Shallow Roots


I was born and raised in a small town on the eastern shore of North Carolina. My family has lived in the same 100-mile radius since the 1700’s, and we’ve always been water folk – sailors and fishermen. Though I’m not from the beach, exactly, I am from – and of – the water. My town is situated on the banks of one of the many small waterways that snake in off of the Pamlico Sound, the largish body of water that separates mainland North Carolina from the fabled Outer Banks, the barrier islands that are our connection to the Atlantic Ocean. I am also a Scorpio, a water sign (though you’d think we’d be fire, or maybe earth). While that is more of a commentary on my emotional state and my potentially deadly passions, I also feel a certain kinship with water. The spirit of it reaches out to comfort me. I am home on the waves, even though I can’t swim.

I grew up surrounded by water of all kinds – the wide drainage ditches that separated my father’s property from that of our neighbors, where I fished for minnows as a child; the pond in the back yard that housed my prized catfish, Claude, and a bevy of trained geese; the swamp beyond our yard that occasionally filled the air with its own particular earthy smell; and of course Pantego Creek and the Pungo River, wider here than parts of the mighty Mississippi, home to jellyfish and crabs, sailboats and yachts, tubing and wake boarding, and in my case, several rounds of failed swimming lessons. The smell of salt water will always mean “home,” and I am filled with acute, gut-clenching nostalgia when I imagine a quiet night, only the sound of river waves lapping to keep me company. I try not to think of the ocean. It hurts too much. But maybe it’s all that water that keeps my roots so shallow, makes it so easy for me to get up and move when the mood hits.

It seems to me that I feel about the ocean the way many people talk about feeling for their families. I often hear people talk about how bereft they would feel if separated by a great distance from their family, meaning the parents who gave them life, the brothers and sisters who tormented them as children, but later became the most trusted and loyal of companions. This is not my experience. My loved ones are not my roots. Mental and emotional distance can far outpace physical separation. There are many things that I miss about my childhood in Eastern NC, but not even one thing that I can think of to make me want to move back, save for a few precious evenings spent staring out over the Atlantic.

I wonder if it’s because I love the ocean so much that I cannot bear to think of moving closer to it. Isn’t that a strange thought? But it’s true that I daydream in equal parts about moving to Maine and moving to Arizona. I want great expanses of sky and land, and not too many people. Also, it strikes me that in places with too much water, and in places with just enough, a certain power dwells. It is the great equaling out, personified. And in both places my roots would be shallow, but happy.

Along with being a water sign, Scorpio is only the only sign of the zodiac that has three symbols, showing our possible maturation (not everyone progresses beyond the scorpion, our base sign). If we work hard at it, we tiny scorpions can eventually become eagles. After that, we are reborn again as the phoenix. Perhaps I have trouble taking root because I know it is my destiny to take wing. But still, I imagine I’ll sleep tonight with the sound of the ocean crashing in my heart.

The Dream: Knee Deep

I snapped this shot at the beach on Sullivan's Island, SC last weekend.

I snapped this shot at the beach on Sullivan’s Island, SC last weekend.

So as most of you know, I grew up in a little town on the NC coast. My hometown is close enough to the Pamlico Sound to get a good whiff of salt air on a strong breeze, but the only water you can see from town is the Pungo River and Pantego Creek (which is wide enough where I live to be considered a “river” elsewhere in the world). My childhood home lay just beyond a swamp (which bordered the creek), next to several ponds, and beside a ditch. I spent a lot of time playing near the ditch, but never in it. There were snakes – eek. Basically, I grew up with sea legs, despite being far enough from the Atlantic that I only got to see it a couple of times a year.

I remember one of the first times I ever went to what I still consider the “real” beach – where you can’t see land on the other side of the horizon. I must have been three or four. My parents took me to Ocracoke Island, about two hours ferry ride from the mainland. Mum held my hand and we stood in the sand, letting the waves lap over our feet. We gradually sank deeper and deeper into the sand, until I was buried up to my calves and giggling like mad. I’m in my 30s, and it’s still one of my favorite thing to do EVER, along with reading Stephen King books and eating chocolate ice cream. I remember being utterly at ease in the water, but knowing somehow that my mother was deeply afraid of letting go of me. I remember that my father held my other hand, and showed me that if I watched the waves and then turned around to see the dunes, for a second it looked like we were washing out to sea with the water. I was transfixed by the magic of it all. Still am.

Because I grew up around water, I didn’t realize how important it was to my mental and spiritual wellbeing until I left. New Orleans is on the Mississippi River, next to Lake Pontchartrain, and pretty darn close to the Gulf of Mexico, but even with all this water around, it’s hard to access it. I’ve never been to the lake – I’ve been over it on a bridge, but never on the shore. I’ve sat on the shore of the Mississippi, but it’s like sitting out on Pantego Creek – except that I wouldn’t dare take a dip in the Mississippi – it’s pretty gross. You can’t get into the Gulf from here, either. Most people go to Mississippi or Texas if they’re considering a trip to the beach.

I didn’t realize how much I missed the water until I moved to Chicago and lived about a block and a half from Lake Michigan. I went running down the Lakeshore path every day, and loved watching kids frolic in the sand, and people in wetsuits training for triathalons. I even visited the lake in the winter to wade through snow and watch the ice floes from up close. In the summer, I’d open up my apartment windows to let in the lake breeze, and at night I could see the waves lapping in the moonlight from my apartment. When I moved back to New Orleans after that, leaving the lake behind was like cutting ties with a lover. I’m still bitter.

That’s why the next place I live will be on the water. It must be within walking distance (or at the most, short driving distance) of the water. I must be able to wade in when I want, to say hello, to breathe in that goodness, to feel comforted by the sea when it’s happy and calm, and be awed by its majestic temper on stormy nights.

There’s this song I’ve been listening to all summer, since I started getting really homesick for the Atlantic, called “Knee Deep.” It’s by the Zac Brown Band, with a verse by Jimmy Buffet, so you can probably already guess that basic island sound. It’s a sweet little song about running away from the world and hanging out on the beach. My favorite part of the song (soon to be your earworm) goes,

“Wrote a note said be back in a minute / Bought a boat and I sailed off in it / Don’t think anybody’s gonna miss me anyway. Mind on a permanent vacation / The ocean is my only medication / Wishing my condition ain’t ever gonna go away.”

I don’t know when it’s going to be, but there will come a time when I just won’t be able to take living here in New Orleans one more second. When that happens, I’m packing up and moving to the water. I’m not looking for a tropical island – just a little slice of quiet.

Two Halloweens ago, I took The Man on a little getaway to Salem, MA. We stayed just down the road in Marblehead, in a gorgeous little B&B out on a sliver of rock called Marblehead Neck. It’s by far one of the prettiest spots I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. I can’t imagine ever having enough money to own a home out there, but it’s certainly a lovely thought. To live in a historic town, with enough land to plant a garden, a great view of the water, and a fireplace to sit by and sip whiskey on a cold night? Throw in a yearly trip to somewhere foreign and a career where I can help people, and you’ll have my dream, all wrapped up in a nutshell.

Well, that and being a pirate 🙂