Beaches and Books by Esther Nelson

Even though I’ve traveled and lived throughout much of the world, I’ve never thought of any one place or geographic location as home.  I have always felt a little envious of people who claim to have a strong, visceral connection to a particular house, garden, village, landscape, or city in a specific, geographic area.

We often use the word home to indicate a space where we feel accepted, safe, nurtured, loved, and at peace.  Although I’ve never sunk deep roots anywhere I’ve lived—or even visited—I feel most grounded when standing on a sandy beach anywhere in the world, overlooking an expansive view of the ocean.  Perhaps the cowboys in American folklore and legend felt “home, home on the range where the deer and the antelope play,” but I don’t.  I am much more at ease with home, home on the beach where the wind swirls the water and sand.

I often hear the beach calling me.  Sometimes I listen and allow myself to fall under her spell and into her fluid embrace.

I so easily identify with one of the narrators in Jenny Han’s YA (Young Adult) novel, It’s Not Summer Without You, when she says, “Nothing, nothing felt better than the way sand felt beneath my feet.  It was both solid and shifting, constant and ever-changing.”  This aptly describes my experience of being in the world—fixed, yet always in flux.

I spend most of my time these days in Virginia.  Even though Virginia Beach (pictured in this photo) is only a two-hour drive from my house, more beautiful beaches are on display farther south into North Carolina along the Outer Banks.  The most inviting beach, in my opinion, is Ocracoke Beach on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, the southernmost tip of the string of barrier islands that stretch for 130 miles.

There is a free, one-hour ferry ride (you drive your car onto the ferry) from Hatteras (where the road stops) to Ocracoke Island.  The island has a small village named Ocracoke—a place where tourists flock, especially during the summer months.  It’s easy to feel claustrophobic there.  The beach though, a short drive from the village, is a different story.  Only wide expanses of sand and water.  No high rise buildings dot the beach periphery—just sand dunes.

On a recent visit to Ocracoke Beach (June 2019), I snapped this photo:

These young people had been frolicking in the surf for an hour or so before emerging from the sea to sit together at the water’s edge.  Five of them began reading a book.  I was both moved and impressed.  Had I been bolder, I would have asked each one of them what they were reading.

One of my colleagues has been teaching college students for over fifty years.  Recently he wrote: “I’m teaching the grandchildren of my earlier students…and they are more difficult, more mysterious, more distracted, and often more turned off on life than their parents and parents’ parents….I find young folks born this new century checking their cell phones all day…sleeping through very expensive classes they have ransomed their futures to take, and fail, or almost fail, regardless of what grade they may be given….I meet students who are…already disappointed by life, worried about their future, disinterested in learning, bored, puzzled, sleepy.”

The young people in this photo don’t seem to fit my colleague’s description of college-aged students.  The fact that I thought it important to record their image in the act of reading, though, gives credence to my colleague’s words.  Is this a rare scene?  Perhaps.

I recently read David Chariandy’s book, I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter.  Chariandy is a son of Black and South Asian migrants from Trinidad.  He teaches in the department of English at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.  This book is his attempt to explain structural racism to his daughter while exploring his own identity growing up as a minority in Canada, a place where his humanity was not automatically taken for granted.

I applaud Chariandy’s emphasis throughout his short book on the vital importance of studying the Humanities.  He writes:  “It was only through my university classes that I was exposed to new worlds.  I discovered the open magic of literature, the rewards of reading beyond borders and cultures, beyond identity and race, beyond any idea of who you are [and] what you are meant to be.”

I like to think the young people in my photo are reading beyond any idea of who they are or are meant to be, making their way towards home.

I used to think I would eventually find THE geographical spot that welcomed me home.  I don’t believe home exists in that sense.  I’ve found a variety of welcoming places and landscapes, but attempting to anchor myself to any one of them inevitably falls flat.

