Swan ocean

The dogs make me do it. At least they are my excuse for taking a daily walk, which has become a new routine. We walk along a deserted beach in a small Rhode Island town that is to me like a postcard. So muted are the tones of grayish sand, brown barnacles, and small shingled beach houses in the distance, that the blue sky on sunny days is like a banner where white clouds punctuate my reverie. The sea varies from complete calm to small waves that splash Webster, the dachshund, in the face.

Two rambunctious dogs keep me setting out day after day to this beach, a five-minute walk from our new house. These brown dogs, such complete opposites - like a Tootsie Roll next to a pound of fudge - attract the stares and grins of the people who pass us in their cars.

Scout, a large chocolate Lab, has gangly limbs, a wide muzzle, and ponderous movements. Webster is dainty, with a pointed, minute snout, and prances all the way. Newly united in our home, they have been fast friends from the start.

As with boisterous toddlers, I must take them out each afternoon to play. This is when the sun is strongest and my tropical constitution finds most warmth, now that winter is on the way. Pulling tenaciously at their leashes, the dogs drag me down the hill to the water's edge, where I can finally release them to their sandy playground.

This is not the beach of my childhood in south Florida. On those beaches, intense heat, rustling palms, and friskier waves keep a person in a state of dazzled forgetfulness. All energy is spent in responding to the elements. On these Northern beaches, a person can trudge along in meditative silence, aware of each nuance of the day.

The small details glimpsed on this beach are helping to knit me to a place that is still strange. I have struggled with the loneliness of being unknown since I am not out in the workplace meeting people. During these first weeks in a new house in a new state, far from my familiar routine and friends, I have come to treasure these seaside explorations. I experience the serendipity of a beachcomber. There is just enough of the expected to reassure me and some small surprise to keep me hoping as I trudge along our now-accustomed path.

We start our meandering where the sidewalk meets the two-foot concrete wall that marks the beach's perimeter. Before the wall is a thick stand of tall beach grasses that are feathery at the top. Someone has made a small path through these wild marshy willows, and the dogs and I slip down to the beach below. Madeleine, my daughter, says she has seen a rat skulking here, but I prefer to think of him as Water Rat from "The Wind in the Willows" than as a menace.

Once upon the sand, leashes unsnapped, the dogs race off. Scout must have her daily plunge into the water, while Webster prefers to stay on dry land, often rolling over and over in the sand. They have both discovered the delights of barnacles, which are thickly arrayed whenever the tide is low. Crunching them between their teeth, they seem to relish this salty hors d'oeuvres.

I, meanwhile, keep my eyes down, looking for the perfect shell. But this beach has none of the shells I find in Florida. The whelks are usually cracked, the mussels too ordinary. But I've discovered the allure of beach glass, those brightly colored shards of well-smoothed glass that now adorn my windowsills. Or there might be a buoy washed ashore, exotic red seaweed, lacy and transparent, a discarded horseshoe crab shell.

I have yet to tire of the now-familiar sight. The beach, the barnacles, the sea gulls floating or flying above us, the foamy mustache left upon the sand by gentle waves. The repetition of these sights is becoming part of my inner geography, so I gradually feel less out of place and more hopeful than before. That is why I was startled the other day by a totally unexpected sight.

As the dogs and I made our way down the beach, I spied an incongruent shape amid the cluster of sea gulls floating on the waves. It was a graceful white swan bobbing on the water. I was amazed. Holding back the dogs, I stopped, spellbound, to watch. Where had this swan come from? After several minutes the swan came ashore and stood upon the sand, as if considering her course.

I stood and watched her like a spectator at an open-air ballet. And then, without warning, she was aloft. I can't even remember how she rose so gracefully, big bird that she was. I watched her fly high above us and then head north and out of sight, leaving the beach once more the beach where two dogs romped and barnacles crunched under my feet.

But the swan amid the sea gulls on this ordinary beach was, for me, spectacular. It was that unexpected delight that transforms one's daily life every once in awhile. We may follow routines. We may think we've seen it all. And then a swan appears amid some sea gulls, and once again we're dazzled by the glimpse of grace that imbues life with possibility.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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