These are strange days. The rain has been endless, the news has been relentless, and the children have been so sick. Fevers and sniffles and that croaking cough that haunts our sleep. I spent all of last Wednesday night in the octopus-like grip of Babygirl as she hacked her way restlessly through the long, dark hours, the humidifier bubbling steam into the bottom bunk. I awoke after intermittent rest with a stiff neck and a child no closer to being healthy. We have been housebound, all of us together in this apartment high above the city, for what feels like weeks. I am grateful for our closeness. I am holding tight to my optimism of a few weeks ago. But a break would be great. I’m just saying.
When I was growing up, my mother’s best friend, our across-the-street neighbor, was a vibrant, chatty woman who hailed from Liverpool. One of nine children, she came to San Francisco with her brother and sister in the ’60s, and shortly thereafter met her husband, a third-generation San Francisco native. When we arrived on Third Avenue in the early ’80s, they owned the Tudor-style flats across the street. We could see into their living room from my parents’ garret bedroom. She and my mom hit it off instantly, and though they were older than my parents by ten or more years and never had children, they became family.
In 1996, my first year of college, “Auntie” began missing her sisters and brothers back home, and she and her husband sold the flats and made the monumental move to their cozy, detached house with charming English garden in her hometown of Crosby. And this is how it comes to pass that Liverpool and its suburbs and I have become somewhat well-acquainted over the years, as my family has made our occasional pilgrimages to see our Auntie.
My mom and I made such a journey last April, in the wake of illnesses on both sides of The Pond: a whirlwind trip through our old stomping grounds in London, where my husband and I lived in the mid-Aughts, and on by train up to the northern reaches of the country. We elected to stay in a breezy bed-and-breakfast on Crosby Beach with views of the Mersey Estuary and the vast Atlantic beyond. My mom threw open the window to the salty air and rested, but I was itching for exercise after the previous day’s train travel, so I pulled on my anorak and took off along the sea-soaked promenade that runs the length of the beach.
In the beginning, I didn’t understand what I was seeing.
One figure, and then another on the beach below. Both standing stock-still, staring fixedly out to sea, shadowy and indistinct in the misty morning light. I squinted and then there were more, some knee-deep in the low tide and others appearing to be half-buried in sand.
Without even noticing it, I had stopped walking. I was holding my breath, trying to respect the silence of the scene and trying to understand. Was it a meditation? A mass suicide? I looked around me; I was otherwise alone, of course, on a windswept coast in the north Atlantic on a rainy morning in April.
Slowly I realized these were not people at all. I began to walk quickly again, my eyes glued to the beach, unable to count them: the entirety of the beachfront dotted with life-sized, cast-iron men. I walked and walked, I breathed in the salty air.
I took stock of these faceless figures staring at the infinite sea, infinitely.
I thought about my mother, herself recovering from a long illness, traveling with her daughter across a continent and an ocean to make an old friend happy.
I thought about geography and connectivity, about how time and distance change our relationships. About how some people think nothing of travel, while others must plan for months and years to take a single journey.
I thought about my children, asleep some 5100 miles away: in nearly eight years this was the longest I’d ever been away from them and surely the farthest I’d traveled from them, and it scared me how okay it was. To know that this was possible. To separate like this.
I thought about Art, and how, when I struck out from our hotel I never expected to be startled and provoked, but here I was, confronting the utterly unexpected in the least likely of places.
I thought about how extraordinary, how liberating it was to be here on this continental edge, alone!
I thought about how it terrified me.
How unlike my life it was.
I think about that day all the time. How that walk changed me somehow, alerted me to how fortunate I am: to have these opportunities to be utterly shaken and surprised. There is the routine, to be sure, but there is also so much more.
And I remember that feeling, of being alone with the wind and the statues on the sand, and how — for as many times as I’ve greedily yearned for solitude in the past several years — it discomfited me so completely. How I missed my babies with an ache that morning, until I jogged back the length of the beach, towards warmth and coffee and the BBC on the TV and my mom laughing while the sea breeze gently blew through the open window.
Another Place by Antony Gormley is a permanent installation on Crosby Beach, consisting of 100 cast-iron molds of Gormley’s own body, occupying a three-kilometer stretch of beachfront.