For a new sequence on The Clearing to celebrate the publication of The Long Field, the author Pamela Petro invited eight writers, poets and artists to contribute pieces exploring hiraeth and hwyl, Welsh ideas, but rooted deeply in us all. In this essay the young Welsh writer Kumari Tilakawardane finds hiraeth on a beach.
My dad grew up in a coastal city in a small island nation famous for its beaches. He never learned how to swim.
His mother – my archchi – was terrified that he would drown if he ever set foot in the ocean, so forbade him from ever taking any swimming lessons. It’s Sri Lankan logic, don’t worry about it. Despite missing the ability to navigate the water with any level of comfort, my dad moved from Sri Lanka to coastal Wales, via the port city of Liverpool and a short stay in famously landlocked Ireland.
So, either he has some sort of deep-seated death wish that he’s carried with him around the world for six decades, or he’s unconsciously drawn to the sea on some spiritual level. I presume it’s the latter, since I have something similar in me.
I grew up close to the sea, with a Welsh beach always within walking distance of my house. My high school was in a town named after a bay, and my friends and I spent plenty of post-lesson afternoons walking up and down the sand, stopping for the odd box of chips or seagull attack.
In reality, I don’t think it was the idyllic, postcard-perfect scene I conjure up in my head when I think about it. Rather than being soft and pristine, I suspect the sand was frequently studded with glinting Stella cans and jagged bits of plastic wrap that used to house petrol station sausage rolls. In my mind we were often rolling up our trousers to expose our shins to the sun; really, that probably wasn’t happening all that commonly (again – it was Wales).
However, I am absolutely certain that the seaside was conducive to the sort of dreamy, philosophical conversations you can’t help but have when you’re 15. The sand, the breeze, the chips – all good stuff. But it was always the rhythmic pull of the grey, unknowable waves that hypnotised me the most.
Standing on the sand, the tip of your shoe occasionally flirting with a stray wave, it’s impossible to even quantify this water in front of you. Now is probably a good time to mention that I don’t actually know the difference between a sea and an ocean. But it doesn’t matter; it’s a feeling. In my mind at least, the land stops at the beach, and then the sea just carries on before it indefinitely. It moves, constantly, as though it’s alive – but it’s just a stupidly big puddle of water.
I’m not someone who finds wonder and curiosity under the depths of the ocean (nor among the stars and milky ways above). I’m of the opinion that a) we’ve got enough mysteries and problems on the earth to solve, I think you’ll find, and b) have you seen some of the creatures that dwell hundreds of metres deep? Not for me, thanks. But the surface, and the concept, and the feeling the sea gives me? That stuff brings me a joy. A subtle, unobtrusive, guilt-free joy that can calm like nothing else.
Obviously, the sea is useful in lots of very real, tangible ways. It’s vital for transport and freight and salt and fishing and all kinds. Without the sea, we wouldn’t exist. Our ancestors travelled across the world on it, carried spices and resources on it. But the coast and all its ineffable romance is important to me for reasons that are far from practical.
Last year, I went through what critics are calling the world’s stupidest break-up. It was the most surrealist way to end a grotesquely long-term relationship, and I still get a little pang of perverse delight every time I get to tell someone the full story. It turned out a lot of really lovely things happened to me as a result (and my friends and family got chance to finally air their pent-up grievances and compose some eye-wateringly mean insults), but there were a few days in the summer where I was, for want of a better word, blindsided.
I took my dog down to the beach for a long walk one August evening, and suddenly it all just fit into place. There’s a long coastal path that stretches much farther than I could ever walk in either direction, and I just sort of ambled along that for a while, stopping to snap the occasional photo of the pinkish sky and aerated clouds that looked like bubble wrap. None of the photos came out anywhere near as beautiful as the real-life postcard in front of me, of course. You can’t capture those moments, because it’s more than just the way the light’s refracting in front of you; it’s the perfect storm of everything you and the world are feeling right at that moment.
I stepped off the path and picked my way across the uneven, rocky surface (ankles occasionally rolling just enough to remind me of my mortality). The sea began literally at my feet, and then washed out across the world. I stood there on the rocky beach, pup off happily sniffing in the background, and let my eyes skip over the waves like a shiny-sided stone. I’d been on that particular stretch dozens of times before, but I’d never actually consciously stood there and let it just happen in front of me.
The pendulum sway of the waves spreading across the sand became all I could hear. The faint hum of traffic in the distance, the squawking gulls overhead, the nonstop cacophony of my own stressed-out worries and razor-sharp doubts – all faded out to black. All that was left was the rattly, swooshing, brilliant noise of the water moving to and fro. It was at once the sound of a million tiny droplets crashing, and the sound of one huge, indivisible completeness.
