“Ring of Bright Water” is Gavin Maxwell’s account of his life with an otter on the lonesome, wild northwest coast of Scotland

Maxwell and Mij, the otter, move into a broken-down thatch-roof cottage. What’s washed up on the shore by the tides is adapted for repairs. One item is an intact, sturdy ladder to reach the roof.

A true story, it captures the peculiar delight when what’s needed comes right into your hands with the tide.

Over many years, on Gloucester beaches, I collected tiny jewels of sea glass and pottery shards by the boxful.

In my imagination, these bits might merge into a plate, a cup, a bowl. Each piece bears hints of wild tales of shipwrecks, dashed dreams, lost love, all stories gone and consumed by the unyielding deeps.

I’d walked beaches with my dogs twice a day, almost every day, for 11 years. The dogs, unfettered, ran with joy. And just so, was I unfettered from tangled bonds of troubles, great and small, and at last yield to imagination’s demands for release.

In our own time, worlds of uncertainty, tragedy, grief, fear and isolation, worlds great and small, could use a pause for a hefty dose of wild imagination.

You find yourself theorizing wildly on why certain bits of glass, stones and shards appear in certain shapes on particular beaches. Some beaches yield particular shapes -- at Cressy’s, rounded, at Brace Cove, heart-shaped.

Part of my beach meditation is an occasional little ping of annoyance. Why am I picking up MORE of this stuff?

Hey! Meditation isn’t supposed to be annoying -- or is it?

Are there other things I do in my life that have become mindless? repetitive? useless habits? How mindful am I about what I’m doing with my life?

Beach-combing can bring out the compulsive in me.

I went through a period of a about a year, obsessed with having a big supply of tennis balls on hand for my dogs.

When I got them, I hoarded them -- and I wouldn’t buy them. I tried that and the dogs turned up their noses -- something wrong with that pristine scent.

No, they want seasoned tennis balls. So every day for more days than I like to admit, I scoured the beaches and the tangled scrubby vegetation and the crevices of rock walls for tennis balls. My dog Peach got with the program and became quite the hunter. Once she found some other dog’s cache of tennis balls -- three of them -- in the rotted out center of a piling under the bridge at Good Harbor Beach.

In my zeal to have plenty of tennis balls around I got cranky with my dogs when they took the balls from the car and then forgot to bring them back.

Then I realized that Peach would retrieve her tennis ball on our next trip to the beach from the place she had stashed it in the tall grass. She knew exactly what she was doing. And if, perchance, another dog came along and plundered her stash? Well, there would be other tennis balls, in other places, to find or not. A dog’s wisdom and pure faith. I felt curiously freed, as well, to take ever fewer treasures from the shore, understanding that their numbers weren’t infinite.

If you use your imagination, you will find everything you need at the beach.

One morning I found a boiled lobster, a lemon, and a bottle of beer. Breakfast? No – a really bad idea.

I found one fancy sandal -- the kind with little rubber doobies that massage your feet. It fit me perfectly.

This was at Brace Cove. I searched the beach for the mate in vain. I carried that single shoe in the trunk of my car for months, hoping its mate would turn up.

I have a big collection of caps from the beach. An L.L. Bean warmup jacket, at least four beach towels, and a pair of green shorts.

Once I found a Barbie doll head. Its hair was a wild blond corona interwoven with dried black seaweed.

So I found a stick and made a Barbie totem. Really, she looked like a blond super model -- her makeup was perfect -- a super model who’d undergone a pagan conversion experience to become a fierce primitive goddess.

I carried that in my trunk for months, too.

Many of us have loved Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “A Gift from the Sea.” It’s a meditation on the amazing shells that have made Sanibel Island famous.

Each chapter is a meditation on a particular shell.

Now, Sanibel is heavily freighted and restricted by marinas, high-rise up-scale condos, hotels and resorts. Lindbergh would no longer recognize it as that wild, windswept place that so inspired her imagination.

Up here in the north you can still get to the beach. And though what the beach yields may not be the purity of the moon shell, or the ribbed whelk, sojourns there can fire up the imagination. We all can keep bit of wild imagination in the privacy of our souls.

The Rev. Wendy Fitting is minister emeritus of the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church. The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.




These summer nights lend themselves to gratitude, the breeze riffling the curtains. The last voices of the street fading in the twilight. In the cold months, when the light grows less, and times can be hard.

What did I find on the beach in summer?

What did I find in my life, when I wasn’t even looking?


That person on retreat at Gonzaga, who passes me silently at Brace Cove is probably meditating about Jesus. She pays no attention to my weird totem. There’s no way she’d guess or care that I’m constructing a religion around Barbie.


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