It was the morning after July 4th and I awoke at 5 am. No need for an alarm clock, I was just determined to see the New Jersey sunrise, and my mind was the only alarm clock I needed.
My mind has a unique inner clock. If I need to be awake at 8, I wake at 7:45. I know this process is in part why I don’t sleep well if I have a morning obligation. It’s like elevator music running in the background; always there. Sometimes I can ignore it and sometimes it rings through my head filling every grey wrinkle.
This wasn’t an obligation, just something I wanted to do before we returned to California–to be one of the first people in the whole United States to watch the sunrise on that day.
I snuck out through our back balcony and down the stairs. I made my way past the few houses separating us from the beach. The sky was dark and cloudy and there was a mild glow in what seemed like the north.
I had believed, up until this point, that the beach lined itself fully north and south.
And then the sky began to turn.
The light was not directly to the east as I had expected, or slightly to the north (the way it is watching the sun rise or set at home California). No, the sky began to turn, in my perspective, it was lighting the sky far to the north of the spit of sand. I began to realize that the island actually moves from NE to SW.
I have chosen the perfect morning.
Some mornings were bright and clear and the sun rose dramatically, appearing past the horizon. Other mornings were dark and rainy, with no sunrise to speak of. This morning had the glory of the clouds and an incoming storm.
Red sky at night, sailor delight. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.
As quickly as the red filled the sky, a sailor’s warning at sea, it dissipated and I could see the sun attempting to peek through. The sky beyond the clouds began to light but the sun was hidden.
I began to walk the beach, the tide far lower than any I had seen thus far. Bits of shell formed a line far from the water.
In the distance, I heard the sound of an engine as what looked like a truck made its way down the sand. The seagulls dived around it, celebrating what the surf rake turned up. I had never seen a surf rake and was intrigued by the smooth road of sand it created.
The beaches of this part of New Jersey are stunning. The sand is heavy and coarse and can be hard to walk through as it sucks at your feet. The water shifts between warm and cold depending on the current. It is a wild coastline beloved and ever-changing.
Following an early morning sunrise, a perfect treat is one of the neatest little restaurants with fresh juice and more acai bowls than you can imagine. Not only do they offer acai, they have 4 other bases you can try; young coconut, pitaya, banana, and strawberry.
If I lived in Beach Haven, this would become a staple. You can tell is a local favorite by the lines extending beyond the doors.
Totally worth the wait.
I spoke in my last blog about how you can walk from one side of the island for sunrise to the other for sunset. It’s a fantastic bit of land with a small community that becomes much larger during the summer. The traffic lights only turn on in late spring and turn off in the fall–the rest of the year they are a perpetual blinking yellow light. Almost everything you need is within these few miles.
Who am I kidding? The hoards of people came in and lined the beaches. The firecrackers popped and zinged. The night before, the air was filled with explosions, and laughter was heard long past 2 am.
The weather was that perfect mix of humid salty air and a cool breeze. Still far too hot for me in the sun, but we took a quick walk to the shore. Cousin Pat likes to say she’s checking that the beach is still there, and after living through Tropical Storm Sandy, she’s only half joking.
The umbrellas were lined up as far as the eye could see, both to the north and to the south.
This island is constantly in a fight with the tides, the sands transform daily. Artificial dunes are maintained to protect the homes on this spit of sand with fines for walking along their edges
Assured that the beach still existed, and not wanting to fight the crowds, we spent a relaxing day at the house, protected by the shade and hearing the crash of the waves in the distance.
As the sun lowered in the sky, we made our way to the west side of the island where the fireworks would reflect over the bay. We found our way early and settled on the wooden benches that overhang the water.
Teens wandered the area in enormous groups, the girls wearing a uniform of cutoff short shorts and midriff mini tops. The boys indulged in their collections of fireworks and groups of people would scream and run as they set them off in the middle of the crowds. Police roam the multitudes, taking alcohol from underage hands and pouring it out, without reprimand or ticket.
We hide somewhere along the edge and secretly I looked for an exit, imagining us leaping into the water should the screams of giddy excitement turn to something more like terror. I hate that that’s where my thoughts live when I am among crowds of people; how to escape with my family if this turns… bad.
Others line wooden benches, eating ice cream and acai bowls. We collectively watch as the sky streaks yellow and then orange and red. We watch the seagulls as they dip and dive over the water, searching for the small fish along the surface.
