Mapping memories

I was born and grew up in California, but I didn't see the ocean until I was 12. My first glimpse was of breakers—a long, pale white line against an endless blue—seen through the windshield of a ’52 Plymouth. We were still miles away, coming down the slope of California's coastal range and heading toward Crescent City. I was so excited. "Hurry up!" I said, "Drive faster!"

The ocean did not disappoint. I have black and white photos of mom and me and my cousin, posing glamour girl style with the waves behind us. But it wasn't the wading, swimming, and sun bathing that attracted me to the beach that summer, though I enjoyed all that. What drew me was the enormity of the sea and what lay beyond it.

I wanted desperately to hitch a ride with the sun and go wherever it was going, and lying on my beach towel I imagined Japan and China and tried to comprehend the great distance that separated us. I asked questions my parents couldn't answer: "When the sun sets here is it already in Japan? Or is it still over the ocean?" and "How long would it take to sail there?" and "What is exactly opposite where we are right now?"

Maps decorated my childhood room and still hang in my office. As a teenager my wish for Christmas was not pretty clothes, but a world globe. I loved maps and I loved the world they described. But it was putting my feet in the ocean that made the world real for me in a way maps never had. The ocean knocked something loose in me and I've been trying to fix it ever since.

Some years ago my husband and daughter and I spent Christmas week on the island of Rhodes. We rented a couple of rooms in Lindos, above a Greek family's home, and had breakfast every morning on a tiny balcony overlooking the sea. And there, for the first time, I saw the sun rise from the sea instead of sink into it. Looking east that first morning I waited to feel something grand; a revelation perhaps, or an intuitive grasp of universal perfection. Nothing. Instead, we ate our breakfast, commented on the oddity, said how lucky we were to have sunshine in the depths of winter, and went for a walk on the beach.



With Jennifer on the beach in Lindos

The two memories could serve as bookends to my life. On one end the childhood excitement of an endless future with endless questions waiting to be answered; on the other the sated traveler who recognizes the wonder but cannot feel it.

That would neatly tie the package but it would sadden me deeply to call it true. My fascination with the world and the maps that plot it continually reinforce my wonder. I no longer wish to ride the sun but I will always be captivated by whatever it illuminates, just over the horizon.