When I think of my ideal quiet day, I think of the beach. The beach, however, is not a quiet place: waves pound on the shore, wind roars across the sand, seagulls screech, sand blasts against your face, your clothes are blustered and hair whipped by the wind. I had to laugh when I thought of it that way. Why do I think of the beach as a quiet place? Perhaps because it marks some of my favorite get-away destinations. Visits with families who had a beach house gave us moms time to chat and breathe while we kept a quiet eye on the kids. House-sitting opportunities at a beach house gave us the luxury of living in a place we could never afford. There are memories of beach-side hotels that offered pleasant retreats for my husband and I. Visits with distant family meant beach trips in Hawaii and the Gulf of Mexico. One house where we lived was close enough to the beach to take frequent afternoon trips for the kids to play in the water and the sand. Even with the wind howling, the waves crashing and the seagulls screaming for our food, beach days were quiet days.
At one beach house where we visited friends, a storm moved in. The tides were predicted extremely high, swallowing the sand, up to the low brick walls protecting the patios. Over the afternoon we watched the ocean turn from blue to green to gray to violet to indigo to navy blue to black, and the storm was on us. A quiet afternoon? Not in the forces of weather, but the kids all played outside as long as they could, tossing the tennis ball into the water and watching for the waves to toss it back, their sweatshirts wet in the cold spray.
From our house where we lived in the central California coast area, we would drive to the Pacific Coast Highway, turn north, and travel about thirty minutes to Pismo Beach. It was a great kids' beach. A long, slow, gradual slope, waves that came in gently at low tide, hard-packed sand perfect for playing and building. We loved to go mid-week, a benefit of home teaching, after the morning school work was done, a quick lunch packed, and often, the beach was practically deserted.
One drive, I don't remember why, we turned a different route off the Pacific Coast Highway, left on a street named Halcyon. At that point, we were still on the bluffs, the homes high, overlooking the coastline. After a block or so, the road appeared to drop out from underneath us. It plummeted, seemingly straight down for several hundred feet. The kids all screeched, some in panic, some in delight, like on a roller coaster ride. (I admit, other times when we drove this route, I would crest the top of the hill and let off quickly on the gas pedal to create a greater feeling of anti-gravity and increase the fun.) The road dropped quickly to sea level, to fields of strawberries, lettuce and broccoli, crops that flourished year-round in that perfect sea climate. Never too hot, never too cold, ideal for growing.
Halcyon looped across the green fields and joined the road that took us along the coast to the section of beach we liked. The dictionary says the word halcyon is from the name of a legendary bird that "had a peaceful, calming influence on the sea at the time of the winter solstice." The afternoons at the beach created for us a calming influence. A time to relax and play, to enjoy being with each other. I would take a book, but rarely read it, choosing instead to gaze at the waves and the kids playing together, and watch for the occasional dolphin or sea lion. We loved to go in the winter when the beach was pretty much guaranteed to be empty. The water was too cold to swim, but they would play, tossing a football or frisbee. Or, they would build sand creatures or castles. Or sit and enjoy the scenery, no responsibilities, nothing to do but relax. Or collect seashells. Or bury each other in the sand and take silly photos.
"Halcyon days," is a phrase from literature and music, denoting nostalgia and remembrance. Our granddaughter, when she was little, knew to go to her "happy place" when something frightened her. We were at a lively restaurant with animated animals displayed in the jungle scenery. When the elephant above our table trumpeted, she quickly retreated into her happy place, her eyes shut tight, humming a little song to herself. Then she cried and a kind waitress let us move to a table less populated with four legged creatures. For me, the beach is my happy place, a place where the tranquility and beauty soak into my soul, creating a sense of deep quiet.
When I realized, however, that the beach is really not a quiet place, I also realized that the sense of quiet can be achieved in the middle of a normal day's chaos. The noise of a normal household, the clashing personalities, the challenges of learning and growth, the demands of duty and responsibility all create wear and tear, like the waves pounding out their rhythm on the ever-changing sand. Even here, there is calm and beauty and peace and halcyon days.
We do not live near the beach anymore. I am learning that a state of quiet is from within - not a result of idyllic external circumstances. It is rooted in a tranquil heart. At any time I can choose to retreat to my quiet place, a place of trust and love and being loved and grace and being deeply grateful. There, always, there is quiet. My biggest surprise in understanding quiet is that it is not about stillness or quantity of words or volume of sound. There is an energy in quiet, like the ocean waves surging deep below the surface, powerful. And I still have much to learn about quiet.