People are often surprised when I tell them I live on Shelter Island.
“I haven’t seen you before,” they say. “Did you just move here recently?”
“No, I’ve lived here for eight years.”
I don’t have anything against my fellow Shelter Islanders, and I love people–I have lots of family and friends up-island–but here on Shelter Island I tend to keep to myself. You see, what I love most about this island are those very things that give it its name. The isolation, the pace, the sparse population, the minimal traffic. And especially the water, which is never far away.
I am sure I’m not alone in this love of the water. I find it hard to imagine the person who lives on an island like ours and doesn’t like the water. When I do imagine him, he is quite peculiar, like those aliens in the movie Signs. (Did you see this movie? These creatures die when they come into contact with water, yet inexplicably choose earth–three-quarters of which is covered by water–as their new home. No wonder they are so mean and angry.)
One activity in particular that combines all of my favorite things about living on Shelter Island is walking to the beach.
There is a short road off of Gardiner’s Bay Drive called Dawn Lane. At the end of this road is a short path. And at the end of this path is a wooden staircase that leads down to the beach. Every day I walk to this beach. These walks have become like oxygen for me. I clear my head, I think about all that I am grateful for, and I work through any personal or professional problems I am dealing with. It’s like instant inspiration. No matter what the challenge, I always return home with a new idea, or a new approach to try.
I like to think of this beach as my beach. I know it’s not really my beach, and I’m sure the people whose houses sit right there on the water probably also think of it as their beach, but I have to admit, there is a part of me that believes that no one else appreciates this beach as much as I do. That’s why it’s my beach.
Recently, I noticed footprints on my beach. It didn’t surprise me that others would come here, perhaps gaze out across the water from the top of the stairs, and even venture down to the beach itself. I’d just never really thought about it. Now, for the first time, I had proof that others came to my beach. And so I began to think about them. Who are they? How far do they walk to get to my beach? If they walk farther than I do, is their claim on the beach stronger than mine? Do they come here alone like I do, in pairs, or in big tour buses? How often do they come here?
But the really big question was this: How well do they know my beach? Do they know that the swan standing guard about thirty yards offshore is here every day, as predictable and majestic as a Buckingham Palace Guard? Do they know that the private dock to the north is completely covered by water at high tide, and there are sandbars at low tide? Do they know that when the chain-link fence to the south freezes in an ice storm it looks like a massive piece of bubble wrap?
Maybe they do. Maybe they know even more about my beach than I do. We have never met, but maybe we have shared similar experiences, witnessed some of the same sights. That’s when it hit me: Just because I’m by myself doesn’t mean I’m alone.
It was one of those moments–you know those moments–when you get an idea that changes your whole perspective on life. Could it be that no matter what my experience, there’s always someone else, somewhere, who has gone through the same pain, the same joy, the same loss, the same success? If so, then this separation we feel is simply an illusion.
It isn’t my beach. And it isn’t their beach. To get even more philosophical, it isn’t anyone’s beach, individually or collectively. Possession is as much an illusion as separation. In fact, they are the same illusion, aren’t they?
Later, I return from my walk and the philosophical questions begin to fade from my mind, replaced by more immediate concerns like work and paying the bills. But that night when the phone rings and it’s a solicitation, I think of the telemarketing job I had one summer between semesters of college. Can I pretend that this telemarketer and I are different and separate? Can I make him feel worse than he already does about disturbing me at home? Of course I can, if I choose to. But what if, say, he’s a struggling guitarist who can’t even get a job at Taco Bell because of his long hair, and telemarketing is the only way he can pay his bills? If so, then he and I are kin, separated only by time, for I have walked that path, too. So I choose to be kind and patient, and I treat him with the respect that I wanted when I was in his shoes.
Since that day at the beach, I’ve carried that image of the footprints in the sand with me. I try to picture those who have walked–and will walk–the same path that I do. And I imagine them, as brothers and sisters, walking beside me.
©2005 Curtis G. Schmitt