One summer during college, I lived for a few weeks in an activists’ cooperative called “Watermargin.” It was a sprawling old house, artfully run-down, tucked into the edge of the woods. Nothing matched, the paint was peeling, and a healthy population of mice held court over the lower floors.
It was also home to an activist knitting circle, an in-house band, and any number of painters, poets and creative souls. Shared meals featured bounty from the local CSA, and there was always a guitar or two strumming away on the back porch. It was a generative, collaborative sort of place, and living there was perhaps my first exposure to the diversity and fecundity of “the margin.”
In the years since, I have come to appreciate more deeply the nebulous, nuanced nature of the fringe, of the edges of things. Take, for instance, the ecotone: that musical zone of transition where one habitat melts into another; where biodiversity is perhaps the richest; and where one’s perceived distance from a “center” allows for a marvelous loosening of civil, physical, social, self-imposed, and geopolitical strictures.
Coney’s island-breezes carry the memory of cotton candy and sea salt, fry grease and roller coaster brakes. It is a perfume at once cloying and pure, lazy and eager, holy and debauched.This stretch of beach and boardwalk, located at the southern end of the borough of Brooklyn and named for its once-resident wild rabbits, has long served as a playland and seaside resort for denizens of the city’s more densely-populated interior. In the early days of electricity, garish colored lights illuminated rides and hot dog stands at the nation’s first amusement parks: Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase. Throughout the early decades of the 20th century, Coney’s attractions and beaches offered tired city-dwellers a chance to doff the stifles of civilization through a hair-mussing ride on the parachute drops, or a mixed-gender swim in the surf.
I’m told that the Coney of old could be a seedy place, and that recent re-zoning has produced a more homogenized, plasticized version. Chain restaurants have crept in on family-owned burger joints, and mini-conglomerates have subsumed what were once individual ride operations. I never knew the old Coney. They tell me it was a tastier, crustier, far more sensuous place.
I came here today on a whim, honoring the urgency of a restless afternoon. It’s a hell of a subway ride from the top of Manhattan to the bottom of Brooklyn, and it is a cold, gusty, decidedly un-beachy sort of day. Still, as my D-train emerges from its tunnel and hurls me into the open air, I turn into the five-year-old, summertime version of myself, eager for the water and tempted by the rickety white structure of the Coney Island Cyclone. This is the sort of place that’s worth anticipating.
I exit the station and throw my body against the bracing wind. What naughtiness, I think to myself. I should be inside today–at least, I should have worn a heavier jacket. Seagulls hover and screech in apparent perturbation, incapable of either besting the wind, or surrendering to it.
I stumble East toward Brighton Beach and its Russian lunch-houses, keeping first to the boardwalk then craning toward the shore, pawing over shells with holes bored by mystical creatures. Grinning, weeping with the cold, I sink my hands into the raw ocean.
A fierce, intentional wind hurls foam from water’s edge; I remember winter and imagine a storm of sideways snow. Behind me, the food stands that had opened for lunch are now realizing their hubris and bolting down the shutters. The water scalds, then dulls. I feel nothing…and Everything. I am so … damn … ALIVE!
Rilke tells us to love the questions. Here, at ocean’s edge, I learn and re-learn the multiplicity, the paradox, the fleetingness of things. Here, I thank good God for the incomprehensibility of this human experience–for the twists and drops of fate that have landed me in the land I least expected. For the moments of grace that have helped me find beauty–even here.
In times like these, says On Being host Krista Tippett, the only honest place to live, to walk, is in the murky margins: the brackish bay, the inter-tidals, the river’s edge. There will be no easy solutions. And we must seek them, lovingly.