What good does it do
to lie all day in the sun
loving what is easy?
– Mary Oliver, “Starfish”
Eight-year-old Mariah runs in an arc across a stretch of wet sand, head cast backward, laughing at the trail of footprints emerging behind her. The moist air is mild, the tide low. “Look!” she calls to us as she runs, pointing backward as if we’ll be as surprised as she is to see that her footfalls leave such bold evidence of her presence. Her clarion voice floats through the air, a high note above the waves’ indifferent churn and gush. “See where I ran!” Lisa and I whoop along with her.
I inhale the muscular scent of kelp in the sun. Even when I’m squatting quietly by a tide pool, holding my gaze still so that I can discern what isn’t visible at first glance – a hard-to-spot hermit crab or a delicate pink spray of coralline algae – I am on guard, with one eye on the surf.
We haven’t always been family to one another. Mariah was five when Lisa and I adopted her, and she had spent too long in foster care. When she was small, she faced unforgiving tides, relentless cold, and bewildering storm surges without the protection and care she needed. She bears marks from that exposure. Raising her means helping her heal as well as grow.
Some of her injuries will become barely visible scars; some ache no matter what; and some lie dormant for long stretches but return to ambush us all with great force.
On this rocky beach at the mouth of Monterey Bay, whose name means refuge by the sea, I see abundant signs of growth and healing, in Mariah’s ever-longer legs in jeans wet and sandy to the knees, in her easy laughter. She slows down to watch carefully for the little fish that swim in the deepest pools, the beads at the ends of her braids clicking gently as she moves for a better view. When she gets stuck high on a slippery seaweed-covered rock and isn’t sure which way to go, she turns to Lisa, seeking – and accepting – a hand down.
Back at home, a modest road called the Great Highway lies between our neighborhood and Ocean Beach, which on most days is cold and heavy with fog. When we moved here I had to lose my association of beach with sun, swimming, hot salty skin, and the scent of Coppertone. I learned new words like riptide and sneaker wave. Swimming is too dangerous at Ocean Beach. We go there to walk, to press our bodies into the wind, to admire sanderlings and willets scampering in and out with each wave and brown pelicans gliding in graceful lines over the water, trailing a whiff of dinosaur.
The first time we brought her to see the ocean, just a few weeks after she came to our family, Mariah shrieked with glee and terror in equal measure and ran right toward the churning surf. I overtook her and grabbed her back in time. She took off down the beach again, driven by fear and the conviction that no one would offer comfort. As often as I’d read the signs warning of Ocean Beach’s dangers, I felt those dangers in my body on that cold, gray day when I chased my new daughter across the sand, trying not to frighten her further with my own choking panic.
Though I try to be truthful with Mariah, sometimes I lie to her, and I often stretch the truth, pulling it tight to cover the frightening uncertainty of being alive. I tell her we always will keep her safe. I tell her that our family is forever. Yes, we work hard to keep her safe, but it’s not a promise we can be certain to keep. And nothing is forever. During the windiest seasons, the dunes along Ocean Beach march right over the sea wall and settle in drifts on the Great Highway. Work crews close the road and move the sand back to the beach, bit by bit. In the decades to come, the rising Pacific will reach farther into this neighborhood. Erosion eventually may gnaw away the whole beach, and even the Great Highway.
I was raised to confine myself to safe, smooth beaches, the ones that appear at sunset in happy endings. I was raised to turn away from the messy, the unmanageable, the ugly. To hide raw need. But some things you can only see by traversing the rocky parts of the coast. To raise this child I must leave the safety and predictability of the beach for the rugged stretches of shoreline, with their inseparable beauty and danger.
Conditions on the coast change quickly, even in a single tide pool. The anemones gently wave their fancifully-colored pink and green tentacle crowns one moment and draw into themselves the next, becoming almost unrecognizable, faceless, darkly olive-colored stalks.
Sometimes Mariah loses her footing. Suddenly, her world is full of danger; she fights for her life, the crashing waves inside her drowning out our attempts to help. I never can tell if she’ll right herself on her own, if we’ll be able to catch her, or if the merciless waters will pull her beyond our grasp. So far, Lisa and I have been able to drag her back every time, though we all end up drenched, shivering, and wincing from the sand and salt on our scraped skin. The signs on the trail above warn: “Danger. People have drowned here.”
I’m learning that like the limpets and the rockweed, the turban snail and the sea palm, I can live with both bright sun and pounding surf. Sometimes I barely can hang on to these rocks. Sometimes I get stranded and must wait for the rough tide to retreat. And sometimes I get the pleasure of exploring tide pools in the sunshine with the family I love.
This day is a triumph in its ordinariness, its simple happiness. It is not the end of the story, though. We aren’t living happily ever after; we’re writing a harder, more interesting story.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
I’ve been collecting moments of beauty, each one a loop interlocking with the next, like the construction-paper chains I made in childhood and again with my daughter. The most durable kinds of beauty, for me, arc from light to dark and back again. When a late-afternoon sun paints bone-colored tree trunks against a dark gray sky. When I make my mother’s Russian tea cakes at Christmas and the taste of them makes me feel both close to her and far from her. When my neighbors gather in unpredictable combinations to stand up for each other in frightening times: white children with their hand-lettered “Black Lives Matter” signs, non-immigrant lesbians and gay men standing up for their undocumented neighbors, African American teenagers speaking out in support of their Muslim classmates, the straight family that flies a rainbow flag from their house year round. Making the paper chain of beautiful moments is an act of dogged hope.
Sarah Marxer is a researcher at a social justice nonprofit. Her writing has appeared on KQED Public Media and in Literary Mama, Adoptive Families, and the San Jose Mercury News, and is forthcoming in Minerva Rising. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.