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The Shipwreck Rose: Li Po at the Beach

Wed, 06/22/2022 - 12:11

It’s beach time, and I have given myself license to indulge in a few unnecessary beach-related purchases, which — like so many of the things we buy — were inspired more by the glamour of the fantasy life I wish I were living than any prosaic needs. Back in the bad weather of April, when unnecessarily heavy yet stylish beach umbrellas were on reduction, I bought a fancy one from a company called Business and Pleasure with an Indian-block-printed all-cotton canopy and wood stem, plus a matching block-printed cloth zippered cooler; yesterday I bought one of those big drills that you screw into the sand to anchor your distinctive beach umbrella.

When I was a young person, unfettered by children or pets or weird old-person inner-ear disorders that require I drink a lot of water, I thought beachgoers who dragged heaps of gear down to the ocean were to be pitied. Who needed all that? I walked a long distance from the lifeguard stand carrying just a towel and a hardcover book — or maybe a towel, a hardcover book, and a plum. (I have a series of Polaroid photos of several of my friends circa 1989 lying on the sand in a bathing suit, holding the dusky plum toward the camera, as if a simple plum were an object of artistic interest. It’s hard to remember why.) The other beachgoers, the families packing clumsy coolers, folding chairs, umbrellas striped in primary colors, were emblematic of all that I didn’t want to become or own, when I was 18 or 22.

And I was right! Adulthood is that, exactly: a gathering of encumbrances. Of course, inevitably, I became the person lugging the gear. I take a chair, too. And snacks, and three types of sunscreen: a thick, mineral one for the face, a clear one for limbs, and a spray for the places in the middle of my back that I cannot, as a single woman without a helpful boyfriend in attendance, reach. A few years ago, I added to my collection a ridiculous but very photogenic — more photogenic than a plum — beach tent made of Marseille-sailor-striped, fringed canvas, also from Business and Pleasure. It is a really nice beach tent, but cumbersome and difficult to put up single-handed, especially in a high wind. I’m a sucker for an overpriced shade appliance. I am very, very pale.

Have you ever had a chance to peruse old photographs of sunseekers at Main Beach circa 1890 or 1910? They got their shade from arbors constructed picturesquely from branches — lean-tos with the leaves still on. It appears the arbors were constructed anew each summer and left up until autumn; the beachgoers didn’t take sticks and make them on the spot. I imagine there must have been a crew of teenage boys employed in this arbor-making, the precursor first job of the beach boys and beach girls of today who sit beside the parking lot checking permits and clearing dirty ice-cream cups from the tables at the pavilion.

Being by the ocean is not, to me, a frivolous pursuit. When I first brought my Canadian now-ex-husband down to East Hampton and took him to Egypt Beach for a swim, expecting him to see the perfection of it, he surprised me by making a point of scoffing. To him, there was something petty or silly in beachgoing, and he mildly mocked the grown-ups basking and frolicking in the surf. He seemed to believe nature — seabirds, tides, the distant sky, the weather, the wholeness of creation, our absorption into it as a particle of everythingness — could only be appreciated properly if you were rowing or sailing across that same water in a small boat. But ocean-going is many people’s main form of communing with nature.

Reading beside the waves is, particularly, one of life’s best pursuits. It’s the opposite of a waste of time. It’s one of the best uses of time. It’s art appreciation, beside eternity.

Do you know what I mean? The waves endlessly rolling, rising and disappearing, making us think philosophical thoughts: This is our best proximity to the eternal. (That is why the ocean is so soothing.)

The classic beach read is a dime-store love story — college girls in cutoffs who come to Europe for the summer while employed as nannies and meet incognito Italian princes in Amalfi — but I’ve never successfully enjoyed bad novels. You want a beach read that requires reflection, that gives you reason to pause in the middle of a paragraph and vaguely gaze around at the spray and the sanderlings, as the scene on the page materializes in your mind’s eye. I read Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” at the beach last summer, and this June I am reading her new collection of stories, “Learning to Talk.”

Poetry is good at the beach. The metaphysical love poems of John Donne at the beach. “The River Merchant’s Wife” by Li Po as translated by Ezra Pound at the beach. “A Song On the End of the World” by Czeslaw Milosz at the beach:


“And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits

a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.”


Everywhere but the beach, the recorded word is taking the place of the printed word. Podcasts, books on tape — we listen during jogs or long car rides, or while making green-tomatillo enchiladas that our ingrate children will refuse to eat. But at the beach you can’t have your attention directed internally like that, inside your AirPods. You need your ears free and your senses open to the warmth of the sun and the rush of the waves washing up. The beach might be the book’s last stand.

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