The waves here change each day. Sometimes the water is tinged brown with seaweed. Sometimes the water is calm and clear to the sandbars. I used to swim in the Gulf without an ounce of fear. I tried floating the other day, and it took all my courage to relax my head and let the water buoy me. Dear friends are making the most of the pandemic by writing books, creating art, and teaching, and I’m over here drowning in my thoughts. It’s hard. Yes, I’m at the beach, surrounded by beauty even in the midst of climate change, smack in the heart of Covid country. I don’t know if early menopause is the source of my struggle or simply the toll of watching hope recede on the horizon for 17 months. I stare at the ocean much like I stare at a television. I’ve lost interest in seashells, or maybe August is known for poor shells. Winter is the time for brilliant multitudes. August is steamy malaise topped with cigarette butt sprinkles. August in the South always depresses me. I easily forget this.
I’m living in a changing body inside a changing world, unsure of my own needs or how to reacquaint myself with worriless freedom to plan. I’m better at floss, yogurt, and Metamucil than I am at daily prayer. Life is reduced to navigating details, maintaining a basic routine, day in, day out – all bearing a strange kind of emotional erosion. Inspiration shifts with the currents. Sometimes creativity looks like a desiccated fish tossed aside by a fisherman. I’m tired of leaning in to the pandemic’s wake. Even the seagulls look weary.
I miss the confluence of art-making and community, of adventure and story. I miss potlucks and family gatherings. The Eucharist. I miss my old vigilant self instead of the new, hyper-vigilant self. Should I surround myself with people or seek solitary refuge? Should I draw the curtains and binge Netflix while feasting on popcorn and chocolate? Or should I lace up my sneakers and walk it off? And then I remember: just because my zest and well-spring seem to have vacated my body, this doesn’t mean there aren’t encounters – the cumuli clouds over a parking lot in Pensacola, an intact sand dollar at the surf, a dolphin leaping in full profile. These moments can still be wondrous without me feeling overcome by wonder. Nature doesn’t need me to be gobsmacked by every marvel. I can’t say my cup is filled, but these moments help. Still, there is no sense of flourishing. There is getting by. Maintaining. I want more. And then I see an enormous cuttlefish kite flying hundreds of feet in the air, well over the nearby condos, and I think, kites are hilarious and perfect and miraculous because they are antithetical to anxiety and busyness – they are little buddhas reminding us of nowhere-to-be in the face of friction.
If you let Metamucil sit in water long enough, the powder transforms into an offensive slime only a crusty, seafaring captain would swallow in one gulp. The ingredients make good things happen inside my body, but the consistency is not unlike the barrier I feel between my mind and this beach. Never did I imagine a reality in which I do not feel restored by nature. It’s not just the mugginess or flagrant disregard for public health measures or how this pandemic is likely a dress rehearsal. It’s not the beach litter. For me, art-making is the only way through a guaranteed future of continued tragedy. Of flash floods, catastrophic fires, and hurricanes exceeding our alphabet. So long have I taken the solace and delight of nature for granted that I’m stumped by this absence. Here I sit on the sand and stare blankly ahead.
What do you want? What do you need? Before I can hear the ocean’s response, a voice in my head quips, Why can’t you be full of joy? Look at all that surrounds you and all that you have!? These are privilege problems! Haven’t you demanded enough from nature?! Eat more greens! Yes, perhaps true, but these problems surface without invitation, my mental health suddenly tangled in a plastic net. Telling myself I shouldn’t struggle because of my own privilege hasn’t been effective so far. I don’t open my eyes each morning and declare, “I choose to be in a dark mood!” Instead, a slow creep of slime engulfs my thoughts.
There is no grand revelation. Floss, yogurt, Metamucil. Rinse and repeat. I am here, awake, alive – getting through one day at a time without buckets of energy or inspiration, and that’s okay. Maybe my body is telling me I need a vacation from my vocation. There are bits of joy, here and there, edged by peace from an unknown source. Maybe nature is not unlike a long term relationship; it’s unfair to expect nature to always be there for you in the precise way you need. Maybe nature needs some alone time too. She’s given me so much already. It’s there, buried deep inside. I see a yellow flag rippling in the breeze today. It means proceed with care.