As the skies darken, we can see along the distant shore, the other side of the bay, the New Jersey mainland. Fireworks begin to shoot up in tiny bursts with every town on the bay’s western side having their own show. At one point, we see six shows happening in the distance.
I imagine our fireworks start much later than theirs because our backdrop is the sunset and theirs is the sunrise. Their view of the east darkens quickly while ours lingers. It is a clear difference of perspectives, one that has continued to linger over me as we sit waiting. I don’t feel particularly like celebrating freedom right now as I see women losing their rights. I don’t feel good about fireworks and pollution when we are facing climate crises around the world. I am aware of my anxiety over who in the crowd might be there to hurt others instead of being there to watch the lights as they explode through the sky.
This is balanced with wanting to experience something new, with spending time with my family. As always, I am a mess of contradictions and my mind fights to overthink everything.
Finally, around 9:40, the first firework is shot from a barge in the bay. The crowds cheer and watch as the colors reflect in the water, creating abstract images in the dark night air.
As the show comes to a close, the teenage boys begin to chant, “USA. USA. USA.” They return to their drinking and their explosions. The crowds begin to clear; families climb on their beach cruisers and gangs of bicyclists find their way home.
It will be another long night as teenagers make their way to the beach to party on the sand, roving around the neighborhoods, avoiding police. The personal fireworks ring through the air.
The cool night air kisses my skin and there are no bugs to speak of. Sitting outside on the porch listening to the waves crash on the sand brings moments of peace amongst the chaos.
On January 1st of this year, my writing partner and I embarked on a journey of 52 weeks, 52 short stories.
The honest reflection on this, here at the halfway mark, is that it has been really hard for me. It has been a battle, a battle between me and my creativity. A battle of creativity.
My mind is a jumble. I am in constant transition of the things I want to create. It’s almost like ADD, but exclusively around creativity.
A few years ago, when I was a member of a local gallery, I would disappear into the creative process, moving into the “zone” where time disappears and everything softens and every bit of art-making calms my nervous system.
The gallery gave me a wall and it was my job to keep that wall filled with my art. In time, however, that requirement became daunting. I was creating art to fill the wall, not because I wanted to create art. I was honored that my art was selling fast enough that I needed to fill those empty spaces, but I was becoming empty.
Julia Cameron in The Artist Way requires artists to commit to the weekly artist date; a way of refilling the creative bucket. It seemed that I was emptying myself faster than I could refill, like a pail with holes down to its base.
One way to keep my creative attention deficit focused was by making new things for the gallery’s gift portion: hand-dyed silk, fairy wands, hand-crafted lavender oil, polymer clay creations, and more. But suddenly, like the art, these became obligations.
Apparently, I do not do well with obligations.
I found myself crying more. I found myself resistant to doing my work days. I found myself not fitting in so well with the other gallery members. I tried to find ways to make it work, but changes in the way the gallery was run pushed me further away. One night, after the gallery Christmas party, I cried hysterically the whole way home; unable to describe how hurt I felt by many of the people there.
And so, just before Covid hit, I left. I said I was leaving because I wanted to write. That was true, but it was also that I had become empty of visual creativity. I was exhausted. I was terribly unhappy, feeling like an odd-shaped puzzle piece sitting in the wrong box.
I took a creative break from art, believing I would take the time to recharge and return to a novel I started years ago. Suddenly we found our world turning in a new direction; Covid. Would they close the schools? Certainly they would only be closed for a few weeks and our kids would be back before the end of the year. I was on the prom committee. We would still have prom, wouldn’t we?
How naive I was.
My husband was deployed, so it was just me and our daughter (plus a dog, cats, and chickens).
Honestly, it was glorious to have no place we had to be (says the overtired introvert.) We watched a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race, starting with the first season, and gloried in their creativity. In Julia Cameron’s words, I took the role of the shadow artist.
We ate goat cheese and chocolate. I started taking a picture of every sunset. Being quarantined can be glorious in that the sunset is a very reliable friend. Even on foggy days, I knew it was there through the mist.
I took a lot of pictures; of the seasons as they changed, of flowers as they grew, of insects and chickens sitting on my lap. I took pictures of my daughter; at a virtual prom, wearing a wig and colored contacts because there was no one there to judge her, in the fog, dressing up.
I asked friends to join me in the Artist Way online, with me acting as facilitator. I also started an online book club. Both groups were large to start but faded in time.
I faded too.
I began to feel like I wasn’t doing either of them for me, I was only doing it based on the obligation of the commitment I made. As long as there were others fully participating, I would follow through on my commitment.
