I went to see the doctor the other day because I’ve been so tired lately. “Are you depressed?” he asked me.
After weeks of seeing photos of the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico; watching YouTube videos of pelicans suffocating in an oily sarcophagus, marshes saturated in putrid, brown slime and what appears to be oily rain and a surf belching noxious gases; reading reports of outright incompetence in dealing with the situation, the application of millions of gallons of a chemical dispersant that no one seems to understand the environmental ramifications of using, news of a judge with a vested interest in the oil industry rescinding a ban on deepwater drilling” Good God, who wouldn’t be depressed!
On Saturday, June 26th, I took the bus to Ocean Beach with my husband and a friend, to participate in one of the “Hands Across the Sand” events. There was a hundred or so of us lined up on the beach. First we faced the ocean, holding hands, and then half way through the 15-minute lineup we about-faced to look at our audience. Thousands of people were in OB today for the annual OB Fair and Chili Cook-off.
A band was playing on a platform just off the beach where some of their audience seemed to be also watching us. But an amazing number of people were either oblivious to us or ignoring us. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Stephen King novel and everyone has gone mad. Why am I so worried about this catastrophe, I thought, when so many people can’t think past getting a cold beer?
Back home, I checked the Facebook page for “Hands Across the Sand” to see if people in other parts of the country had bothered to show up and hold hands for 15 minutes in solidarity for clean energy and in opposition to offshore drilling. I was delightfully gratified to learn that there were over 800 events throughout the world, including in all 50 US states. Some were as small as two or three people while some had over a 1,000 participants! As I clicked through the hundreds of photos of people lined up, hand-in-hand on sunny beaches from Florida to California, I realized that I had been on many of those beaches. That’s why this catastrophe feels like my heart is being ripped from me — my life has been so intimately entwined with the ocean that I am feeling her pain.
Since childhood, it has always been the ocean that I’ve turned to for solace. As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license so I could go to the New Jersey shore any time I wanted to go. As a young mother living on Long Island, I remember escaping to Asharoken Beach every chance I could. I remember the moment when I knew I couldn’t stand being in my miserable marriage for one more day. I slipped away to the beach and sat on a bench for hours watching a young man teach himself to windsurf, feeling the sun tingling the skin on my face, smelling the slightly fishy sea air, gazing over Long Island Sound. I was calmed, emboldened and reassured that I could make it on my own. The ocean is my opium. I cannot imagine living anywhere where I cannot get my fix of it.
I lived in the Tampa Bay area of Florida for ten years. During that time I was very involved in an advertising trade association and as a director and president of the local organization, I attended trade conferences throughout Florida, mostly at beachfront hotels. From Daytona to Miami on the Atlantic and Palm Island to Pensacola on the Gulf, I had the opportunity to sample and savor the best of Florida’s coastline.
I remember walking along Pensacola Beach, awestruck by the endless whiteness of the sand and the emerald green of the Gulf waters that gave the area its name of the Emerald Coast. But I didn’t have to travel far to enjoy the beach — I lived only a ten minute drive from Honeymoon Island, just north of the more commercialized Clearwater Beach. When the ups and downs of my life took a sharp dive downward (my partner was dying and my business was failing), I often strolled that beach, breathing in the restorative energy I could always find in the stretch where sea meets sand. And if time permitted, I would take the ferry to Caladesi Island, one of the most highly rated beaches in the world!
While living in Florida, my novel about the Maya was published and it lent me the credentials to be a guest lecturer about the Maya on cruises to the Yucatan. Nothing about those gaudy and ostentatious cruise ships impressed me as much as being on the back deck, watching the hypnotic churning of aqua and white sea foam in our wake. I could stare at it endlessly. When we docked in Caribbean ports that had all been fashioned into identical tourist traps of shops hawking jewels and trinkets, I would hail a cab and seek out the furthest beach I could get to in the time allotted. There, on pristine beaches with teal water, I would let the sweet sting of sun into my veins, the sound of waves gently lapping on the shore into my ears, the sweet air of a million years of tropical plants exhaling fill my lungs.
In late 2004, after a year of wandering in my RV, I landed in San Diego’s East County. The desert smells of sun-baked eucalyptus and sage were foreign to me and the vista of rocky hills didn’t rock me with the constant caresses of waves. It wasn’t until I spent an afternoon on the beach in Oceanside, helping to set up memorial crosses in the sand, and watching a Pacific Ocean sunset, that I decided I could put down roots in California.
I am so easily satiated by the sea. On the beach in Oceanside, I often delighted in the golden glisten of the setting sun on the sand, setting smooth wet stones afire in orange hues. Later, when I was undergoing cancer treatments, my husband accompanied me on those strolls, on the beach, taking one weary step at a time. We were even blessed with seeing dolphins on a few occasions, as if they were assigned the mission of reminding me there was so much joy in being alive. I don’t think I would have recovered without those ocean treatments.
Circumstances changed, and it was time to move from Oceanside. For a few precious months Juan and I lived only a block from the cliffs in Ocean Beach. I could come home from work and climb the steps down to a precarious ledge between the clifftop and the rocky edge of the Pacific. I’d lean back against the cliff wall and let the salty spray tingle my face and soak my clothes, and listen to the hypnotic click-clicking as the waves receded from the loose stony bed, jiggling each stone against its neighbor. If the clouds were just right, the setting sun would stroke them with shades of bright yellow and fiery red and then, as it disappeared on the watery horizon it would leave in its wake puffs of soft dusty rose and violet that would fade to charcoal gray speckled with stars and a phase of moon that would reflect as ripples on the dark water.
When our finances necessitated a move away from the beach, I only agreed to move to Linda Vista with a promise from my husband that we would make frequent visits to the ocean. I need it like a child needs to feel her mother’s smile.
I worry that this catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is destroying so many people’s lives and livelihoods, and probably their health too. We need to start thinking about how we are going to deal with what I predict will be an exodus of biblical proportions from the Gulf states and perhaps even the entire Eastern Seaboard. But that is not what is making me depressed. Like many who are in some way entwined with the sea, I am grieving the death of this magnificent body of life. Many people have referred to the oil gushing from the seabed of the Gulf as Mother Nature bleeding. It’s a tempting analogy, but not correct. Our Earth Mother’s blood is not something as toxic as oil. Her lifeblood is the sea and we have poisoned not only her blood, but our own as well. Compared to where this nightmare is going, everything else we can possibly concern ourselves with, pales. So to answer your question, Doc, Yeah, I’m depressed.
Jeeni Criscenzo is an entrepreneur, peace activist and author. She was 2006 Democratic candidate for Congress – 49th District. In 2003 she traveled around the country in an RV, writing her daily blog: CPR4Democracy. She is also a founder of NetRootz.com, a free, online resource for Progressive grassroots organizations. She was California State Coordinator for the 2008 Kucinich for President campaign. Her latest focus is on building a sustainable community for the homeless. www.criscenzo.com