Barely a week ago, I was sitting on a beach on Sanibel Island, watching the sun go down as royal terns and pelicans and herons skimmed past us over the water. The question my son asked, sitting beside me with beer in hand as we waited for the day to end, was whether we should put some music on the portable speaker he had toted along.
“Nah,” I replied, although when he had surprised me the evening before with Otis Redding crooning “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” I had proclaimed the moment “absolutely perfect!” This time around we agreed that the sound of the waves rolling on to the shore was the only music we wanted or needed to hear.
I was on the tail end of a weekend trip that my four wonderful children had conspired to spring on me as a surprise after a recent birthday. The basic contours of this amazing gift had me flying to Ft. Myers, Florida, where I would be picked up at the airport by my older son who had driven down from Philadelphia on a road trip of his own. Other than the fact that our digs in Ft. Myers had already been arranged, the next couple of days were entirely ours to plan. I needed absolutely no prompting. “Let’s go to Sanibel!” I said, and so the next morning we were off and driving across the causeway.
I was no stranger to Sanibel. Two decades earlier, I had vacationed there for a week with my aunt and uncle and my youngest son, who was only two at the time. Let’s just say that keeping constant watch on a feisty two-year-old who apparently patterned himself on Conan the Barbarian made for a less relaxing time than I had hoped for, but it was still glorious. There was shelling, and seabirds, and warmth in mid-winter, and beach time, and a drive one afternoon through the “Ding Darling” national wildlife refuge with my bird guide and binoculars.
And it was while I was on Sanibel that time that I met up for lunch with an old friend who sparked the idea that I would make a good lawyer. While I strongly pooh-poohed the idea at first (I was quite happy just writing and driving to soccer practice), it gradually caught fire in the months after I returned. And now with sixteen years under my belt as a criminal prosecutor and five state supreme court arguments, I can look back and think, “well yeah, he was right.”
Now, twenty years later, I was unencumbered by a toddler, and being chauffeured around by my son. Life had wrought many changes in that time—my children were all adults, I’m now a grandmother, I got divorced, and I recently sold the “empty nest” and moved to smaller digs much closer to my job. But I still had the same dog-eared bird guide and the same binoculars along for this trip. And again, there was warmth and white sand and sunshine mid-winter.
And so, at my suggestion, we spent most of the next two days on Sanibel. We ogled alligators and roseate spoonbills and white pelicans, laughed at white ibises, swam with dolphins only yards away. We ate a lot of shrimp. We did spend an entire morning at the Edison Ford Winter Estates, admiring not only the varied plant life surrounding the vacation homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford but the vintage Mustangs parked on the lawn for a car show that weekend. But it was the ocean, and the sand, that pulled us to the shore to rest, and recharge, and watch the sun sink below the horizon behind a cover of iridescent waves.
And as we sat, and watched, the sound of the waves worked their magic. Stresses, tensions, worries that inhabited our everyday lives gradually disappeared, until all that was left to fill our minds was the soothing rush of water and the call of the occasional shorebird. I likened it to having our brains in a giant washing machine, on a very delicate cycle, with the ebb and flow of surging water gradually, gently, removing the garden-variety “bad” stuff that weighed us down, and leaving our minds all clean and refreshed once more.
It was hard to tear ourselves away, but after two glorious days of wildlife and relaxation and two incredible sunsets, I had a plane to catch and my son had plans of his own. We hugged goodbye at the airport, and resumed our separate adventures. I felt stronger, and calmer, and more relaxed and “centered” than I had in years.
I couldn’t help but feel as I winged my way back to Wisconsin that, just as with my last trip to Sanibel, some new and unknown chapter awaited. I’ve taped an 8×10 print of that last sunset to my bathroom mirror so that I can channel that feeling of peace and newness again every morning.
But I also don’t have to go far to find a replacement source of shoreline serenity. A few days after I returned from my Sanibel weekend, I took myself to my favorite park on Lake Michigan. I was there, in part, to try to spy a pair of sandhill cranes I had seen on a high ridge the day before. The cranes remained scarce, but I meandered down to the lake, as I knew I would. The day was cold and grey, and the skies overcast, and the beach empty. Undeterred, I staked out a spot on a bench near the water.
Unlike my trip to the Sanibel shoreline, this time I was decked out in a winter jacket, scarf, earmuffs and gloves. I wrapped a fleece blanket around my legs for warmth and drew my arms across my body to keep out the cold. But as I stared out at the horizon, it was just as endless and unencumbered as the ocean had been. And when I closed my eyes, that lovely “brain…wash” sound of the waves crashing on the sand sounded so very much the same.