The sun paves on the waves a glinting path to a far horizon.
I grew up on Lake Michigan beaches. Dirty bare feet spiked with dune grass thorns, the rhythmic thud of waves. My home is in the Far North, now, but I still return to Michigan, for reunion or retreat, to the dunes where my parents now live.
On the lake, November sidles up: darker days, cloudy skies. I nestle in to think and read and wander. Leaves, brightened by fall’s alchemy, drift into piles thick with the dusty-mulched scent of Midwest childhood. Every day I walk to the beach and check the waves.
At the crest of the critical dune, sky shouts first. Blue-gray, gray-blue, the smeared white of a wiped chalkboard. Below, water, too vast to see across, a bluer-gray or grayer-blue. Currents crosshatch the shore. Wind from north early, then southwest, or east; in fall, only the changing is constant. The beach is a sandy expanse of fine blonde grains, nearly Caribbean but for the austere tinge of autumn light. Everywhere, shorebirds. I walk the scalloped strip of firmest sand where flocked gulls peck, lift and settle. My footprints smear their darting indentations.
As I walk the shoreline north, my eyes catch on bright, tiny blight: plastic trash, ubiquitous. Not heaped piles, but bits woven into landscape, another raw material. I stoop to pick up straws, spoons, cups, balloons trailing strings that wrap beach grass so tight, I have to cut it apart with a take-out knife found stabbed blade-deep in sand. Beer cans, cigarette butts. Sanctimony surges in me (I don’t use any of that crap!) until I find a cracked whiffle ball, perched on a wrack-nest like a just-laid egg. Beloved prop of my youth! Resting in my Grandpa’s palm, as he taught me to pitch. He also taught me to swim, held my slippery belly and rose me on swells to keep my face above the waves. My long-gone Grandpa—conservationist, salt of the inland sea—walks the beach with me, complicating matters. I shove the bits of junk into my pockets and pick up the ball—adrift, broken, yet not trash, not to me. Cognitive dissonance, its corrective jar.
I’m keen for treasure hunts (Petosky stones on Michigan beaches, glass floats in coastal Alaska) and once I begin collecting litter, I can’t stop. On my walks, I carry a salvaged two-quart blue bucket, its capacity perimeter for my obsession—when it’s full, I quit. For hundreds of yards, neck craned, veering between scraps, I forget to look up. Then I chastise her, this judging cleaner who has displaced the wanderer with her eyes on sky to note the actual world, not just the scattered mess on its surface. Vying urges: the unclenched breath of lakeshore air, and this tunnel-visioned frenzy of tidying and shame.
Lines from a favorite poem pulse, on repeat—Jane Hirshfield’s “Nothing Lasts”:
Grief and hope the skipping rope’s two ends, twin daughters of impatience.
One wears a dress of wool, the other, cotton.
I’ve learned the lines by heart, those daughters like siblings. I know their garments. The shape of their bodies beneath. Grief of scarred waterline; hope in filled bucket, my tiny dent. Grief for the missed details, casualties of my scouring gaze. Hope for the world’s persistence, there whenever I look up. Hope in the urge to note what’s disappearing, grief for what’s already gone. The rope turns.
Beach trash renews with every night’s swells. Disintegrating grains of rigid foam shift into sand. Cellophane hides, transparent, in the swollen roots of marram grasses. I’ll never collect it all. I gather anyway. Buddhist monks construct sand mandalas, one-grain-at-a-time, until, finished, they scuff beneath sandals. No photos taken, the point only the making. My beach clean-up is anti-mandala, removal of specks and dabs, sand the remains. Yet attention and transience connect the rituals—nothing lasts.
Trash shape-shifts. I reach for a gleamy stone and find it’s a bottle cap, the once-ragged edges eroded half-smooth. A beach grass clump reminds me of a wig. When I set it on my head, unraveled tarp strands hang blue at my ears.
Amid the human trash, other creatures leave debris. Snail trades shell, new feathers push out old. Milkweed pods release to wind their button seeds, and despite its reproductive aim, the silky fluff seems cast off, too, puffed piles lining sandy paths. Not litter, exactly, not useless scrap. Remnant perhaps? I learned this word following my frugal mother through fabric stores in search of sale bolts to sew into dresses, which brings back to mind those twin daughters. Hope wears cotton, cool in heat, and Grief, wool, warm when wet. The girls dart alongside me through the dunes, hiding behind brush when I look at them. A third girl shoulders in, the shadow daughter—Despair. What hope pushes against, what grief can become. She trails behind her sisters, unnoticed. Despair’s dress is vinyl-shiny, laquered pastel. The flouncy hem twists at her knees.
Even shadow has a shadow. Despair is not content to mope at the edges of play. She tilts away from the twins’ bustle and approaches the water’s lap. She unzips her dress, arms cranked behind, and steps out of the crinkled pile at her feet. Her sisters romp behind her, but Despair is oblivious. She wades in to the waves. To her ankles, to her knees: cotton underwear, bare feet, the hair on her neck in weedy strands. Tied to her wrist, bobbing as the current shifts, a balloon trails.
The sun paves on the waves a glinting path to a far horizon. The girl takes shape—me at nine, beckoned by water, promise of obliteration or weightless drift. She does not yet know her place in the order of things, how long belief or fatigue can last. How they can trade places as fast as weather can change. For now, there is only her own tiny body, the water-skimmer perched in her curved palm, and the lake, whose edges she cannot see, ready to buoy.
Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, a finalist for the Willa Award in nonfiction. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Sun,Crazyhorse, and Brevity, among other journals and anthologies. Christine has made her living as a professional trail builder for the past 24 years. She lives in Interior Alaska with her family on lands that have been used for millennia by Dene people, including Ahtna, Tanana, and Dena’ina.
Photos of Lake Michigan by Christine Byl. Photo of Christine Byl by Celia Olson