Published June 2010
We lived on the beach for the first couple of years after we moved here. The landscape was so blue and liquid that we seemed to be living in a dream. We’d glance out the window while frying an egg or vacuuming the bedroom, and there it would be, like a wild animal, roaring and heaving. It made so much noise that, for months, I’d awaken at night thinking I’d fallen asleep under a freeway. I wondered how anyone could coexist with something that big.
Inevitably, the smaller parts of our lives came back into focus. We became like Northern Californians around redwoods, or Arizonans with the Grand Canyon: We tuned out the scenery. Still, every now and then, we’d turn a corner and get bushwhacked by the sheer force of that big, azure plain that stretched to the horizon, that reminder of all that is elemental and dazzling.
It’s an art, I suppose, acclimating to bigness, and here between the peaks of the Santa Ana Mountains and the world’s largest body of water, everyone seems to rise to it in his or her own way. A few months ago in Dana Point, an IMAX filmmaker and the head of a surfwear company spoke at the Ocean Institute about the Pacific as a business inspiration. In the audience was a deep-sea photographer who had nearly died after getting the bends while taking pictures of coral. Not far from him were two big-wave surfers from San Clemente whose favorite pastime is racing down 70-foot walls of water. Isn’t that terrifying? Yes, they told us. Then they laughed.
On the other hand, there was an elderly neighbor whose cottage was next to our old beach house; maybe it was her age, but she and nature seemed to have made a separate peace.
Esther was in her 90s, a retired schoolteacher and devout Roman Catholic. For most of her life, she had lived near the ocean. You could see the waves from her backyard flower garden, where the smell of the sea mixed with the fragrance of roses. Behind her screen door, she’d sit in her little living room watching “Judge Judy.” Some Fridays she’d invite us in for a happy hour nip of Jack Daniels. She lived alone, but she had so many friends and such an infinite capacity for affection that people flocked to do things for her. “I don’t know what I ever did to deserve it,” she’d marvel, “but I’m blessed.”
One day, she called, asking a favor. Her remote wasn’t working, and she was missing her TV shows. By then, we’d moved to a different house—she had us on speed dial—but we weren’t far and, on that day, for me, her request was especially welcome.
The past few months had been traumatic. My mother had died after a long illness, leaving me far more lost than I’d ever imagined. I was having nightmares; it was as if something had hit me at a molecular level. The night before Esther’s call, I dreamed of a beach filled with fossils and quicksand, and when I awoke, I was trying to meet the eye of an entity so massive I could scarcely face it. Sitting in that seaside cottage, fixing Esther’s television, I talked to her about my mother—who, like Esther, had been a Catholic, and who, like me, had appreciated good neighbors. Esther talked to me, too, about all the loved ones she had lost in her lifetime. Then she took my middle-aged hand in her silky, gnarled one and looked past her roses toward the blue, blue Pacific.
“Isn’t it something? It just goes on and on,” she said, smiling. Together, we lifted our eyes to the vastness. Look or don’t look, it seemed to say, fight or embrace me. I was here long before you and I will be here long after.
The waves crashed, and the sound could have been a blessing or maybe just a fair warning: The overwhelming waits beside us. We live with immensity.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti