Claire Lyons | Wednesday, September 27, 2023
What do you think of when you think of the ocean?
Hold that answer for a second. It means something, I promise.
The first time I saw the Atlantic, I was headed to a funeral. My brother, father and I piled into a black rental car in Miami to drive down the Overseas Highway — a 113-mile stretch of sea bridges connecting the Florida Keys. The ceremony was on the water. I remember our faces stung with salt and ashes melted into the waves. Some small part of me still believes my uncle lives on in a fish’s belly or in the soft glow of a bioluminescent creature. But mostly, I remember the cold, unforgiving line that separated sea from sky.
It is impossible for me to think of any large body of water without thinking of the horizon — the single, thin line separating the cosmos above from the infinity below. The two bodies never touch, not really, not in a way that matters. Even though they look so similar, the two bodies are separate entities and couldn’t be more different. A great divide.
What you associate with the ocean might be more revealing than you think. I stole the question from a TikTok personality quiz I took back during the pandemic. When you answer the question “What do you think of when you think of the ocean?” with something along the lines of “The ocean is beautiful but scary,” you’re secretly revealing what you think about love. Do you think it’s accurate? Maybe I’m putting too much validity into a silly quiz I took three years ago, but I think the question generates surprisingly insightful answers.
When I asked my brother about the ocean, he had two answers.
Recently, he said “I think we should try to figure everything out about the ocean. But, to an extent, I feel like we don’t have a right to know everything. Like, have you ever heard about how eels evolved? It’s not just …” He went on like that for a while about eels.
Three years ago, before all the ex-girlfriends and the broken heart, when my brother was sixteen, he paused briefly to consider the question. “I think of happiness and the beach,” he said. “I think of Lake Michigan and our summers there.”
In truth, I agree with my brother. When I think of the ocean, I think of Lake Michigan. The horizon exists there too, but it’s a little easier to conceptualize. If you strain your eyes from the Indiana side of the lake, you can see the hazy Chicago skyline at sunset. With a reference point, somehow the scope becomes less intimidating.
In the summers of our childhood, we would regularly embark on the annual family reunion trip to the Michigan City shores of Lake Michigan. We have twelve cousins, all in the same age range, who would run wild in the beach community. Those summers were some of the best memories we have. We would catch frogs, run barefoot down the middle of the street, sing songs at the top of our lungs, gamble and stay up way past our bedtimes. There was little-to-no parental supervision. It was heaven.
My brother has not been to the shores of Lake Michigan in four years. Last summer, I was lucky enough to visit our old stomping grounds for the first time since the pandemic. The week was different this time. All of us had jobs now or school to attend or significant others to see. The rental home was only half-full.
It rained our last day on the beach. My aunt (Kathy) was determined to soak up the rest of her hard-earned vacation and convinced my cousins (Holly, Grace and Mary Kate) and my other aunt (Moe) to hunker down underneath our tent to wait it out. Other beach-goers were not as brave and scurried to pack up their umbrellas and towels before the rain hit. Within ten minutes, the beach was completely empty — except for us.
As it started to pour, naturally, the conversation turned towards family. I pestered Kathy and Moe with questions. Is it weird talking to all of us as adults? Did you like us better when we were kids? What were you like when you were our age? What is it like having married kids? Apparently having adult children is fantastic because you “can make [them] carry the beach chairs.”
Kathy turned the topic of conversation to in-laws. She swirled her glass of rose casually as she listed each of her siblings’ spouses and how they enriched her life in some way or another. You see, love compounds and compounds and compounds. Love radiates and spills over to all the people who love the people you love. And maybe that’s exactly what family is supposed to mean.
When the rain eased, my cousins and I sprinted out from underneath the canopy onto the wet beach. Our hair was standing up on its ends from the electricity in the air (or “The wind!” which was what we told Mary Kate). We grabbed hands and spun briefly, just our connection keeping our centrifugal forces at bay. We blindly dove into the waves for an impromptu baptism, fearing nothing — not thunder, nor lightning, nor rain. It was like seven years washed off of our backs. Suddenly, we were girls again: twelve, laughing with abandon, tipping our faces back towards the sky.
Love is a funny thing. It keeps surprising me. I realized under certain — perhaps even perilous — conditions, I could always be wrong. I looked up and noticed, with all the rain, there was no horizon.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.