Isak Dinisen wrote that the cure for anything is salt; the salt in tears, the salt in sweat and the salt of the sea. As I walked the beach today here on Guana Cay, I thought about how tears, sweat and the sea are so much part of who I am, and who I might become. I thought of how sometimes when I needed the salt from tears, I sought the salt of sweat instead. And of how, it always comes back to the sea.
The last picture of my father he is in a small wooden boat on a lake in Burma. It’s a skiff really, probably fourteen, sixteen feet. My Aunt Shirley is in the front looking back at the camera. My father leans against the port side, his arms up behind him over the rails. He is happy, happy as someone who loved the water is on the water. On his head is a brimless hat with the “Bahamas” on it, it must have been my Aunt’s. My father is like me, he never wore a hat.
My father is also like me, in that he loved the sea. From his days in the Navy during World War II to the house he built by it, he was happiest by the sea. Like me.
My first job was lobstering, I had a boat before I had a car. I walked down to the sea after my father died and sat on cold granite rocks as the waves came in. This year, before I went to Arizona to say good bye to my mother, I sat on the same rocks I sat then.
A few weeks ago, I took a friend and her dog down to those rocks, and watched her walk where my father walked, where my mother walked, where I walked. All on November days. I always tell her too much, but at that one moment, I didn’t want to say a word, I just watched her by the sea.
Today on Guana, the wind shifted and there was no diving, the ocean spent the day roaring in from the North, hard and constant, frothy and undisciplined, full of venom and spray that went up the beach to the houses above. I was up before the sun, and after I worked a bit and read the news, I headed south on the Atlantic side and I walked.
For me, especially recently, I have been walking a lot. I have walked through the streets of Boston at night, I have walked in Africa last month and today I walked the miles of the beach on the Atlantic side, the wind blowing hard, the white soft silky sand underneath. I walked and I walked.
I didn’t see another person in the three hours I walked, hour and a half down to the rock outcropping, and then an hour and a half back. I walked by where my niece Tessa buried Oliver and Phoebe on a hot August day in a fort made of sand. I walked where Oliver and I chased lemon sharks in the surf. I walked through memories here and through memories of Novembers past.
When my father died in November, I remember crying desperately in my bathroom in my room on Beacon Street. But my mother didn’t cry, she looked to the salt of sweat to heal her pain. She pushed forward, ran the business and never looked backed. I wondered about that today. And the lesson I learned from here as a young man – not to cry when something terrible happens but to soldier on.
When we lost in 2004, I probably should have paused and grieved. I didn’t. When relationships failed, I didn’t grieve. I have always pushed ahead. There is part of me within that thinks you can solve anything with sweat, that you have to keep working and working hard. That the more you show up, the more you help, the more you work at something, the better your chance of success.
I can’t, even now, argue against working and push forward. But it is also increasingly clear to me that sometimes you need to cry. And sometimes you need to let go to have a chance at success. This is brutally hard to me.
I always want to work more, send one more email, show up a little more, help a friend or a lover more, it’s my way, perhaps, of making sure I am always there, am always needed perhaps. Maybe it’s my way of making up for not being able to show up for my father, all those years and all those miles ago.
I remembered as I watched the ocean pound the sand, as I stood on coral outcroppings shaped by the sea, my father talking about the power of the ocean. “The sea always wins,” he once told me on the rocks at our house in Gloucester, “the sea always wins.”
He was talking about people who try to build houses too close to the waves, or who try to put sand back on beaches where the ocean said no. But he was also talking about life.
Sometimes you have to ride the waves and trust the tides and the currents. Sometimes, you can’t help anymore, sometimes you have to drift to a destination. If you swim against a rip tide, if you fight it, you will wear yourself out and drown, but if you drift with the current, you will live.
The salt in tears can help you heal. The salt in sweat has its place. But it’s the salt in the sea that I am listening to tonight. And it’s telling me to be calm, to let go, to float and see where the waves and the currents and the tides take me. And who they take me with, or who is waiting for me when I walk out of the water back onto the drying sand.
The sea always wins, I know that now.