It is my birthday today. I am 43 years old. I wake up early this morning to walk along the white sands of the beach in Ogunquit, Maine. There is a field with lush, green grass along a river and a couple of rowboats perfectly placed as if waiting to be painted. I stand on the bridge and look out at the view and take a deep breath, appreciating the quiet beauty that surrounds me. Then I walk over the bridge to the beach that has just awoken. In an hour or two it will be swollen with lawn chairs, tourists, umbrellas and strollers. But this morning, at this hour, it is me, the seagulls and a few other early morning risers who grace its shore.
It is a perfect day. I feel something that is nice and unfamiliar. I think back to the days leading up to this one and a smile arises in my heart. I wonder if it is possible. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be happy inside.
It was 20 years ago that I lay on this very same beach. I was in physical therapy school and came to visit a classmate of mine who was visiting Maine with her family. She was my first non-Jewish friend and it was certainly unconventional that a nice, young, married girl from Cote St Luc would choose to drive down, alone, to spend the weekend with a French Canadian family.
But I needed a break. My mind was spinning at the time and filled with doubt and confusion. In the months leading up to the trip, I had been struggling with ambivalence about my way of life, my religion and my marriage. My father had been arrested that year and my ideas of family had fallen apart. The community that was my haven for so long became a hostile and silent judge and jury. There was no escape from the shame and disillusionment, only an occasional reprieve when I was in school.
I drove to Ogunquit to see Genevieve, the first friend who seemed to accept me as I was without any expectations. She was genuinely interested in the stories of my strict, orthodox upbringing and my customs that were unusual and a bit archaic in her opinion. Her family was warm and accepting and I was happy to be away from home for a change.
It was that weekend that things started to move from an internal shift to an outward show of dissidence. At 23, in this small town in Maine, I bought my first pair of jeans. I ate lobster for the first time. And I smoked my first joint on the beach with a new friend that would turn out to be a lifelong one.
We still laugh about that weekend. How awkward I was wearing pants for the first time in 23 years, and how I didn’t know how to inhale. And now, 20 years later I find myself, fortuitously, in the same place where things began to change for me, except this time it is very different.
This time, I am a woman and not a scared little girl. This time, I know what it feels like to trust my heart and to listen to it. This time, I feel full and peaceful inside.
I am crying a little bit. My tears are not sad ones though. They feel more like a release. Like I can allow the pain of years gone by to wash through me and acknowledge all the hard work I have done to get here. It has been a bumpy road, laden with evenings filled with guilt, loneliness and sadness. But also a road that has led me back home.
Somehow my mind wanders to a phrase that my Yoga teacher had inscribed in my copy of his book years ago, along with his signature. It reads, “Dearest Rachel. Know that your soul’s love for you is the only love you will ever, ever need. Affectionately, Aadil.”
I think I get it now.