A Pair of Baptisms

1b : a…rite using water for ritual purification
2 : an act, experience, or ordeal by which one is purified, sanctified, initiated, or named

I talk to myself a lot when I surf. That actually shouldn’t surprise anyone since surfing might be the most incorrectly named activity on Earth. “Sitting on a piece of fiberglass in the ocean doing nothing with occasional spurts of intense activity,” would be more accurate.

That means there’s a lot of time for internal dialogue. Not only do I talk to myself but a lot of times I’ll talk to my long-gone mother, father and/or younger brother, especially when I’m in the water at my home break on Plum Island. No surprise there since that’s where my brother died and where all three of their ashes were spread in 2017. I like to think they’re just a little ways outside the lineup, smiling and keeping an eye on me, and always happy to share in the enjoyment I get from those occasional spurts of intense activity. Ah, who am I kidding? I even like the sitting-around part of surfing, too, especially when I can chat with Mom, Dad and Scott.

But a lot of times it’s just me having a conversation with myself. Not really a “conversation,” mind you. More like a running commentary on whatever happens to flow through my never-quiet mind. World events, personal events, jokes, songs, observations of the animals (typically birds) around me, conversations with the ocean itself — these are all common threads coursing through my cranium while I’m sitting there on my board in the ocean.

Side note: Before you go judging me, stop and think about your own never-ending internal dialogue. It’s universal, except among good, practicing Buddhists, and even they’ll tell you how hard it is to quiet one’s monkey mind. Anyway…

So it was that a few days ago I found myself sitting in the water off the aptly named village of Waves, North Carolina. I like it on the Outer Banks — the quiet, sparsely populated areas on Hatteras Island — and had come here after the soul-crushing sale of my family’s Plum Island home had closed in late November. After the closing I wandered the mountains of New Hampshire for a couple of days, then spent Thanksgiving with dear friends in upstate New York. A quick visit to Further in Maryland and then on down to Plum Island’s bigger sibling, the Outer Banks.

Away from the overrun parts like Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, the Outer Banks are a LOT like Plum Island…just bigger and farther away from civilization. Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean as they do, the OBX are a great place for surfing and, on the sound side where the water is shallow, kiteboarding. I’d been there before and thought a little escape there again would be good for me. So off I went and now, on the final day of my week-long stay, a stay in which the weather had not cooperated once — no waves to surf, and either too much wind or no wind at all so no kiteboarding — I FINALLY got a little bit of surf to enjoy. And given that this was early December, it was no surprise that I was all by myself. And before people say I shouldn’t surf by myself: it was small and mellow, so I wasn’t worried. The water was also summer-at-Plum-Island warm, too, so I wasn’t worried about hypothermia.

And in between waves, my mind got to chattering again. My folks and brother came up, and I greeted them, welcomed them into the fun I was having. I thanked the ocean for the waves and, remarking that this was the same ocean as home, realized: I no longer had a home.

IS the Atlantic my home, as I’ve written before? Maybe it is, but no longer the Atlantic at Plum Island. Maybe the entire ocean is my home. Maybe I should transplant myself back to where I made my temporary home for several years in the Pacific Ocean in north San Diego County. And hell, what if some job finally came through (let’s not get into THAT exercise in futility) and it was inland…would any ocean still be my home?

Bottom line: What do I say when someone asks me where I’m from? Where’s my home? What if I move somewhere, does that place become my home? If so, after how long? And when I die, hopefully not for a long time, where will my ashes be spread? With Mom, Dad and Scott? Up in Alaska? Wherever I wind up next or wherever I am when I finally kick the bucket?

While it might sound as though I left the water that day stressed and perplexed, the cleansing waters of the Atlantic Ocean had the opposite, calming effect. The ocean granted me a delightful session in the surf there in Waves, a wonderful little gift of joy on the day I was to depart back to the mainland, the world and whatever was to come next in my life. Yes, I was now homeless. But the ocean had granted me a clean slate.

Three days later my Subaru and I raced through a torrential downpour going northeast on I-495 in Massachusetts.

It was a stretch of highway I could have driven blindfolded; I’d literally driven this section of 495 more than a thousand times, no question. I thought back to some of the times I’d driven here before: going to or from my family’s home in New York, including twice-weekly trips in my 1962 VW Beetle to practice with the Hudson Valley hockey team for the Empire State Games in the summer of 1983; driving to and from school in New Hampshire, back before Route 101 was turned into a superhighway across the Granite State; in recent years heading to courses near Concord and Littleton to golf with my dearest friends; and so on.

I remembered one time in particular on this stretch with my younger brother coming back from New York. It was late at night in the summer of 1985 and he would be dead before the first week of August was over. That spring he’d finished his first year at prep school in Maine so he knew whereof he spoke when, a mile or so before our exit, a car with Maine plates went blazing past us and Scott said, “Maine is so big, that poor sonofabitch may still have six hours to go to get home.” I still think of that scene every time I see a Maine license plate south of Kittery.

Usually, as I cross the winding Merrimack River for the third and final time on 495, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, I feel like I’ve already made it home even though I’m still half an hour away. But at that point I’m past the urban blight and traffic of the city of Lawrence and it’s smooth sailing to my turn-off in Amesbury. A short jaunt on Route 110 leads into Salisbury, then side roads carry me across an ancient stone bridge back one final time to the south side of the Merrimack and into the city of Newburyport. Through downtown alongside the river, out onto causeway across the marsh and over the small drawbridge onto Plum Island. Home.

But this time as I drove up 495 and the windshield wipers could barely keep up with the pouring rain was the first time in my life — the VERY first time — I wasn’t returning home. Why was I here, I wondered. I wasn’t nearing the end of a journey. In fact, I was just beginning one. To where, I had no idea.

In mundane, logistical terms, I was returning to where all my worldly possessions remained, stashed in a storage unit just over the border in coastal New Hampshire. Ostensibly, I was going there to drop off some stuff I had with me, and to grab some other stuff I didn’t but would need (namely: more clothes) as the northern hemisphere dove deeper into winter. But beyond that, I had no real idea WHY I was in the area. Or why I would ever come back, as heartbroken as I was to leave Plum Island.

The rain continued to pour down all night, stopping only in the morning after I’d reached my storage unit and started figuring out what I could and should take with me (and also what I couldn’t and shouldn’t). It was clear and cold that night and, the car fully loaded, I left the following morning. I haven’t been back since.

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