Above my writing desk hangs a pin board. It’s frame is a rich nutty leather; the color of walnut or a horse saddle. The board itself is laid with copper velvet and criss-crossed with half-inch wide copper ribbon. Over the years this board has served a multitude of purposes: assignment/paper calendar, receipt holder, photograph display. While keeping it’s essence, color, and shape, it has changed to suit my needs; to fulfill a purpose.
Today, it holds reflections of my self: a black and white photograph of me bending over to nestle Sam Scott’s dog against my knees while on a college trip to Santa Fe, snapped unbeknownst to me and gifted weeks later by a friend; part of a book spine of “The History of Scotland” an outline of the Scottish Thistle and the Rampant Lion imprinted in gold on it’s cracking mulberry paper; a copper frame housing a 2×3 inch piece of orange, flower blossom scrapbook paper; a Reubens portrait printed on card stock and bought from Atlanta’s High Museum in high school; a quotation from Harriet Beecher Stowe, “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn,” stamped upon a card depicting a person in small rowing boat adrift on the ocean, who is watching a large whale’s tail fall into the water.
And then there’s the postcard of the typewriter on a sandy beach. I can’t keep my eyes off it today.
When I was a little girl I used to breathe life in each morning as I inhaled the North Sea’s salty air. On good days, our sun would shine brightly across blues skies. Those days were not the norm. But whether rain or shine, fog or snow (also an anomaly for our small border town) the salt was always there.
There is something about how salty air curls into one’s nostrils; it rolls into one’s senses like the ocean itself- flowing and ebbing, flowing and ebbing. It comes upon you, like a summer wave splashing upon bare toes, with surprise. At first, it shocks the senses. But, as you inhale and exhale that wet, rich, sandy saltiness there is pleasure, delight, and even comfort. You become acclimated to the scent, forget it was once shocking, and accept its being. It lives inside you- salty air particles inside your nose.
As a child, I took the ocean for granted. I lived in a small coastal town on the mouth of the River Tweed. The river and the sea had provided our town’s livelihood for decades; until our harbor was no longer the most cost-effective and business bought fish elsewhere. Then we relied on our farming and the coal mines down south until manufacturing came along. And, as that dissipated, the oil rigs, a consumer economy and tourism.
My father has told me occasional stories of unloading fish off the boats on harbor mornings. The payment for his labor was fresh fish to bring home to the family for dinner. My grandfather fished the salmon on the river that poured itself into the deep sea; again, a meal for his family or a tool to barter with. I did not grow up with the lively fishing economy. By my childhood, the sea was for walks along the long shore of Cocklaburn with my parents. We’d explore rock-pools and wonder over battered rowing boats. There were occasional British-style day trips to Spittal or Cocklaburn beaches- a whole family affair. We’d load up the cars and equip ourselves with the temporary canvas wall windbreakers and blankets necessary to keep the strong breeze off us so that we could enjoy the 78 degree Fahrenheit “heatwaves”. Those were the days that running up and down sand dunes was acceptable; little thought given to erosion or natural habitat. As I walked to my grandmother’s up Highcliffe, I’d watch the ocean from afar, marveling at its breadth. If I was lucky when walking into Berwick, I’d spot a seal at the mouth of the river, a puffin, or a cormorant. At age ten, I wrote a picture book honoring the sea, “A Day in the Life of a Seal” that I read to the five and six-year olds at the junior school during our class visiting time.
But while I enjoyed the sea- the talking seagulls that chattered me to sleep at night, the salty air and hair whipped by oceanside breezes as I walked the long bridges on trips into our walled town- I never realized that I was the sea and that it was a life within me.
Until I moved to America.
At age 12, we moved to a suburban, landlocked town in Georgia situated on the Chattahoochee river. The river was broad and brown. Muddy. It smelled of sulfur and silt. Mostly, the air in this sleepy town was infused with pine; except when the thunder came and the winds rose up to blow everything in circles.
On those thundery days I’d run outside fully-clothed and sit atop a granite boulder at the bottom of our garden. Partly, I was fascinated with thunderstorms; having only experienced sheet lightening in the United Kingdom. The jagged forks of electricity thrilled me. But mostly, I was waiting for the smell to change. See, in those moment of thunder and rage and rain the pine would disappear and I could smell the cold, clear water. Still no salt, but at least water. It was relieving to smell rain. During my first year in America, I read the book “A Circle in the Sea” by Steve Senn. The story of a young girl who transforms into a dolphin and aids the whales in escaping the whaler’s, fascinated me. It was the first “Young Adult” book I’d read in a while, as I was already reading adult books at the time. But, for a school project, I picked it up- drawn to the story of the sea. For months I dreamt of oceans and tides; myself, an orca swimming free.
For ten years I lived in the hot, sleepy South and, as I came into young adulthood, vowed to live along the coast once more. My move to Boston was both precipitated by access to a solid graduate education and by the experience I had on my first day visiting the city.
It was March 2004- spring break- and I’d traveled to Massachusetts to review graduate schools with my then girlfriend and a good friend. There was snow on the ground and the city was cold. On our first day touring, we made our way downtown to Faneuil Hall- a staple for tourists. And it was there, standing in the square in front of Quincy Market, that the breeze lifted up and the salt invaded my nostrils. It was a shock. I quickly inhaled. And once my brain clued in to what was happening-“Salty air!”- I exhaled slowly to only breathe in greedily, deeply.
Now, this wasn’t the first time I’d been around salty air since 1994. My parents had taken us to the Bahamas in 1995. I’d many a trip to northern Florida beaches from middle to high-school. And, in 2003 I’d returned to the Bahamas on a “farewell to college” trip. While I’d breathed in salty shoreline air on all of those beach visits, this was different. The salt and cold together revived me, engaged me, made me feel at home.
The postcard of the typewriter sitting on the shore reminds me that the story of my life is connected to the ocean. I still do not wake up each day to salt curling into my nostrils. Where I live in the city I cannot take the ocean’s breath for granted; I am too far away from the direct shoreline. But, there are days when the wind blows off the North Atlantic Ocean and brings the salt to me. And each time, I am shocked and thrilled and comforted.
I know my journey with the shore is not settled. From my days waking to the ocean’s sights off the coast of Maine to my trips to the beaches of Rhode Island, the Cape and southern MA, Long Island, and New Hampshire, I know that I am not fully home yet. One day I will wake and walk out to face the shore- my back garden- and write of the salt as the sun rises. And, while I breathe it in daily, I will remember that I am breathing in the life I first experienced as that little girl living on the coast of the North Sea.