By Shelley Thomas
Inside, my house is warm and quiet. Orange slices cool on the baking rack, too hot still to thread into garlands and loop on boughs as solstice suncatchers. Outside, chickadees huddle and puff and wait their turn at the suet cake commandeered by a blue jay. A few branches are down in the yard. There was a Nor’easter last night, and I know the shore will be redrawn and strewn with treasure.
I make tea to fill a thermos then bundle myself for what is sure to be a bracing comb. I scratch away Jack Frost fractals, my little dog nosing at the scraper from inside the car as I scuff it across my windshield. Last autumn’s puddles, now layered ice sheets, split with a satisfying clink under my boots.
There’s something sacred about a winter beach and its solitude. The glints of silver on branches after an ice storm. The bright surprise of a cardinal darting in and out of conifer. The smell of the cold. The beach a clean page of unbroken snow as though anything’s still possible.
Winter is a path forward. A way through darkness.
There are no crowds or distractions on today’s beach. Just me and my dog and the intensifying awareness that I’m alive—the ice-ache in my toes and fingertips reminding me as I pluck shells and sea glass from the shore. Eyes wet, tears that stream without sadness. Winter will hollow you out if you let it. It will puncture you with its cold and remind you of loss as you face the end of another calendar year.
I’m convinced I live more deeply in winter’s scarcity, in these stripped-down months, these shortened days. Winter distills, thins, and narrows. But paring down enlarges the soul. Senses heighten. Breath suspends. What’s invisible becomes visible. What’s silent, speaks in the hush of winter.
As I comb the shore, a murmuration of starlings whirls into the sky; it expands and shrinks, like a pulsating star, or a game of cat’s cradle between children’s fingers, opening and closing on itself. The starlings are unafraid of their movements, of their coordinates to each other. It’s a deeper kind of faith. They gather again and light upon the naked limbs of birches, then bob from branch to branch, mimicking the movements of my thoughts.
Pebbles of ice stick to the sand like decoy sea glass. Driftwood, stripped and shorn of its bark, rests in heaps at the wrack line. The rhythmic slosh of waves fills the silence of this blue afternoon.
On winter beaches, I’ve encountered ten-foot ocean cliff icicles, autumn leaves suspended in ice, swiveling ice pancakes in ocean currents, the delicate beauty of hoar frost on seaweed. Snow bling on dunes, snow snakes, snow drifts, ice volcanoes, and seaweed chandeliers.
Worlds within worlds. A landscape enveloping itself, kerneled deep in its own thoughts. Now off her leash, my little dog frisks. She gambols and hops, tumbles and flings herself forward into drifts. She is unencumbered in her movements. She tunnels her velvet muzzle into snow to smell the field mice and moles and their industries below. She snorts and flops on her belly, then bounds brightly ahead, again. Her joy authored in fresh tracks, prints on the white page of the beach as if to announce, “We are here! We are alive!”
Her wild poetry reads clear and true across the expanse of frozen shore. It reaches something ancient and animal in me. In this moment, all is well.
I think of how steadfast my love is for my family, for animals and plants, shells, stones, sky, and sea. With the gift of a new year to be alive, I reaffirm my hope to live a quiet, gentle life, connected to the land and the people I love most, those fixed in the firmament of my being.
I remember solitude and kinship exist at once, and I’m warmed from within for I know that tomorrow I will turn away from the grey city, toward possibility, again. Toward an empty winter beach where I will find everything.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.