In a way, we never, ever arrive home.  There is no home out there to arrive at.  In addition, nothing (including ideas of home) is permanent.  Things, by their very nature, are fluid and perpetually in transition–mutable.  The solid, shifting, constant, and ever-changing sand Jenny Han refers to in her novel is an apt metaphor.  David Chariandy’s discovery of going beyond the ideas of ourselves through the magic of literature allows us to see ourselves through a variety of perspectives and understand home as a place of possibilities we are continuously moving towards.

One of the characters in Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple, says:  “…have you ever found God in church? I never did….Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me.  And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.”

Looking for home in a specific place is like looking for God in church.  Not there.  Home is within us—something we share wherever we happen to be on the planet.

Beaches and books help move us along our journey.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

10 thoughts on “Beaches and Books by Esther Nelson”

  1. Beaches and Books are one of my favorite combos. And I am a staff person at a University. While the Millennials and Z-ers are different than my and other generations, I do not find them hopeless. Each generation faces a different world than the previous. Changes are happening rapidly on a global scale. This is daunting, but I have faith in the young people I know. The kids are alright.


  2. I recently spent some time on the coast of Maine, at a difficult time. One of my dogs has been diagnosed with a chronic disease that will shorten her life and leaves me on the edge of fear of yet another loss… Staring out to sea I could feel that visceral pull -as the words rose unbidden ” I am envisioning eternity”… whatever that means…
    As a former college instructor I too find the young people turning off in ways that are dis-orienting when I think back to my own fiery engaged idealism as a young woman…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. While my sense of the numinous comes in the mountains (especially the Rockies), I have been to Ocracoke many times, and understand the draw. I was there once early in the spring, before the hordes of tourists, and fell asleep in the sun on the boardwalk leading to the lighthouse. It was one of the most peaceful sleeps I’ve ever had!


  4. Even though I’ve been to rituals on several beaches here in Southern California and I live about five blocks from the Pacific Ocean, I don’t go to the beach anymore. It’s dirty and noisy around here. But I used to go to an outcropping of rocks near Laguna Beach and sit and sit and sit. I guess that was meditation above the beach. I don’t like to get the outdoors on me, but I know that people have lots of favorite places (woods, parks, hiking trails in the mountains as well as beaches) to find refreshment of the soul. Hooray for them.

    I also read a lot. I’ve just finished rereading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series, four thick books. Like practically everyone in this FAR community, I find reading nourishing. Thanks for your post today.

    And with the heatwave coming, I hope you all stay safe and cool. Cool blessings!


  5. What a beautiful, moving post, Esther! Love the photograph. I grew up and still live in the Hudson River Valley but I get homesick for the ocean (deliberate use of the word home). I like beaches and rocky coasts.

    Reading is almost like breathing for some of us. My children aren’t young enough (30s) to represent the current college generation. I am happy that they are readers. And so happy to see the young people on the beach with their books.


  6. Thanks, Esther, for your meditation here on “beaches and books.” I enjoyed that picture of people reading on the beach. Also so right on where you say: “looking for home in a specific place is like looking for God in church. Not there.”

    Yes, but is there a divine presence within us — we could call it our conscience. It happens sometimes, we start out to do something, and that we didn’t think through, and then suddenly our conscience says — “NO, NO, NO, that’s not right.” So we stop short, think it through, and if need be, turn things around, etc.


  7. Sarah, Sara, Lee, Barbara, Elizabeth, Fran, Thank you for commenting. I apologize for the group message, but just got home from the hospital today and am feeling a little strained and under the weather. Surgery went fine. The recovery process has been arduous so far. Am hoping for some clear sailing going forward.


  8. Esther, you said — “The recovery process has been arduous so far. Am hoping for some clear sailing going forward.”

    YES!! — You are in my heart, you are in all our hearts here at FAR. You will heal more and more everyday. LOVE makes the world go round, and our love for you, will help you recover more and more everyday, I am sure.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I began to see your title, Esther, as if somehow books are beaches, and that might work sort of, meaning we are exploring some idea that is wide open to lots of variation within its meaning.


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