Right now I’m in a car heading northwest through South Carolina toward home, having spent this past week at the beach. There’s a sad bagel in a bag at my feet and a cooling coffee that I thought I wanted in the cup holder next to me, and my kids are watching the Lego Batman movie, just purchased at a Kroger specifically for the long drive.
So far it has been a summer of Feeling Many Things, and Feeling Things More Intensely Than Usual, and I’ve been trying to figure out why, exactly, this has been the case. There’s really no theory I’ll discard completely: hormones (sure), book coming out (absolutely), weird star shit (always), kids growing/changing/needing different things (yeah), the ambition/mortality quotient (increasingly), my aging parents (true, and hard), the future, the future, the future.
At the beach, I steam-burned three fingers on my right hand and cut my left index finger with a sharp knife. I ate a lot of food and did almost zero formal exercise. I showered only to get the sand out of my hair, and wore about 4.5% of the total clothes I packed. I woke up at 5am and wrote for two hours almost every morning, napped every afternoon, and read three books over the course of the week. We gave our kids a lot of leeway—let them eat what and when they wanted, stay up late, and make certain decisions that shaped the day (pool first then beach? Bike ride now or later? Mini-golf or arcade?) Brian and I talked a lot and also didn’t talk, kept different hours, basically taking, each of us, what we needed with the time that we had. One of the things we have honed, over the course of our many years together, is how to be separate. In my mind, it’s a crucial component of marriage.
For most of my life I hated the beach. I’m a hairy person and self-conscious about showing skin and that combination made me dread, for a long time, any kind of Beach Situation. I wanted to feel what I sensed other people feeling: relaxation, release. I wanted to feel more inspired by the ocean, the vistas. But mostly I just wanted to hide in the air conditioning, fully dressed with my book and a blanket.
The summer that Simone was born, 2012, Brian arranged a week in Hilton Head for us, thanks to the generosity of his aunt and uncle, who own a condo there. Simone was less than five weeks old and Beatrice was three and we were living in Athens, Georgia. Brian, then a teacher, had the whole summer off, and I was taking a few weeks off from what had been an intense freelancing schedule to rest and recover.
That was the week I started understanding the beach. My body was still aching and swollen and my sleep was a mess but I felt the strangest joy, like someone had hit “pause” on everything that caused me anxiety and had shown me where to look: look at the sky, Kristen, the ocean, Kristen, look out, out, instead of in-in-in. What an immense comfort it was to feel so small and so powerless, after expending years of adult energy needing to believe I was in control. Call me f’ing crazy but I have not not-enjoyed my various stints in the hospital (back pain, giving birth, eye surgery) for the same reason: I can stop moving. I can give up. I’m in charge of no one, not even myself.
I know for other people this takes a multitude of other forms (drugs, yoga, etc). I’m not suggesting the hospital as a great way to take a break. But for some of us—okay for me—the motor of the self doesn’t always know when to wind down, cut off. Just because it’s time to go to sleep doesn’t mean my brain slips into a sweet kimono and starts stockpiling the dreamcatcher. The thing I seem to need most, that I’m not generally good at giving myself, is permission. Permission, that holiest of amulets, eluding women all over the world! I’m afraid to rest, to stop moving, to stop working. I’m afraid of laziness, of complacency, of becoming dull. And I don’t like to think of myself as someone who is afraid, so I double-down on discipline and self-control as a way to make myself mighty, bigger and faster and more efficient than the pin-balling fears.
Everyone who is trying hard to be strong, I think, is terrified, on some level, of weakness.
In 2014, for our ten-year anniversary, Brian and I went to Tulum, Mexico, for four days, without the kids. We stayed in a modest little hotel on the beach, with open-air windows and a thatched roof. I swam topless and I stared and stared at the ocean, the horizon, the sky, the incredible flora and fauna of the region, and I remember saying to Brian, how is it that I want to live at the beach forever? Me? I sat on our balcony drinking cheap beer and writing the final sections of my novel, and I took pleasure in every keystroke. My face felt different and my entire body felt different. I experienced love—that ancient Greek sense of agape—for everyone I saw, for the whole of life around me.
Brian’s aunt and uncle have been kind enough to lend us their condo almost every year since that first year, and every year has brought with it an intensification of the first year’s feelings, with echoes of the Tulum feelings. I know, I know I’m late to the game, I know how cliché it is to talk about the baptism of the ocean, the magnitude of sea and sky, the endlessness of the horizon, the miracle that is every grain of sand—but it’s noteworthy, for me, to feel it at last, to crave it, and to try to carry it with me. I harbor such a deep disdain for The Body with its pains and needs and hairs and viruses, so I’ve made a life inside of my mind, and I never thought twice about it until, over time and I think also due to motherhood, I accumulated the realization that my mind can be a leaky, creaky deathtrap, too. What a relief it is to dive out of it, to be inside my skin, to be a citizen of Earth.
We’re in Georgia now, going 65 mph. I’ve always been a really late bloomer.