. Most of them did their crab thing: run sideways from the beams of my uranium-powered flashlight saying “fuck off, landlubber!” But it was a bit much after a while. I actually started to get anxious about it and I knew then that that was not why I was on vacation. So I begged my husband of limited night vision to take me back to our home, which he did, and I plopped on the teal courduroy sofa and watched a documentary about heroin addiction. I kid you not.
Over the days, I watched my assembly of tchotchkes grow and while I didn’t put on a hair shirt, so to speak, I remember the a plan in my head to unload my life and my psyche of things which no longer bring me pleasure and to rid myself of the things which hold me down. Things that are attached to people who’ve hurt me or who represent unresolvable times in my life. Things I bought while with those people feeling the pressure to buy them because the person selected it for me even though I didn’t really have the guts to say “no, that’s not me. That’s actually you thinking you know me,” or even worse: my buying the item because I wanted to curry the favor of the person I was with because that person liked it more than I did. It’s all very meta. So I am pleased that I bought delightful, made well and intentional things from small local shops. Am I rationalizing? Of course I like to think I’m not.
The abundance of these shoreline mega shops, “Sunsations” and “Wings” and “Wings Super Store” and “Kitty Hawk Kites” (how many kites does one need?) along NC-12, was disconcerting to me. It made me think of how much shit we all have and that’s because we believe the commercials, the narratives that say, “you need this” and “you’re worth it.” Some things I did need that I recently bought: the linen clothes from J.Jill (uh, vanity size much? Yes) because I am tired of burning up in the heat while trying to protect my skin (I just had my 4th basal cell carcinoma removed from my body two weeks ago) and an AMAZING SPF 50+ sun/swim shirt from prAna which I believed saved my skin while at the beach. My surgical dermatologist, a funny man, said “I’ll see you again. And be skin smart but don’t freak out: if you lived in a cave from here on out, you’d be coming back for more surgeries. This is all delayed from many years before…”
The austerity of the beach (house) was refreshing. It didn’t really occur to me how sparse the place was until I arrived home and opened my own door. “But this is where we LIVE,” my husband reminded me. “I like it here.” And I get that, and I love it too. But… we have too much stuff and he agrees. We don’t need the behind-the-bike tag along trolley for toddlers anymore… unless we turn into our neighbors and have our grandchildren live with us while our child goes to medical school. True story. We also have neighbors who’ve stolen our cat. No joke.
The conflict for me is committing the time to unload the stuff from our lives. It’s not even an issue of finding meaning in the unloading, because I know it would not be time wasted, it’s that I want to be living. So I need to reframe that. I think it’s the only way to do it. If we punt things from our lives just because they are there, it doesn’t help the process; we are just doing the opposite in reverse: we are mindlessly ridding after mindlessly acquiring. I don’t want to do that anymore. I inevitably forget I’ve done it and spend time looking for the thing I unloaded… It’s crazy making.
Sure we can make deals with ourselves here on out to live intentionally and intelligently, but that solves only half the problem. And I have: I’ve made a pact with myself that I’m only buying things that add value to my life now. It’s not that I’m going to deprive myself of things, but I want to include things: moments, people, items, music, sensations that have MEANING. I believe this is a part of not only a higher consciousness, but also of getting older (I’ll be 50 in a couple months) and also an awareness of the smarter economy: sharing, recycling and repurposing.
Just before we left for the trip my husband and I visited the municipal dump to unload an old TV (which had basically died — we kill things here, we don’t just replace them because we don’t like them anymore), our dead wooden deck table and other wood-based things. I was both exhilarated and dumbfounded that we live here in a country where people can responsibly bring their unwanted / defunct things to be … dealt with. I’m not sure what happens to those old washing machines and door frames when they are deposited at the dump, but I do feel like we are doing something right. I don’t know.
So it’s not just that the beach house that was not filled with too much too much, it’s that the beaches were so not-crowded by both people and crap. It was lovely to look at things and not feel overwhelmed by them. Seth Godin once wrote in a blog post: “While enough is often enough, too much becomes nothing.” I don’t want to have so much that I don’t know what I have anymore, that it becomes nothing.
I am noticing as I write this that I have a new (latent?) “issue”: stuff and its accumulation. I believe it’s because of my mother. I’m not blaming her, but I can tell you I’d be clearer about this issue — meaning my sense of guilt over it — if she hadn’t spent her life surrounding herself, and thus my father who is getting on, with an accumulation of so much unused
stuff shit that it’s both unusable and untenable at the moment. I know I’m going to have to deal with it and I also don’t want to do this to my own kids. It’s shitty to leave your shit on your children’s hands because you don’t possess the self-control to manage it. My parents have left a significant issue unresolved and I realize right now that I’m feeling its specter, looming, because I fear I will have to deal with it and I fervently reject it.
So the unfolded laundry had to wait today. I decided to write about my trip because I wanted to share what’s on my mind. This post has been cathartic: it has enabled me to pinpoint and unload a heavy burden of unnecessary guilt while coming to an awareness about a pretty major situation that needs to be attended to which does NOT belong on my shoulders. I want to thank you for helping me get there. I know now that I am only responsible for and responsible to the things I do.
What’s taking up space in your head? What’s a burden that you’re carrying that you don’t even know you are? What’s going on…? We can’t carry other people’s shit for them because we have our own we need to excrete.
“Moving toward an inwardly simple life is not about deprivation or denying ourselves the things we want. It’s about getting rid of the things that no longer contribute to the fullness of our lives. It’s about creating balance between our inner and outer lives.” – Elaine St. James
AHHH Molly! This resonates so much. Even after having almost all our stuff burn up in the fire last year, I STILL feel like we have excess sometimes. A lot of the time. I still see stuff to get rid of. And you are so right about the cleansing power of an austere space to retune. I think that’s one reason monasteries and Japanese gardens are so wonderful.
You’re right though — just as we mindfully purchase, we have to mindfully let things move on, out of our lives. We have to be at peace that they have served us (or not) and let them go.
No joke, when I picture my own death, I picture myself in a clean, clear, almost empty space. I picture myself having released almost every physical possession so I’m not leaving stuff for my family to deal with, and so that I can go in a clear space. My grandfather was a hoarder and my family dealt with that shit for years after his death– the stuff, the trash, the overwhelming quantity of THINGS — some of which were nice, but at some point, it ceases to be valuable to those wading through it and all you want is for it to be gone. I hear you on all of this.
I know you hear me on this and I have to say that when we have the luxury of looking back on the relationships in life that add value rather than take or encumber, my relationship with you is one of those that gives and enriches my life. I enjoy every (non-OBC) moment we share together and even some OBC moments too. You, my sweet friend, have shown me (among many things) the gift of letting things go and while still remaining a whole person no matter what. It’s good. Thanks for supporting me and sharing your beauty with me. Xoxo
Just caught a typo in my own comment, should be “burnt” instead of burn. 🙂