K A T H E R I N E ’ S B E A C H
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright c 2001, 2008 by William A. Henkin
[An abbreviated version of this essay appeared in the Full Circle section of Parabola: Myth, Tradition, and the Search for Meaning, Summer, 2001, “Light”]
My therapist lives across a bermed but traversable highway from the Pacific Ocean, so every week or two at about the same time of evening, on my way to see her, I take a walk on what I now think of as Katherine’s Beach. This stretch of land at the edge of the western world is several miles long, and if I were willing to scramble over some rocks that are often but not always submerged it would continue south for some miles more, toward San Mateo County and then perhaps all the way south to Los Angeles, Manzanillo, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Cape Horn at the southern tip of Chile. West there is apparently nothing but water and sky. Katherine’s Beach is a good place to wonder about infinity.
Here in San Francisco the beach is composed of black and bronze and yellow-streaked sand, driftwood too small to throw for dogs and larger than broken telephone poles, strands of kelp up to twenty or thirty feet long with flies and sand fleas buzzing their fronds and bulbous pods in some insect dance, pebbles, stones, rocks, and occasional boulders, sand dollars and other seashells large and small by the countless thousands and broken millions, rounded shards of glass the surf has tumbled smooth, and plastic bags, beer cans, and tangled wads of orange seine net, the little bits of human detritus the sea returns to us from time to time.
Now and then I’ve seen a seagull lying dead but still composed where it fell. In winter I came across a rotting, partly eaten seal at the surf’s high-water mark. I’ve brought home a bird’s wing that is all bone with no feathers left or flesh, one-third of a cow’s skull sliced cleanly down the ear hole to the muzzle with its fully articulated horn intact, and a variety of legless crab carapaces, some salmon pink, some opalescent and pearly white, some a feathery, fresh-water blue. I try not to be a beach-comber because the opportunities to gather here are endless, but the sea is inhumanly vast and the mysterious bounty it offers to a land-based boy like me is comprehensible at least in scope, so sometimes it is hard to keep my eyes on the huge curling waves that throw spume into the air as high as a four-story building, or on the brown pelicans and cormorants trolling just offshore, or on the Farallon Islands 30 miles out to sea which I am sure are actually floating islands: sometimes I can see them, sometimes not; sometimes they appear to have moved north, sometimes south. L claims they only come and go from view because of variations in fog, haze, and mist, but I know, I know: under cover of the night, stealthily, they really move.
Sometimes it is also hard to keep my eyes on the endless sky, whose exhibitions make clear why cultures concerned with omnipotence have always placed their strongest gods in the heavens. Except when fog turns it to a white, featureless wafer, the sun is far too strong to even look at in full day. But as it sets, the sun becomes the locus for a different display. Now and then, when there are no clouds at all, it simply turns into an enormous golden disk and winks like a lucky coin below the water bringing blackness down the sky to its orange memory. More often it fluoresces the ocean steam and makes the low clouds glow all along the dark red and purple edges of the spectrum while high contrails remain wispy yellow, peach, and evanescent.
Especially in winter’s seashore gloaming, for the months on either side of Solstice, the quality of light at the beach is not just a daily episode of grandeur exceeding my human imagination; it is also, on my scale, a daily reminder of my own mortality: the sun’s disappearance behind the revolving earth’s horizon signals another day done not only in the unimaginably long life of the planet, but also in my palpably shortening journey, another step completed toward my own death and disappearance. Maybe that sort of recognition, as much as the ceaseless pounding and roiling of the constant water, is what brings such a different class of people to the beach at sunset than at any other time, when the visible dying of the day may not mean death at all, but as in tarot divination may just speak of transformation from one realm or state of being to another.
I don’t mean “class” here in the economic or political sense, but to reflect what seems to me to be a disconnected tribe whose members share a spiritual root they may not recognize or acknowledge or even know or care about. The daytime vigor of volleyball and hackeysack, the air-traffic jams of frisbees and footballs, the ground-pounding lay of Nike’d joggers, occasional police horses, and just the simple weight of large numbers of human animals parading on a beach too cold to sunbathe 350 days out of a year beside a sea too cold to swim in ever – these are all gone, dissipated as the sun has made the shadows long. At some point when the earth has turned just far enough, the air begins to chill, a sea breeze stirs, afternoon turns into evening, and the beach shift changes. Everything grows gentle as the day folks leave, leaving people on the beach at sunset a peaceful, quiet lot. Some just find a seat up near the sea wall with a view out toward infinity: alone or nestled with their sensual others they take out picnics, bottles, smokes, or gloves, but once they’re settled they stay till darkness comes. Others show their children miracles. Even the dogs, no less eager and frenetic than they are by day to rush and fetch and chase and bark are calmer in the darkening air as if their sounds are carried on the disappearing light in whose absence everything now is muffled, swathed, held, contained; each dog chasing its stick or imago fades to a smaller, darker, more distant recollection of itself, the way a dream dog fades when the dreamer falls slowly into deeper sleep.
Some people walk on as darkness comes, as I do, stopping from time to time to watch a wave, a bird, a cloud, Venus shining before anything except, on its earliest days, the thin lip of the unfurling moon. One night shortly before Solstice, as I walked into full dark, the long-gone sun lit up the sky and clouds from underneath to a dirty, blooded red that lingered and deepened and only very slowly faded from the night. The tide was coming in, and as the sea reflected the sky, the wash and surf were vibrant frothy red and pink as well. If we had had a different planet with a different atmosphere our world might look like this: red instead of deep blue sea, pink instead of sky blue sky.
When I first lived in San Francisco, in my 20s, I used to come to this ocean beach at what could have been the very same sunsets, to smoke a joint and watch the evening come on. After dark I’d go back home, filled with a sense of mystery and peace. Tonight, in my 50s, I can’t smoke dope without passing into a stuporous sleep, but sunset at the beach still brings me that sense of mystery and peace. I come here to be cleansed of my personal life and the troubles, cares, and blessings I associate with it. I am not always cleansed because sometimes the sea reminds me of somewhere, or the moon reminds me of someone, and then I stumble like a mindless stone wherever the heavy tides will throw me on the seabed’s shifting shelf; but I mean to come here to reconnect with my own rhythms, which have nothing to do with me and everything to do with the sea, the sky, the planet, sun, and stars. I come here to meet again for the twenty-thousandth time the sea that courses in my blood, the celestial rhythm that courses through my life, and the dying light that lets me be reborn. Returning, as I now will do, to the city and its traffic and my individuality, including the appointment that brought me here, I bring from Katherine’s Beach to my other parts, my other lives, a reminder of the great glory of creation, destruction, and recreation, of birth, death, and rebirth, and with it every reason to celebrate this moment and this life, and to celebrate, too, that it will pass.
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