Finally, there were only three of us left; myself, my writing partner, Bridgette, and Deborah. Deborah is able to stick through every commitment like she has uttered an unbreakable spell. (Bridgette commits to not let me or herself down, Deborah commits as part of the fabric of her soul.)
I don’t know if it’s the obligation that drains on me or how much energy I’m putting out in comparison to my intake. I never got tired of the time with my daughter or RuPaul or the sunsets, but those things all fill my leaky bucket.
My commitment to Artist Way and our book club faded. As people began to come out from quarantine, I could no longer maintain either commitment. I think perhaps functioning in the real world is one of the things that drain me.
This last November, I finally finished a commitment that I could feel proud of; I completed 50,000 words in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I didn’t finish the story I was working on (a rewrite of Wizard of Oz) but I did finish the month-long commitment. Eight months later, and I miss the work I was doing on that story. I also miss the work I did the year before, even though I can’t remember if I completed 50,000 words in 2020.
Artist Way helped grow my relationship with my writing support, Bridgette. She stuck it out with me until I faded away. She stuck with the book club too. The last two years of NaNoWriMo have only been successful because of her support.
We had the opportunity to get together this year, at the end of week 25/ the beginning of week 26. It was so wonderful to see her. I honestly felt sad though, sad that I wasn’t done with my week 25 writing and had to focus on that instead of focusing on her. When I talked to her about “maybe we should take this week off and catch up next week?” She firmly set the boundary that she needed to finish.
Honestly, my commitment to her commitment is what got me past week three and has kept me going since. Not only do I have attention deficit when it comes to my creativity, but I am also avoidant and reluctant and can go for years without finishing a thing if I don’t have external goals.
And so here we are. It is week 27 as I write this (week 28 when I finally post) and I have had the opportunity to come and sit on a porch in the cool humidity just a few houses from the Jersey Shore. I’m working to recharge and fill my ever leaky bucket.
I have stories for the first 25 weeks and I fight to find something to say for the week 26, 27, and 28 prompts. I’m behind on those stories, but am also trying to honor this vacation by letting it be a vacation. Week 25 with Bridgette didn’t feel like the retreat I hoped it would be because there was a story hanging over my head.
Writing these stories have started to make me feel like I did at the gallery; a bit resentful at the words and topics, frustrated at what a slow writer I am, resistant, and a bit empty of ideas. I have learned to push myself. My writing is improving. I’m faster. My skills at editing are getting better.
Through this process, I’ve learned that I really miss making art. Isn’t that the way it goes?
I’m starting to think I don’t just have one creative bucket.
I have many creative buckets.
Right now, my short story creative bucket is pretty drained, but my general writing bucket (about life and travel) is still full. My art buckets are also pretty full, having had a few years to fill and repair–and I have a lot of art buckets.
As I photographed New Jersey earlier this week, I was inspired for a series of abstract oil paintings I want to create when I get home based on sunsets here.
The part I struggle with the most is that I committed to 52 weeks, 52 stories. I made a promise not only to Bridgette but to myself. And so, each week (until week 26), I’ve put that commitment before any other creative process. Because I just barely finish my stories on Saturday, it means I take a rest on Sunday (generally to wash dishes that have also been avoided in the name of writing) and then try to start again the following week.
If I could find a pattern of getting my story completed earlier in the week, perhaps I could find time for my other creative buckets. But I do have a life outside of this, and I want to exist in that life too. It is why I probably won’t commit to NaNoWriMo this year; I’m just too tired.
I really miss the other creative aspects of my life. I’m trying to figure out how to balance this experience while also staying true to my goals. My daughter is graduating from high school at Christmas and possibly going away to college next summer. She is my only child, and I’m grateful I’ve found identity (beyond being her mom) in writing and art because while I will miss her desperately, she’ll know that I have goals I am working towards.
I have to continue my work on the 52 stories, even if I don’t end up with a full 52. (I really like the prompts for weeks 26 and 27) but with less rigidity on a time. I have to let go of my guilt at trying to be ready to publish at the same time as Bridgette and give her the freedom to post when she’s ready, even if I’m not.
I have to figure out how to create my own goals, commit to myself, fill the creative buckets and just acknowledge when one is empty and not judge myself too harshly.
Here I sit. Sipping a dram of whiskey, listing to the Atlantic Ocean on the New Jersey shoreline. Cousin Pat is heading to Scotland next week and this is part of her research.
