Saturday, January 26, 2013

'Why the beach makes us happy'


During the coldest week of winter thus far, the ocean unperturbed rolls in and out in liquid form, while the seashore is tundra, frozen and static.

Driving onto the beach, the sand crackles as the Dodge Ram climbs over the hard sediment encrusted with ice crystals.

My husband shuts off the engine, but the stiff Arctic wind keeps us inside. In minutes, the bright January sunshine warms the truck cabin, even though the temperature gauge registers 24 degrees without factoring wind chill.

Getting comfortable, I click off the seat belt, unbutton my wool coat and take out the February issue of “Coastal Living” magazine. The cover is mostly turquoise, the color of tropical waters and skies, highlighting the feature story about a house without walls on Scrub Island in the British Virgin Islands.

I sigh as I imagine summer at Fogland Beach, just five months away. Ugh!

The truck shifts as the icy wind batters the vehicle, and the antenna rattles in defiance.

But then another story catches my eye on the Contents page: “Why the Beach Makes Us Happy.”

The tease reads: “It’s almost universal. Just being by the sea puts us in a more blissful state of mind – and it turns out, there’s science behind it.”

Rifling through the pages, I find page 70 and satisfy my curiosity.

The first paragraph states the obvious: Beachgoers are attracted by the beauty and the freedom of a day at the beach. But then comes the science that writer Barry Yeoman cites as the reason why we experience such deep contentment by the water’s edge.

He points to the color blue which produces feelings of security and relaxation, as well as the acoustics.

“It turns out that the most pleasurable sounds have predictable wave patterns, middling to low pitches, soft volumes and harmonic frequencies at regular intervals – all characteristics of the ocean’s rhythms,” he writes.

My husband has cabin fever. He opens the door, and the cold wind rushes in. I lose my place and my patience, as I yell, “Hurry, shut the door!”

I button my coat and wrap my arms about me. Now, where was I?

According to Yeoman, “the root of our contentment might even be molecular… Ocean waves generate negative ions, charged air particles that have been linked to mental energy and emotional well-being.”

I wonder if icy winter particles have the opposite effect, but I keep on reading.

He winds up his theses with a side effect of a day at the beach, the memories that are made. Every time we remember a particular beach or see a photo, “we have those good experiences again,” he writes.

Shaking, my husband jumps back in the truck, starts the engine and cranks up the heat. I put down the magazine and strap on my seatbelt.

We happily drive away.






Saturday, January 19, 2013

Favorable winds

The windsurfer's sail is upright for a minute or two.

A frigid sunny morning with northwest gale-force winds, my husband and I head to the beach, anticipating high surf and angry waves.

Our Dodge Ram bounces over the rough terrain as we drive as close to the Sakonnet as we dare, the wind pelting sand and spray at the vehicle.

I attempt to open the door against the wind, and it flings the heavy door back at me. I open the window instead.

Watching a lone windsurfer struggle to raise the sail in choppy seas, I shudder; and memories of an ill-fated sojourner flood my mind.

Twenty summers or so ago, my daughter was walking on Shore Road when she saw what appeared to be a black trash bag, flotsam being hurled back and forth in the tide.

Walking down the steep bank to the seashore to investigate, she saw a man in a wet suit floating in the foam.

Terrified, she called for help, alerting neighbors who pulled the battered body onto the beach.

Minutes later, the first responders arrived, paramedics running from their van with equipment in hand. Shortly after, they slowly walked back to the truck and drove away.

Then came the press, interviewing witnesses and videotaping the lifeless body lying on the deserted beach.

After they left, a solitary officer remained, standing vigil over the nameless windsurfer who was not taken from his resting place until dusk.

Back in the present, I feel the Dodge rock back and forth with each gust, and I cannot take my eyes off the windsurfer.

Over and over, he strains to raise the sail, only to be thrust headlong into the waves.

Finally he gives up, dragging the board and sail in the pounding surf along the water’s edge. Even that requires tremendous strength as wind and water conspire to toss him and his gear onto the rocky beach.

We drive to the summer house, once he is safely ashore.

Rounding the bend on Shore Road, we stop and I roll down the window. The whitecaps careen into the bay violently breaking against the rocks, sending forth a fountain of droplets.

And once again, I am reminded of the unknown windsurfer who sailed these waters long ago.

