When I walk the beach – and I walk the beach every day, now that summer’s here – when I tramp or traipse or amble or ramble along the shore. And the breaking waves are a white lace flounce edging the sand. And the breaking waves are a salty pulse coursing steady in the sand. Earth’s heartbeat and my own wed together on the sand. In the splashing water I’m walking, looking down.
They call it the swash zone. Uprush meets backwash, inflow meets rundown, water’s mantra of longing meets her sigh of satisfaction. Here is where dizzy collides with giddy, intoxication confronts delirium, I can lose myself in the place that’s neither in nor out but in and out at the same moment and hence, just beyond the reach of space and time.
Here is where you find them, on the pristine, virgin sand: old logs and wet shells being ground to slivers and glints. Flutes of driftwood, holes bored out by tiny creatures, and by time. Castles don’t last long here, nor can footprints endure. And if you stop. If you halt your forward motion. If, standing straight as an arrow, you try to remain still as a rock, the sand will melt from under, mound up over, your feet. You’ll sink deep, deeper, you’ll begin to think you’re rooted, that you belong here, but the tether is misleading and the mooring false. Your real home is constant motion. Now you must go on.
All a-swell the light has been, these past weeks. Every morning, an earlier dawn. Every evening, a later dusk. Every day, a waxing radiance, an almost unbearable fullness, like a woman in her ninth month. But on June 20th at one minute before midnight Universal Time -- that's 7:59 p.m. eastern daylight time -- the sun will be tethered straight as an arrow, still as a rock, directly above the outermost boundary of the tropics, the parallel of latitude which is 23.5 degrees north of the equator.
This day is our longest, this night our shortest. By the next, our star’s moorings will already have loosened. The sun will be one tick further south, our day one tock shorter. We’re living in the swash zone now. The uprushing, inflowing, breaking wave of light has collided with light’s backwash. Summer has just given birth.
Once upon a time, they lit bonfires on Midsummer’s Eve. They danced and drank and sang, as if to match the sky’s delirium with their own intoxication. Magic ruled, and midsummer night dreams. Children twined flowers around the horns of bulls. Young girls scryed for future husbands. Lovers leapt through flames then bedded in the bushes. Healers plucked their most potent herbs. The people prayed and partied for what the people wanted: health and wealth and fertile fields, fecund beasts, plenty of kids.
That was then. Now we’re living in the swash zone. The backwash of our past desires has collided with the uprushing, inflowing, breaking wave of our future needs. Humanity tramps and traipses, ambles and rambles along a giddy edge, a dizzy brink. We cannot stop, we cannot halt our forward motion, we must move on down the pristine, virgin shore. Where every passing day casts up new questions. Grinds old answers down to slivers and glints.
Last week, as I left the beach, I passed a woman carrying her toddler back to the parking lot. “She’s afraid of sand,” the tired mother said to me, and I thought, aren’t we all? I mean, who doesn’t want to run from a place where the selvage is unraveling?
Yet here it is, the summer solstice. And here we are, brothers and sisters birthed together in a newborn season, ready to pray and party for what we’re ready to want. Can you hear it? This wave is washing in a worldwide sigh of satisfaction, swashing out that last wave of collective longing. How’s that for a hazy crazy maybe midsummer night’s dream?
Elizabeth Ayres is the author of Know the Way (poetry, Infinity, 2005) and Writing the Wave (how-to, Perigee, 2000), and is completing American Dreamscape: Encounters with the Wonder of Earth, Sea and Sky, from which collection this reflection is taken. She runs a Creative Writing Center