I went to the beach alone, not because I needed time to myself, but because my dog, Gigi, doesn't like the beach. She doesn't like the water.
I'd taken her to Saugatuck Dunes twice already; the first time lasted ten minutes and the second only lasted the hour it did because the beach was rather empty and the sun was setting, so it wasn't nearly as hot out. Gigi liked the other dogs, and when we passed people, and she liked eating dune grass, but besides that I knew she'd be happier on a lawn or at home. So this time I walked to the beach by myself, mostly thinking of her, but also acknowledging the freedom I'd have being alone. I descended from the dune and walked south along the shore, finally finding a spot where I could park my things, spread my towel, and still have fifty feet of emptiness to either side of me.
The sun was still high and there wasn't much of a breeze, but it was definitely cooler than it had been in the past few weeks, and I was glad for it. After my first dip in the water I came back out to dry off, and before too long a fly had started circling my feet. It was a horse fly, yes, as big as a hummingbird, that kept circling around and trying to land. I swatted at it, yelling, saying oh no you don’t, get aWAY! When I finally made contact, it fled. I waited and watched to see if it would circle back around. Shouting like that into the empty space and at the ridge of sand just behind me (and the invisible stretch of beach beyond, that I couldn't quite see), I felt a little embarrassed. Yelling at a fly. Yelling to myself. What did I sound like? Had the people on either side heard me?
Miles up the beach I could barely glimpse Holland Harbor Light, nicknamed "Big Red." Within a mile of it, my family had summered on the private beach there, usually all five of us gathered together on our towels and in chairs, reading or sleeping (or snoring). Those were some of my favorite times as a kid. Just the absolute feeling of relaxation. Nothing to worry about, nothing to stress over. Everything passed out of thought except for the sand, the wind, the sound of the waves, the heat. I realized now that in those days spent with family, I never thought about how I sounded. I thought about what I looked like, yes! But not the way I interacted with other people. I was just: me.
Back in the present, I was hot enough to get back in the water, so I did. My body adjusted to the temperature in an instant. I recognized the shift, but it happened so fast I didn't have to steel myself to the cold. I swam underwater before climbing to the top and resurfacing. That feeling: being consumed by the water and then breaking into the air again. It was relief. Or was it relief? It felt scarily good to be underwater.
Above water, I was again thinking of the past and of my family. I tried to remember the last time I had felt what I did as a kid, that total absence of anxiety, stress, responsibility. Maybe those "good" days were gone. But I so badly wanted to feel at peace.
I swirled my hands in the water around me and started to focus on a bird, then on a person walking the beach, then to the sound of the motorboats speeding behind me. I kicked my legs out in front of me, and realized that staying in the present, taking each moment and each glimpse of beauty for what it was? That was peace. That was relief, rest, relaxation. I could achieve it by living in the present, being thankful for what was around and in front of me.