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable,” wrote Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC-AD 65), a contemporary of Jesus Christ.

I have faith in a loving God, and I believe the windsurfer is in a better place. The Sakonnet was just his port of entry.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Skating on thin ice

This pond on Neck Road in Tiverton reminds me of the one I skated on as a teen.
This morning I drove along a road in my childhood neighborhood, and I wondered if it was still there, hidden behind all those trees.

When I was a teen, I spent a lot of time in those woods.

If you knew where to look, you came to a clearing where there was a shallow pond; and in January, it became a sheet of ice.

I still remember the excitement of slinging my skates over my shoulder and hiking with my friends to the natural ice rink.

Sitting on a very cold rock, I would lace them up quickly, take those first few strides and glide.

“Even now I can’t describe why I love skating so much,” said New England native Nancy Kerrigan, the 1994 Olympic Silver Medalist.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of being airborne, the sharpened blades skimming the ice, the frosty wind at your back – propelled down the runway and almost taking flight.

Created by runoff from a nearby water tower, the pond was about a foot deep in most places so we never had to worry about falling through the cracks, although I suppose getting wet was a worse fate.  

Yet sometimes, the ice was downright dangerous. Rocks, vegetation and tree limbs froze near the surface; and we all took some nasty falls. Later we would limp our way home.

“In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.

As a youngster, I had some professional training. I was a member of a Junior Girl Scout troop, and we took roller skating lessons at a rink in Warren, R.I.

I cannot remember much about the instruction, but I do recall one incident.

I was outside the rink practicing skating backwards when I collided with an object – a basket. Unfortunately, my ten-year-old self fell into it, where I was stuck with my wheels spinning overhead. Hearing the laughter around me, I longed to stay put.

Despite my clumsiness, I did learn to skate backwards on ice and on hardwood; and I clocked miles in my parka and in the short, blue-and-white plaid skating skirt my mother made me.

Indoors, I felt that same excitement lacing up my skates and taking that first rotation around the rink – the feeling of being free.

Then one day when I was 16, I went roller skating to Lincoln Amusement Park in Dartmouth, Mass., and a boy asked me to skate with him. I held him up as he stumbled and fell.

I like to think it was my mad skating skills that attracted my husband, but it was probably the skirt.   

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A season of snowdrifts, silence and seclusion

January is a month of quiet.

Walking in our yard, I hear the crunch of snow beneath my booted feet – and little else.

I listen to the silence.

The frigid temperatures on this first weekend of the New Year keep our neighbors tucked warm inside. The only sign of habitation on our street is the fragrance of wood smoke in the air.

Our neck of the woods is blanketed in white, snow clinging to trees and dusting rooftops. The driveway and front stairs are coated with ice, despite plowing and shoveling right after the storm.

Tiny black-capped chickadees take turns darting in and out of the pine trees to the birdfeeder and back, and they take no notice of my passing.

New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about these friendly little birds:

“Piped a tiny voice hard by, / Gay and polite, a cheerful cry– / Chic-chicadeedee! Saucy note / Out of sound heart and merry throat, / As if it said, ‘Good-day, good sir! / Fine afternoon old passenger! / Happy to meet you in these places / Where January brings few faces.’”

Although it is tempting to hibernate today, we brave the cold, jump into the Dodge Ram and head to the beach.

It is early morning, and there are few cars on these country roads.

After checking the summer house, which is snug and sleeping soundlessly in a long winter nap, we drive down to the beach. The sand is as hard as ice, and we hear a crackling sound as we navigate over the sediment and crystals.

There are gale-force winds today, and the Sakonnet is deep gray reflecting wintry skies above.

I spot one brave soul walking along the beach with two passive dogs at his side. They amble slowly against the unforgiving wind, perhaps regretting this day’s frosty romp by the sea.

Wrapping my arms about me, I scan the horizon. There are winter fields of white across the bay and meringue-coated houses clinging to the hillsides.

I crank down the window and strain to listen to the slough and sigh of the waves, while the wind tunnels into the cabin. A minute later, I shut the window, sorry for the impulse.

In the quiet, cool confines of the truck, I think about this new season and its restrictions. I know that there will be time enough to venture out into the world and explore. But for now, January urges us to sit a spell.

Emerson wrote: “Over the winter glaciers / I see summer glow / And through the wild-piled snowdrifts / The warm rose-buds below.”