What You Might Find

What you might see online is a photograph from the Oregon Coast. Three large sea stacks jutting out of a turbulent ocean below a vast blue sky or set off by a sunset. You might think, How lucky! You might envy me. But it’s been four days since I’ve talked to anyone I know, nine since I’ve seen a friend in person, and two since I’ve spoken to another human at all. No one knows where I am or where to find me. No one is looking.

This stretch of coast, 80 miles from Portland, is my beachcombing dream, and I’ve traveled here to search for rocks. I’ve rented a hillside cottage above the beach that affords a partial ocean view and a quiet place to rest between rockhounding sessions, and I came armed with a Friday night jigsaw puzzle, Saturday night novel, quick meals, and a favorite treat for dessert. In the car I’ve packed bright green wellies, a geode pick I probably won’t use, and the special bags I reserve for collecting rocks.

In the before times—before the pandemic, estrangement, and deaths, before grief and isolation took over—my husband and I used to drive our dog here for day trips. Dog ran free and dipped her skinny legs into the ocean, stalking waves or letting the water chase her. Husband sat on drier ground and watched the world pass. I rolled up my pant legs and waded the tide in search of treasure.

Oceanside in winter feels like one dopamine hit after another, an amazing natural Easter egg hunt. The beach stretches for miles to the south, though at low tide you might choose to head north through a narrow headlands passage toward the aptly named tunnel beach. Wherever you choose to look, the key is to find a gravel bed, most commonly exposed by winter storms, and scan the dark rocks for standouts in color and texture until you spot milky white agates, deep orange carnelian, or colorful jaspers in browns, red, and green. When you hit the right spot, you’ll rarely step one foot without spotting an agate or five, no matter how many people are looking too. I walk along repeating my mantra, where there’s one there’s many, and singing a made-up song to remind me to pay attention—don’t turn your back on the ocean, don’t turn your back to the sea.

All over the earth, geology flaunts itself if you know how to look. But Oregon makes it easy. Evidence of its messy volcanic past is everywhere, from towering headlands of sharp-edged columnar basalt to rounded pillow basalt shaped by lava oozing through the ocean floor and cooled by surrounding water. I want to understand the science of it all, but it feels like magic no matter how much I study. It’s enough to know that Oceanside’s sea stacks rose out of the water around 14 million years ago. The agates I’m here to find are probably older than that. I can’t tell you definitively how they formed, because even geologists argue about it. The best explanation I’ve read says that minerals such as silica filled vesicles in other rocks and then crystallized under steady low pressure. Eventually the surrounding rock eroded, leaving the agate behind.

Beach rocks have no real monetary value, but I love them anyway. I stack pebble-sized agates in glass bottles around the house. Larger ones get displayed in bowls. The rocks remain unpolished (I don’t own a tumbler), except for a few that received a shine directly from the beach. Often I find agates in process, still stuck inside their host rock, and carry them home because I like their becoming. Agates or jaspers float around my backpack and car and more are scattered across my office, bathroom, and kitchen windowsill. I never tire of looking at them or for them.

On days when isolation consumes me, I might pull out a rock to examine or an entire dish to sort through. Though I’ve grown accustomed to being alone 24/7, I still hate it. Involuntary solitude feels like punishment, but it’s hard to discuss without sounding pathetic or causing a cringe. People fear loneliness is catching, I think, and don’t want it to happen to them. When I do see friends or acquaintances, mostly via computer, we talk about the pandemic at least part of the time. Some of us feel punch drunk. We can’t envision our futures. We’re the ones who lost mothers or jobs or who have health problems that keep us isolated while we watch the world dine out, fly, or fight for no indoor masks. We feel in survival mode and then start counting backwards to realize we’ve been here a long time, even before the pandemic, each year harder than the last and the 2020s a long, unyielding tunnel.

Sometimes I find myself measuring intervals. How long since my mother died, when I last used my voice, how many days till I’ll next interact. My husband is lonely, too, a neighborhood away in his own apartment, but he won’t spend time with me. He’s meeting people online and ready to move on from three decades together. I read about an Italian woman who died two years ago but was just found at home, mummified, seated in a chair. If I died inside my house, I estimate it would take four to six days for someone to notice, longer on a week when I have no appointments or work deadlines. Human time and geologic time vary so drastically they’re impossible to compare. Somehow, though, knowing the ground beneath our feet moves in constant super slow motion, shifting maybe four inches a year, comforts me. It’s a good reminder of our smallness, how one human’s lifespan marks a blip in time.

But in the human realm I still want more. I can’t help it. I read and search online, trying to find a common denominator for all the lonely, isolated people in the world. Trauma? Personality? ADHD? Bad luck? If I can fit the pieces together, maybe I can find my way out. It’s not that I have nobody, and I know I’m not alone in my aloneness. In ten houses on my street, four of us live solo. People smarter than me have dedicated their lives to this research; some are working on an anti-loneliness pill. But there’s only so much a person can do to save themselves. The ultimate cure requires other humans’ presence. Without inner circle people there’s no mirror, no sounding board, no reciprocation of shared pain or joy.

Combing the beach gives me a break. Waves rolling up on shore don’t drown my thoughts but keep them company, and intense focus on the rocks feels meditative. Overnight high tide will wipe clean where I now stand. What’s here today might be here tomorrow but pushed farther up on shore or rearranged in a way that makes it new. The beach remains a beach but who knows where an individual rock or grain of sand will land? The overwhelming temporariness of everything seems right. One day even the sea stacks will crumble or get subsumed into the next big continent. If humans are here when that happens, I hope some lucky person finds a perfect, billion-year-old rock to carry with them and show off to a favorite companion.

 

— By Amy Souza, 2022

One Response to “What You Might Find”

  1. Judi Says:

    Amy, this is intense. It tugs at my heart. 💕💕💕

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