Emily Dickinson tells us hope is the thing with feathers… and although I’ve been an English teacher for over 20 years, I never gave much thought to that quote before. However, it’s been running through my head this entire weekend. You see, as our state begins to re-open, I took a ride to the Jersey shore. That’s right, I went not “to the beach” but as we from NJ say proudly, “down the shore.” Now I did not venture into the ocean yet- not because of social distancing, but because it’s just too chilly for me, but on Friday evening, I took a walk on the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
Now, I’ve been walking those boards since I could walk; I remember the old Log Flume and when the Beachcomber was built out over the sand, and the roller coaster that’s now iconic, due to the haunting image of it in the sea after Hurricane Sandy. I’ve had Midway fries since I had teeth and gotten sick after eating a candy apple and going on the Tilt- A Whirl…the list is endless. However, never in almost 43 years would I describe Seaside Heights as “paradise” or a “haven”. Fun, sure! Exciting, you bet! A little wild, depending on whether you ventured into Bamboo or one of the many other nightclubs just off the boards…absolutely! But a thing of pure beauty—no even my poetic soul never saw it that way.
Until Friday night…and perhaps that change has little to do with where I was and more to do with the fact that I was somewhere. I have a feeling, people all over NJ and all over the United States are experiencing or soon will be experiencing the same emotions as I was. Play a wheel of chance? Sure- step right up; never mind that I’ve thrown out bags of boardwalk prizes in the past almost 9 years. Ice cream before dinner? Of course you can have it- sprinkle or no sprinkles? Fudge, taffy, a quick peek at the rides- not yet open but with a promising sign saying “opening soon”…well it’s enough to make anyone’s heart flutter.
Paradise, I think , for many of us is just that tangible place we venture when we want to feel hope and joy. What makes a place paradise is how it makes us feel inside. What I saw on Friday was beautiful- I saw people smiling at each other, saying excuse me, casually exchanging words like “beautiful sunset” and “so nice to be out” as they stood six feet apart in lines waiting for a snack, a drink, or a chance to play a game. I heard children’s laughter- not just the sweet laugh of one child in her house, but echoing, ringing laugher that seemed to come from everywhere all at once. I saw grandparents holding tiny hands and I would swear I saw tears on some of their cheeks-just to be able to hold that tiny hand in theirs had to be paradise for them. I myself could not stop smiling, could not stop planting kisses on my child’s cheek as she laughed and ran up and down the boardwalk, and what’s more, I could not stop noticing that everyone around us was happy, content, and just full of joy to be outside.
Reopening has to happen slowly, I agree with that wholeheartedly. Precautions have to be taken, and regulations have to be set in place. We cannot, as a state, as a country, as the human race just skyrocket back to the way we were before and forget our lockdown as if it was a bad dream we thankfully awoke from. We have to remember and be careful, lest we wind up repeating it in the not too distant future. We have to remember it for other reasons as well- those intangible reasons that don’t have as much to do with physical health and safety as they do with our state of mind and how, now more than ever, it can encourage us all to be better, more grateful, and more appreciative people.
I didn’t know Seaside brought me so much joy until I was home in my living room for almost 100 days. Each of you, each of us, now gets to experience a series of “firsts” over and over again- and that’s a gift we’ve earned after all our weeks at home, and that’s a gift we should treasure. First hug between grandpa and grandson. First meal at a restaurant. First time seeing friends. First time back on a swing, on a golf course, in a hair salon…and most joyful for me, the first time I’m able to step into Our Lady of Mercy Church and attend mass…well, I think for a while it will feel a little bit like Christmas morning every time we gain back one of those things we used to do with no thought to it.
It seems, now, as if we’ve done a good job of weathering the storm; we can see the rainbow on the other side. We can have hope once again. We can feel joy once again. What we have to remember to try to do- as we move forward is to retain that happiness, to let our best selves shine through, to be kind and welcoming to others at all times, and of course to take moments to pray for those we lost—
Let us not ever once forget them for a moment, as they cannot be here today to celebrate the joy we will all feel as we slowly but surely reopen our world.