All of life's little beaches

I didn't have to be on the coast to enjoy the play of light and wind on water.

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    Fluid forms: Water flows over small stones, creating abstract shapes in a stream in Weston, Mass.
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Who says "getting away from it all" must involve lots of preparation and travel? Not me. Not anymore.

An avid sea kayaker, I've traveled far to indulge in paddling and never questioned what it took to get from my inland home to paddling destinations. That is, I never questioned it until one summer day when I stopped the fully packed car at the end of the driveway, looked at my companion, and said, "Why are we doing this? What do we want from this trip anyway?" We were both cranky from preparing for a long weekend at a stretch of coast six hours away.

We sat in the car and said what we wanted: to get away from work worries and chores, to spend time outdoors, to read novels, to sleep late, to take time over meals and not rush to the next thing.

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We looked at each other. Why drive six hours? Couldn't we do that at home? We could unplug the phone, put beach chairs on the back lawn, pull out the novels. I turned the car around.

But what about being by water? Growing up on spectacular coastlines in California and Hawaii, I learned to love the ocean. Now, living in New England far from the coast, I get my ocean "fix" by driving long distances. What I seek is simple – to watch the play of wind and light on water.

Last week in the midst of a heat wave, sitting in a tiny office doing computer work, I looked out the window. On the second floor, my university office window faces the slightly angled gray roofing of the first floor and a parallel row of windows.

A few weeks ago, the roof drain clogged. That meant that my window looked out on a large puddle. I considered alerting the Physical Plant folks, but I didn't call. Something about the puddle was appealing, almost comforting.

As I watched, a house sparrow landed on the roof. Looking around, it hopped into the water, scrunched down, and started splashing, flapping its wings, dipping its breast and head into the water. The sparrow stepped out, shook, and flew off. I smiled, glad the local wildlife had discovered this new resource.

A few days later, after the heat wave broke and a cooling northern breeze blew across my hands on the keyboard, a flash of brown caught my eye. It was a purple finch landing for a quick drink.

That afternoon, again I looked up and gazed out at the puddle. There was no bird, but I noticed the wind had strengthened and the puddle rippled.

Without thinking, I started reading the wind on the water. I noticed the direction of the wind, how it had shifted from when I walked to work, and how "waves" wrapped around a skylight, making a small eddy.

Then I stopped, realized where I was, and laughed out loud. Sitting at a computer in a tiny office staring at a rooftop puddle 100 miles from the ocean, I was at the beach.

In those few moments since my gaze shifted from computer monitor to puddle, I had been transported to that world of wind on water I'd sought for years. I didn't need to pack thousands of dollars of gear and drive for hours to be able to sit and watch waves.

Right there, right then, that puddle became my sea.

I grinned and went back to work, my heart lighter. I treated myself to occasional visual breaks, checking to see the state of wind and waves.

Walking across campus after work felt different than the end of a normal work day. Maybe it was because the heat had eased. But I knew it was more than that. Those waves on that tiny sea had touched someplace deep in me, that old ocean place.

Over the weekend, I forgot about the puddle. But there it was when I next walked into my office – shrunk a bit, with a bathtub ring of pollen, yet still rippling and flashing with light.

Last week, when I had mentioned my delight in the bathing birds and the "waves" to my co-worker, she looked at me as if I was a bit touched by the heat.

This week, she walked in to my office and said, "Oh, look, there are the dragonflies. They've been coming and going all morning. They keep dipping down into the water."

Together, we watched the flashes of blue and red and the spreading ripples they made on the puddle. As she went back to her office, I looked back at my computer monitor, a new understanding settling in me. After years of traveling far and seeking the beach, I realized that there are beaches everywhere. The beach is where I find it, wherever I find delight in watching.

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