Hide and Seek: Beach mysteries and COVID-19 vulnerability

The beach holds mystery in its tranquility and wildness. Things are hidden and revealed in unending cycles.

There is vulnerability in these cycles.

The water rolls and churns, clears and clouds. One minute it shows you the diaphanous form of a jellyfish in a swell, the next, that translucent threat has vanished and you wonder if you are going to feel its sting or be safe for the time. Standing in the shallows, you see a shark’s tooth or small whelk wash near your feet, reach to snatch it from the sea, only to have it slip away as if it were a mere shadow.

The wind covers and uncovers things constantly. On my regular beach cleaning walks, I scour an area in one direction and find, I am certain, every conceivable piece of human detritus possible, only to turn around and see the wind has uncovered a half-buried beer can or juice bottle. Or, perhaps another plastic bag has broken free of its owner and is sailing toward the dunes, an impromptu kite.

I have an autoimmune disease, so I wear a full-body swimsuit and hat with drape. It covers a multitude of sins. It pulls the bumps and folds together like a sausage casing. It covers the sagging skin on my neck and the slight wattle that my age has given me. In other words, it makes me appear younger and lither than I am. But, it also hides my auburn hair, my mostly-happy eyes, my strong calves, and strengthening biceps.

The beach hides and reveals our truths, as well, in its brilliant light and relaxing breezes. I meet people every day that go beyond the smile and wave and stop to talk to me as I work. Some are adamant social distancers: standing well over six feet away and looking nervous. Some stand perhaps as close as two or three feet away but bump fist or elbow in greeting. Some thrust hands out to greet me in open defiance of the new normal. Few seem to reveal their emotions or political leanings intentionally.

In this, I have learned my truth. I am a biologist and writer by training and know myself very well much of the time. I balk inwardly and sometimes outwardly at those who don’t take social distancing seriously. I had convinced myself I would be leery of those good folk in my daily life.

Yet there, under pressure to meet the expectations of others and my desire for human contact born of these many months of isolation, I crumble like a stale convenience store cookie.

I stand six feet away and feel guilty if I didn’t immediately take that stance. I take the middle ground if it is preferred. And I will shake offered hands, knowing full well, from all my training, that this is the absolute worst thing to do. That hugs are less dangerous than handshakes. That aerosolized pathogens (in most cases) are less communicable than hand-transferred pathogens.

The beach, with its screaming birds and tumbling waves and happy children, tears down your barriers. It relaxes you. You feel like you aren’t in the real world and you slip into old habits. Even if you live here, this patch of sand and sea is a mini-vacation every time you walk on it.

I do keep sanitizer with me at all times. I do wear gloves because—well, have you seen the things people leave on the beach?

Still, it’s a revelation to me that all my laboratory training goes out the window. All my firm belief in taking precautions that protect us all goes to goo. My truth is revealed when I am on the beach; I am, at the mercy of its tranquility. I am vulnerable.

She’s a mysterious and manipulative thing, the beach.

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