I stand upon a sliver of land off the North Carolina coast that I call home for one week a year, looking at what has been written in the spot of sand at my feet.
For seven years now, this spot has been my special place. All the information I need to navigate my day can be found right here without use of a screen or wifi, without any device at all.
Here, the tanagers and mockingbirds are my alarm clock. Deer move silent along narrow trails cut among the sea oats, calling the weather by the way their noses tilt to the air. Dolphins dance for their breakfast, twirling and slapping their tails in the calmness beyond the breakers, telling me when it is time to cast a line among the waves.
Yet while solitude here is plentiful, I am reminded that I have not wholly left all things behind.
There are others here as well, a family far down along the beach, a man patrolling the dunes, who have come to this place in search of the very comfort I crave.
I tend to study these others with the same sort of fascination I give to the constellations that shine over these deep waters at night, or the cockles and welks I pick up from sandbars that rise up and then fade in the changing tides. A trip through our tiny parking lot reveals that many who have answered the ocean’s siren call have traveled quite far—Ohio, Michigan, even Idaho. We are all travelers here. As such, friendliness presents itself as a thing ably given, but only with the unspoken expectation that all parties will be allowed to return to their own families, their own lives, in short order.
Umbrellas pop up along the beach in the early morning as though the sand has broken out in a multi-hued pox, each widely spaced so as to neither intrude nor interfere: islands on an island. This partition extends even into the ocean, where one is expected not to stray from the invisible line stretched outward from one corner of your square of beach to the next. If one does, should the waves you jump over or ride atop carry you in front of where your neighbors sit reading Dean Koontz and sipping glasses of wine bought at the island’s only Food Lion, your fun must be paused until you stand and fight your way back across the current to where you belong.
I’m unsure whether this need for boundaries is expressed unconsciously or with intent—if it speaks toward a desire to allow others their own attempt at peace and renewal, or if it rather tells of a deep-seated wariness toward short-term neighbors.
But a little bit ago I took a long walk along the shore, and now I think I have that answer. Here among the piles of scallop shells and oysters and augurs, HILLARY FOR PRISON 2016 has been written into the sand. Not far down comes BERNING FOR NC. Then, TRUMP’S FIRED ’16. Each carved by a different finger or big toe, each thus far saved from the encroaching tide but not by the vandalisms of others.
I thought of two things as I stood by each of those pronouncements, and how those pronouncements had been scrawled at with such rage. One is that we can leave our problems and cares at home for a short while but not our divisions. The other is that increasingly, our divisions are becoming worse and angrier.
This in itself is nothing new; our country has always been an angry one. But our collective mood has changed these last years in such a way that it now feels more a souring that hangs between us all. Our rage and distrust has gone from a thing—the government, the economy—to a person—the hated Other who dares not believe as we believe.
It is a depressing thing, really. And to be honest, it is also the very thing I wanted to get away from for a few days. But here I am yet again, a neutral witness to a raging culture war, and it saddens me as much as I’m sure it does you. It saddens me a lot.
I’m only glad I’m out here alone with only the pipers and gulls. Should the Hillary supporter, Bernie person, and Trumpster meet, there may be violence. That’s where things have arrived at now, or at least where things are headed. And I’m willing to say that’s why even here this year, everyone mostly keeps to themselves. Because we’re all tired of it, all the fighting. Because we all just want a break from the notion that we’ve come to associate the opinions and stances of others with their entirety as people, and from the ugly truth that we have somehow gone from mere disagreement with those who think other than us, to wariness, to distrust, to blame, and now, finally, to hate.
I am a writer. That term is a broad one, though I’ve found its job description narrow enough to fit inside a single sentence: Every time you sit to work, try to tell the story of us all.
Thankfully, that story has been fairly easy to come by for most of my life. Lately, though, it’s gotten a bit harder. Diversity is the magic word now, just as the celebration of all that makes us different has in certain circles become our national religion. And while that might be right and good, I’ve found that celebrating of differences often casts aside all those things that makes us the same.
Like you, I don’t know where we’re going as a country. Like you, I’m worried about it. If the recent tragedy in Orlando speaks of a single thing, it isn’t that there are those who would focus upon the weapon a terrorist used rather than the ideology behind why he used it, or that it is far too easy for a sick man to purchase an instrument of war. To me, Orlando says that we have reached a point now where we can no longer even come together to mourn.
But I’ll leave you with this. That family I saw far down the beach made their way past me a little bit ago. Dad, mom, and two little kids. They did not avoid me as they passed, did not take the easier path toward the dunes to walk around me. The father did not look at me as though I were some potential threat, nor did his children glare at me with Stranger Danger eyes. Instead, the mother smiled and offered me a sand dollar they’d found just up the beach. The kids wanted to see my tattoo. And the dad, grinning, merely said, “How ya doin’, buddy?”
And you know what? I’m doing fine. I am.
Because I nodded and said as much to that beautiful family and then left all that scribble in the sand for the tide to wash away. I walked on as they walked on, all of us looking out toward the ocean with the breeze in our faces and the smell of salt filling our lungs, thinking much the same: in spite of the mess we are prone to make of things, ours is still a beautiful world.