This photo is my keepsake from a day when the world felt backward. When I look at it I can hear the surf and the hiss of that thin front edge of foam as it rushes over wet sand. I love its luminosity and colors. I remember the cold water around my ankles and the spray on my face. But at the time it all felt backward. On that day I learned this lesson: it’s true that “we are where we come from.” Like salmon, we instinctively know that certain place. It imprints itself on our hearts and minds forever.
I come from the northern corner of America’s west coast, land of tall evergreens and snowy mountains and beyond them the mighty Pacific Ocean. I’ve been at its shores when the sun came up in the morning over the silhouetted hills to the east and slowly lit a pastel world of water, sand and fog. I’ve been at its shores in the evening when the sun set in the west, the blazing ball of fire’s descent into darkening water marked by a bridge of gold, a billion dancing angles of light reflected on the waves. I’ve stood there many times in my life while the last hot crescent hung on the horizon’s edge, and then was gone. And I knew where I belonged.
On the east side of a road that runs north and south on Vashon Island stands the house where I was born. For my first eighteen years I could sit on the front porch on a summer evening and look beyond the lawn and across the road to the strawberry fields in the west and know, like I know my own name, that north was to my right and south to my left. The next house where I spent many years sat the same way. Once I lived with the orientation reserved and never could get over the feeling that things were backward. Looking for a new home here in Tacoma, the house that felt “just right” again sat on the east side of a road running north and south, my internal compass satisfied.
What about love and friendship? Do we subconsciously recognize the ones who understand us, who know where we come from, share our sense of habitat, our soul’s native tongue? We may travel the world, find adventure, be enchanted by another place, fall in love with someone whose sense of direction is foreign to ours, and live happily ever after. But they can never truly know what makes our secret inner gyroscope spin.
If you’re trying to guess where on the coast of Washington State this photo was taken, you’re already wrong. It depicts a magical June evening on Okracoke Island, part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, only something is missing: the setting sun. I loved it there, but when the sun set over the land to my back, instead of the sea it felt all wrong.
I could learn to live on our eastern coast. My ancestors came from Maine. I’ve eaten lobster on the waterfront there, gotten a sense of the place. I could learn to love the Atlantic’s different smell and feel and appreciate its charms. In life we end up walking many beaches, but in our hearts we know which ones are ours. I could be happy and so could you, but I would still miss watching the sun set where it “should,” over the ocean, with the person who knows me best at my side. I would miss the instinctive “rightness” of it all and revisit it in my dreams, knowing how much of who we really are is the place we call home.