I stood there for what could honestly have been 10 seconds or a full half-hour, occasionally scrunching my shoulders against the cold and just soaking up the empty fullness of the scene before me. There was nothing in front of me; no boats, no birds, no wind turbines. Just a line in the distance that showed where the sky began. Between me and the heavens was the sea, one long blanket of water that would stay exactly as it was no matter what went on around it.
Sure, sometimes it’s content and still. Sometimes it will be furious and changeable and irritated. Sometimes it will sweep all before it in absolute devastation, before shrinking back like it was never there. Have you ever heard anything more relatable?
In one of those serendipitous moments that for a second convince you of your own supernatural powers, on the drive to the setting of my revelatory walk I had listened to the hosts of a beloved podcast (Seek Treatment) discuss whether or not standing in front of the ocean made them feel small. So there I stood, unnecessarily close to this body of icily cold water, trying to picture myself to scale. Honestly, if you’re ever having a bit of an off body-image day, standing by the sea will do wonders.
I found that it’s not so much about whether you feel small next to the sea. You’re irrelevant, to the sea. The ocean doesn’t care one iota about you, or your body, your mind, your problems or your poorly thought-out grudges. The sea is part of something else. It’s sustaining, and life-affirming and also absolutely deadly and bone-chillingly cold. Honestly, goals. I feel tiny and also gigantic in front of the ocean – I’m just one molecule in a whole world of goings on, but I’m also important and vital and multitude-containing.
At first I thought about how there was possibly someone else experiencing the most half-hearted of existential crises on the other side – do they have existential crises in Greenland? But then I thought about how, actually, this sea and this beach and this sky and those clouds and that burning chill of wind? Just mine. No one else was experiencing this. No one else ever would.
There’s something at once joyful and heart-breaking about any coastal landscape. Take any given beach, and you can bet there have been some really beautiful moments there – picnics and proposals, long afternoons with the best books, post-Christmas dinner strolls and pre-sunburn tanning sessions. But there can also be no more melancholy setting for searching your soul and tending your gloom. The way the water passes relentlessly against itself, over itself, never getting anywhere. The occasional forlorn branch or cast aside shell bumping up against the sand pointlessly.
As I stood there that summer evening I felt myself lightening. Before, I’d been feeling a lot of what might politely be described as incandescent fury about having my life upturned in an entirely unwarranted and completely nonsensical way. It wasn’t so much a ball of anger lodged in my chest, it was more of a dodecahedron of emotion. I’d been intermittently snorting with laughter, welling up with anxiety and angrily narrowing my eyes like a cartoon stepmother for days.
But the beach isn’t the place for revenge plotting. No one comes to the coast to add toxicity to their life, and as I stood on that small, awkward corner of North Walian sand I found my eyes glazing over. I remembered some of the other seaside spots I’d stood on – rocky ones in the Galapagos, picturesque ones in Sri Lanka, crowded ones in Spain, blustery ones in Scotland. They all instilled a real, non-ironic, completely un-cool sense of joy in me. The kind of joy you can actually only get from nature. That unbridled, ungentrified happiness that swells in your chest when you see ducklings following their mother safely across four lanes of stopped traffic. Or when you pick up one of those ruby red apples that shine like mirrors or find a cartoonishly perfect dandelion to blow. The ocean, I realised, while being scary and bleak, was also soft and musical. It was magic.
I wasn’t looking for it, but I found hiraeth in the sea that day. The way the water came and went in one fluid moment. The way the sea has no edges; it doesn’t really begin anywhere, and it doesn’t end. You’ll never see the same wave twice – cast a wish on it now, and it’s gone out into the universe forever.
An inscrutable, indecipherable abstract mystery of a thing that in one endless, instant moment washed away my doubts and dissolved my dread. This hiraeth was a balm, a blurry remedy for razor-sharp ills. While some might consider that vague longing – an unanswerable question, a never-ending riddle, an untangled knot – to be painful, I’ve found it to be a relief. In the sea, and in hiraeth, I found the understanding and acceptance I’d been searching for.
Something about being there in the well-seasoned air with the breeze stinging your cheeks is invigorating. It’s restorative. It’s just you and the sea, and everything’s going to be alright.
Kumari Tilakawardane has an M.A. from King’s College, London, and spends her whole life writing, either as a content specialist, or working on everything from screenplays to a collection of essays about identity and belonging. Find out more on her website.
Photographs in this essay are by the author.
The Long Field by Pamela Petro is out now.