We’re on the Jersey Shore on a narrow strip of sand that I didn’t know existed. I thought the coast of Jersey was like that of California or Brasil, a long stroke of sand or cliffs in a continuous unending ocean line.
But here is an 18-mile-long island, less than a mile wide. The sun rises in July at 5:30am over the Atlantic. 15 hours later, a short walk to the east, it sets over Little Egg Harbor, an inlet with only a shadow of land far on the other side.
It has been an emotional two weeks. I said goodbye to my old sweet cat, allowing her to pass humanely. A few days later, my father-in-law passed away, my husband, Fred, and his brother at his side. Then my gentle young dog’s eyes began to grey and suddenly I was making specialist appointments as I tried to minimize the damage with vet-prescribed drops and gels. I am in no way attempting to compare the sadness of these events, only that they were many and emotionally overwhelming each in their own way.
Despite these things, we chose to continue our plans to go someplace we’ve never been, Long Beach Township, New Jersey. We have been discussing this visit for years. We first planned our trip for summer of 2020; and then there was Covid. About four months ago, we finally took the leap and bought the tickets.
I suppose if this was just a vacation for us, perhaps we would have canceled. But it wasn’t just for us.
My father-in-law, Bill, has a cousin, and she had been asking us to visit for almost 10 years. My husband’s job in the Air Force often interfered, with deployments to Germany and Korea, and just the commitment to a job that was often unrelenting. He retired in January and took a job working in a high school. Suddenly we were faced with him having actual time off; a whole month every July.
With Fred’s father passing, it seemed even more important to make the journey to spend time with his cousin.
And so early on the morning of July 2nd, we got up early, dropped the dog off at his cage-free boarding (who assured me they will take care of his beautiful eyes), loaded our daughter in the back seat (up all night with a terrible migraine) and headed to Las Vegas.
I’m sure you’re wondering, Las Vegas? We live in the Tehachapi Mountains, only an hour from Bakersfield and only 90 miles from Los Angeles. In my flight searches, Las Vegas provided the only direct flight while also being the least expensive.
Travel these days is complicated and the warning for this weekend was glaring; canceled flights, not enough pilots or airplanes or staff. Las Vegas was quiet and clean and easy.
We arrived in Newark near midnight. There was very little wait for bags and then went to meet our driver; a New York native who had settled in Jersey. You could feel the 98% humidity, a warm heaviness to the air. He drove us the hour-forty-five minute drive south and onto Long Beach Island. There are regular tolls along the Garden State Parkway and even in the dark, I could see the dense trees lining the edges.
The roads were wet from occasional rain storms and when we finally arrived at Cousin Pat’s, the smell on the island was deep and earthy. Hers is a 1950’s bungalow surrounded by modern beach craftsmen. She has a beautifully landscaped yard filled with flowers and bark.
She’s the 5th house from the Jersey Shore. The beaches, and many of the properties here, were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Her home was piled with 3 feet of sand, taking 11 trucks to clear the property.
You would never know, almost 10 years later, that this little community was hit so hard.
It was overcast with a warm fog when we woke in the morning and made our way to walk along the beach. The plantlife is much softer than that on the California Coast, with broadleaf and grasses growing in the beige sand.
The sand is both thicker and looser than what I am used to in California. It is damp from the humidity and seems perfect for building sandcastles. You sink as you walk, not having that same compact firmness of California beaches. There are beautiful polished stones and tiny clamshells.
Later, we found our way downtown.
I didn’t know what to expect as we packed for this trip. I somehow imagined a sleepy community on an island and wanted to be sure we had exactly what we needed in case it involved driving off the island for more.
The sun came out as we walked into downtown, we were met with the hoards of travelers, families who haven’t fully been able to travel in 2 years. There are shops and restaurants on every block; ice cream and bagels are a staple.
In the afternoon, Pat and Fred journeyed out to the local fresh fish market and brought us home scallops, recently caught. Pat magically cooked them up on the BBQ and they seemed to melt with every bite.
As the sun lowered in the sky, we made our way the short walk to the west side of the island where we watched the sun set in dynamic oranges over the bay as paddleboarders and small boats made their way through the water.
We ended our day with ice cream. As we waited in line, we had a small family of 3 in front of us. They had the Jersey accents you dream of. As they began to order, more and more began to join them; grabbing their cones and wandering off again. Finally, the father turned and looked at us and said, “Sorry. There are a lot of us. All family.”
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