This spring, during our first visit to Maine, my husband, Drew, and I collected dozens of shells and a few sand dollars as we strolled along a beach on the southern coast.
The shells came in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and the sight of the sand dollars made me shout with joy - I had never seen one before.
We were bundled up from head to toe to protect ourselves from the cold, misty April winds. "This is so cool," we kept saying. "We are going to live by the beach."
And so a month later, we moved to Maine.
Now, I understand that I am not a Mainer and that according to the locals I will never become a real Mainer because I wasn't born here. And I am OK with that, because it is so easy to love this place - despite the weird local accent (at least it sounds that way to my ears) and the fact that they included my weight on my Maine driver's license.
The beach and the ocean make up for those shortcomings, though. We found an apartment only 4.8 miles from the ocean, and every evening our routine now includes a quick drive and a long, leisurely walk along the Atlantic.
I am fascinated by what I like to call "beach trash" - all of the living and artificial objects the ocean deposits on its shore. One night we found a little starfish tangled up in some rope. As I dipped it into the water, it wiggled its tentacles and although it was tempting to keep it for my collection, I threw it back into the water.
Later that week I spotted a jellyfish, brought to shore by the incoming tide. I was thankful that before I could pick it up Drew yelled at me not to touch it - apparently I still have a lot to learn about sea creatures.
One section of our beach offers shiny round pebbles in a variety of colors - black, purple, green, and white. All those crystal bowls we received for our wedding now finally have a purpose: They hold rocks.
We also find little crabs and strangely, a lot of crab legs and empty crab shells, without their owners attached. Do the fisherman along the shore use them for bait? Who knows?
Some days, even though we are busy combing the beach, we remember to look out onto the horizon before us and admire the ocean.
"What is it about the ocean anyway?" I ask Drew almost every time. Why does it make people feel all mushy and romantic? Why does it make them want to write secret thoughts in the sand and hold hands with a loved one?
We laugh when we realize what a cliché it is to walk along the beach at sunset, barefoot, holding our sandals. Then he reminds me that Maine license plates proudly call the state "Vacationland," so even though we have to go to work the next morning, it's as if we are on vacation in the evenings.
Lately though, with the arrival of summer and tourists, our beachcombing sessions haven't come up with new findings. There are thousands of people spending lazy days at the beach while I am at work. By the evening only broken shells remain. Our sightings the past few evenings have been sparse: a little Lego man floating in the water, a lonely purple flip-flop, and a soda can.
So even though we are not "real Mainers," we quietly mumble, "This is our beach, our shells, our ocean," as we try to take our usual walk without tripping over beach chairs and fishing poles stuck in the sand.
It is not easy. As much as I dread Maine winters, I've started to look forward to a time when we can reclaim "our" beach and "our" seashells.
True, by the time that happens, we will not be able to dig our toes in the sand without getting frostbite, and maybe the horizon will not be so pink and blue at sunset. But maybe the shells and starfish will return to our beach.