Walking a rocky shore.

August 27, 2011 § 16 Comments

A basket of ugly beach shoes sits by the door of this Maine rental cottage. Unlike Florida where bathers walk comfortably on the glossy satin of wet sand, the shore here is unkind to bare feet. Stones and boulders, periwinkles and broken mussel shells make ugly shoes a requirement. Each member of my family has found a pair that almost fits.

Sometimes the tide laps the bottom step of the wooden staircase down to the beach. Sometimes it is a long teetering walk across slick rocks to reach the water. The tidal exchange here is twelve feet.  With each tide change the shore is rearranged, pebbles and shells swept up like a handful of jack’s and tossed down again.

From this vast, shifting collection I am carefully selecting the few rocks that will come home in my carry-on suitcase wrapped in dirty laundry. Once home I’ll arrange them on a windowsill, where they will become part of the personal landscape of artifacts in my home, proof that I’ve been places and done things.

I will dust them—although rarely—for the rest of my life.

Barbara, the owner of this seaside cottage, collects rocks too. On every sill and table top are smooth, egg-shaped rocks that I covet. I have not found a single rock of that smooth perfect shape. Either she collected them elsewhere, or I am looking at the record of years of low tide walks, a mute declaration of belonging.

When I was young we stayed on another rocky shore; Orient Point , Long Island. The dresser in the room I shared with my sister was thickly painted with a glossy white enamel. Its surface was where we displayed the rocks and shells we’d found, laying them out in careful rows. As the days of our vacation dwindled the rows shifted closer together.

We humans are hoarders and collectors of things, but what we are most often collecting is memory. We organize—and even dust it. But time has a growing tip, the only part that is alive and drawing breath, which is the now. Right now I’m here in Maine on a low tide morning. The water is glassy with a slow ripple. I smell coffee. Two girls sleep under blankets on the couch.

Suddenly, the wish my father were with us as he was every August before his death washes over me, a sad, uncontrolled feeling I didn’t plan to have. That’s the way it is with the now.

The now is as chaotic and frequently remade as the shingle of beach below this porch. No matter how secure we feel, in an instant the now can roll us, turning us soft-side-up. We can neither escape it nor defend ourselves against it. In contrast the past is safe, improved in memory. Even the worst that can happen is rendered harmless as it falls into the past. No more damage can be done.

The rocks I gather here to display on my windowsill at home will be markers holding a place in the onrush of time. When I pick them up to dust them this day will no longer be precise and sharp. The smell of coffee will be gone, the whirr of wings as hummingbirds come to the nectar feeder hanging from the porch roof no longer audible.

But the goodness of this week of wearing ill-fitting, ugly beach shoes along with the rest of my family, will remain, enshrined in a small collection of stones.

Here is a summer day on a rocky beach in Trenton, Maine.

I will strive to remember.

Note to self: try to make the next post funny, okay?

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§ 16 Responses to Walking a rocky shore.

  • I had never lived near the ocean until I moved to northeaster Brasil. Eight years of beach walking those lovely, long and sometimes deserted sands of Ensaiada de Serrambe – 30 miles south of bustling Receife – soothed the soul and refreshed the spirit.

    Waves crashing at high tide or low provided a comforting soundtrack for napping in a hammock or restful nights of sleep, undisturbed by honking horns of myriad VW Beatle taxis along the boulevard near my apartment.

    Snorkling in the lagoon provided lunch. A boy from down the dirt road provided green coconuts and fresh bananas – for a price we were happy to pay. He climbed the trees to get them, afterall.

    Thanks for the memories, A.


  • craig reeder says:

    your blog made me think of that beautiful song “Stones in the Road” by Mary Chapin Carpenter……
    and by the way, you really know how to craft a rich metaphor


  • This is exquisite, Adrian. Your top one or two.

    I covet my brother-in-law’s bowl of sea glass. All I want is one small piece of that frosted, blue-green ice. If I asked, he would give one to me, but it wouldn’t be the same. No one can give us the pieces we collect from life. We have to find them ourselves or they have no meaning. For a while they may seem heavier than they actually are. If we’re lucky, over time, the heaviest ones grow light.

    I have one of those smooth rocks you mentioned. It came from the Rio Grande. Eons of rushing water have smoothed away each and every rough edge. It feels like fruition in my hand.


    • It is ironic that the things we value most are rarely things that can be had in exchange for money. Maybe “ironic” is the wrong word. Maybe it is instructive, a lesson in where happiness really comes from.


  • For a short summer I lived with my grandmother on the coast of Maine. The beach has always been interesting to me – always changing – always alive.
    Nice Post Adrian –



  • Carolyn says:

    Our family also has rock collectors, although each move, we have to lighten up some of them…. Our last babysitter in the Netherlands inherited a basket for her garden, collected in Normandy, Cornwall, Devon, Langevelderslag, Jaffa, Noordwijk, Anzio, Belgium, Dead Sea, Ein Gedi, Galway, and other spots over the almost seven years we lived there…
    However, we still have some left, fun trying to remember where each came from…


  • Sue Cronkite says:

    Have a wonderful time, Adrian. You deserve it. I also save stones and shells and also hardly ever dust them. But they hold memories of another place, other people, other times. Some of the memories are happy ones, some not so much so.
    I’m sure your Dad was there with you in spirit.


    • After my mother’s death my dad always put her summer straw hat in the car when he went on vacation. We carried two straw hats to Maine the first couple of years after he died, but we have been getting there on a plane the last two years so the hats have remained in Tallahassee, hanging on the wall.

      With or without the hats, my parents were both very much with us.


  • Lee says:

    During the summer of 1989, we took the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and spent the day touring the island. While waiting for the ferry in late afternoon, we walked along the shore. My Florida-born son, who would soon turn 9, came across a rock shaped like a fat, smooth loaf of bread and weighing about 10 pounds.
    Despite our objections, he carried it on the ferry, carried it to the car, and carried it home to Tallahassee. It spent years on the floor in our utility room, always bringing a smile when we passed it doing laundry.
    It disappeared at some point; we have no idea where or why. But it’s still on our mental windowsill and still brings a smile every time we pass by it.


  • Tgumster says:

    I concur with Leigh on this one, Adrian. In particular, I admire the line that sums up the past: “No more damage can be done.” Simply stellar.


    • I bet the safeness of the past, and the fact that is so reliable are among the reasons we return to it so often. Especially if we come from happy families. I sure do. I wouldn’t trade pasts with anyone.


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