We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass, the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows, the same redbreasts that we used to call ‘God’s birds’ because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?
George Eliot, The Mill and the Floss
“Look at this one!” my daughter Luci cries, holding up a glossy wet rock, grey veined with green. “What should we do with all these treasures?” She is really asking—the bounty of this rocky beach is almost too much for her to handle.
“Well, you have some pockets,” I suggest, giving her a tour of her own purple coat. “You can put them in there. Then when we get home, we can wash off all the sand, and see what we have.”
“Yes!” Luci said, clapping her hands and returning to her search. The beach is full of possibilities.
These are my earliest memories. Before the dark forests of the North Cascades, the stirring fir heroes of my parents’ version of my childhood, there were the pebbles, shells and driftwood on the beaches of San Juan Island, which sits in the extreme northwest of the not-Alaska continental United States. I recall almost no playgrounds from those first years, though there must have been some, but the beaches were endless. There was always one more battered log to walk along, one more partial clam shell to pocket, one more rock to overturn in time to watch the tiny crabs scurrying for cover.
I think of myself as a child of the mountains, and my husband, raises on the southern corner of Chesapeake Bay, as the beach kid. The first time I took him to San Juan Island he was speechless, until he finally said, “Have you been hiding this place from me? I want to stay here forever!” It really is that beautiful, and those grey, stony beaches with their cold, grey water are at the very start of me.
We left the island when I was six, for a host of reasons that I didn’t understand then. I didn’t spend time pondering the mystery of calling, nor did I understand the frustration of living in a small town, with all of the small-town intimacy and frustration it entailed. Even the ferries—two hours on a boat that couldn’t be reserved, whose traffic depended on the whims of tourists—were enchanting to me then and afterward. That island was cemented in my six-year-old heart as a magic kingdom, its beaches the most enchanted places of all.
Which is perhaps why we came here today, to this little beach north of the city. We haven’t gone much of anywhere lately, but today there were groceries to pick up from the parking garage of our local Fred Meyer, and a jar of sourdough starter to leave with a friend who lives just above this very beach. There wouldn’t be parking, I warned the girls, and if it’s too crowded we can’t go. The walk will be long, and it may rain. There were many reasons it might not work, but here we are, on the beach on a half-rainy day, picking up shells.
I have been halfheartedly reading David Copperfield for the past seems-like-forever, ever since I checked it out from the library a mere week before that library closed, along with all the rest, for an untold number of months. I think I’m supposed to love it—there must be something in the English teacher contract about loving Dickens and upholding the party line about long classics—and maybe I will someday. But right now said David is a small child, and he’s telling about his childhood from the vantage point of an older self, looking back on what was objectively a sad time but warning the readers, every once in a while, that it will all get so much worse. I don’t love this.
What I love more is remembering my own days on the beach, even though I know now that the world was messier than it seemed through my six-year-old eyes. I didn’t know any of that then; I knew only sand and stones, sea and sky, and loved them all. That was enough, and only as an adult can I appreciate what a gift it was, just to have a beach to explore.
As I watch Luci collecting treasures on the beach, I am overwhelmed with the enormity of this privilege, the extravagant goodness of this moment. All around the world, in the past and today, there are parents unable to do just this, to take their kids outside to a safe and lovely place. Who am I, that I get to have, as Luci put it so well, all these treasures? What a privilege it is to help them love the earth even in its darker hours, that they can see the beach but not the pandemic around it. A friend recently wrote that she hoped her children would remember these words from this strange time: “We were together. I forget the rest.”
We are together. We are outside. We are collecting treasures in the sand. All these treasures—it’s enough.