Who is this woman looking out toward the sea? She could be me, she could be someone you know—I won’t say it’s you, I don’t know you. She’s probably white, possibly gay, but prob- ably not. Able-bodied enough to climb down treacherous rocks to be near the water. She’s dealing with heartbreak or pending heartbreak; she either longs to be alone or is lonely. Nothing can stop her from this contemplation. This is why she looks to the sea: its vastness mirrors her inconsequence. Perhaps the sea re- minds her of the birth of the goddess of love, the one who maybe got her here to this beach in the first place. Aphro- dite was born when Cronus threw the balls of Uranus, her father the sky, into the sea. She rose from the subsequent foam. Love is borne from water, which extinguishes the metaphorical flames of lust. I Googled “why do people cry?” A prevailing theory from the seventeenth century posits strong emotions heat up

There are no long shots of Leda looking to the sea. The camera cuts to see what she sees, but we’re never looking over her shoulder—that is, until the ultimate scene, in which she rushes to the shoreline and collapses, probably dead.


the heart, which in response produces a vapor to cool itself down. This vapor then climbs upward through the body until it liquifies in the eyes and eventu- ally escapes from the ducts. Thus, when we are feeling the heat of strong emo- tions, we not only crave but produce water.

In The Lost Daughter, the main char- acter, Leda, travels to Greece to be alone and to translate Dante’s Inferno—the poem of hell, fire, that which both cre-

ates and extinguishes the waves. “New torments I behold, and new tormented

/ Around me, whichsoever way I move, / And whichsoever way I turn, and gaze.” Dante’s version of Virgil describes hell as the “blind world,” a layered realm populated by people who’ve submitted their spiritual pursuits to bodily appe- tites, among them greed, gluttony, and self-interest. Leda has succumbed to the ultimate bestial appetite: she’s left her two young daughters in pursuit of intel-

lect and solitude. She goes to the sea to escape this blind world, her loss of love for her daughters, perhaps for herself as a mother. She imagines solitude there, a life wherein a woman alone isn’t an abomination.

She comes to the beach to try to be alone, and what happens? Men tell her what to do, to use the AC, to move her umbrella, to eat an ice cream cone, and then, aghast, she’s surrounded by a fam- ily. She’s in the hell she’s translated for
























I’d swim from New York State To the Cornish coast of England I found a cave we can dive in

If only for the day If only for the day—

Tori Amos, Ocean to Ocean, “Swimming to New York State”




















herself. Says Dante in canto 30, “Falsi- fiers of Others’ Persons,” as translated by Longfellow: “Of ocean was the dolor- ous one aware, / Out of her senses like a dog she barked, / So much the anguish had her mind distorted.” Perhaps Nina, the object of Leda’s fascination, could be read as Virgil leading Leda to the layers of hell; Lyle, the innkeeper, is the Char- on who carries her there via boat; the doll Leda steals is Leda’s sacrifice. In the end she reveals her errors and Nina

stabs her in the gut with a hatpin, a sym- bol of a woman keeping her hat on her head and thus her humility. We never get to see Leda’s shot at the Divine Com- edy—an erasure of the intellectual work that she so aligns herself with. She was likely working on this canto: “This mis- erable mode / Maintain the melancholy souls of those / Who lived withouten in- famy or praise.”

Here I thought I was the only one who found the beach melancholy. I

grew up thinking the beach was a joyous place to spend the months that slide by like family postcards captured in a film montage, snapshots of beach trips, kids building sandcastles while the parents drink blended drinks under umbrellas. I’ve long associated summer with a luxury I could never afford—both the luxury of free time and the luxury of vacations, happy families, living care- free, a requisite youthfulness. Still, I like the contemplation granted by the long,









On the Beach at Night Alone takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem about existential inter- connectedness: “On the beach at night alone, / As the old mother sways her to and fro, singing her husky song, / As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes, and of the future.”



empty days of summers at the beach. I, too, want to look out at the mass and discover something. Little did I know the beach was a place where a woman could be alone.

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, main characters Marianne and Héloïse go to the rocky shores of an island in Brittany. They go to escape home, containment, Héloïse’s forced betrothal to some dude, to be alone together. When they first ar- rive, Héloïse sprints toward the cliff’s edge: “I’ve dreamt of this,” she says. “Dy- ing?” asks Marianne. “Running,” Héloïse says. The rest of the scene plays out in silence, the two women looking long- ingly toward the tempestuous waters until they turn to stare at one anoth- er, to find another sort of storm. That night, Marianne watches Héloïse across the bonfire (inferno); the next day, the two women walk again to the beach, where they share what has been build- ing up for weeks (and, for the audience, for one hour, nineteen minutes, and forty-something seconds): They each remove the gauzy scarf protecting the other’s mouth (from one another?) and smash their lips together in a cave, hid- den from whatever it was they were looking for in the waters, “until the sea above [them] closed again” (Dante).

Perhaps the most obvious example:

On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong

Sang-soo’s confessional film, in which he casts his real-life lover, Kim Min- hee, as Young-hee, a woman spurned by a man with whom she’s had an affair, the stand-in for the director. Young-hee travels from Seoul to Germany to recu- perate at the wintry beach—either the North Sea or the Baltic—with her friend. She goes to the beach, draws her lover’s name it the sand, wonders if he’s think- ing of her, then walks out onto the ice. She lives.

She returns to Korea and dines with her ex and his family. Things get heated. They admit they ruined one another’s lives. “Are you tormented?” Kim asks her weeping ex-lover. Women who go to the sea alone go there to escape men’s desires. The movie ends with Kim again lying down and looking at the sea. She’s woken up by a man: “You’ll get yourself in trouble.” And so what if she does? “I was dreaming,” she tells him. He ques- tions her: “Were you?” For chrissakes, just let the woman dream on the beach.


t the beginning of February 2022,

Tori Amos announced the tour for her sixteenth studio album, Ocean to Ocean. The tour refers to the trek from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but Amos wrote the album from the Brit- ish coast of the Atlantic looking toward the United States. Amos was inspired

by the sea outside her Cornwall estate, which is also the town where Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers, and which she visited while writing The Waves.1 Something about that British seaside elicits bile—ask any Brontë. Hard not to look at the ocean and think about the earth, your demise, its demise. Amos sings: “Ocean to ocean, tales of the sea

/ Tales deeply troubling / Stay with me until we / Unravel this fishing net.” Like a woman on an exodus to the sea, Amos describes the album as “a universal sto- ry of going to rock bottom and renewing yourself all over again.

I don’t know how to write about music, but I do know the album stirred my nostalgia: Amos’s album Under the Pink came out when I was ten years old, when I remember most acutely a longing to be alone with my thoughts. (To listen to “Cornflake Girl” I shut my- self, literally and metaphorically, in the closet, with a stack of books and my ra- dio.) Like most of Amos’s music, Ocean to Ocean blends spirituality and mythos and watery soprano vocals to contem- plate Big Issues, climate disaster and the current pandemic among them. Amos has chromesthesia, which means she

  1. Woolfalso took inspiration for Orlando from the Cornish coast: “Sometimes we can see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave.”



In researching this essay, I found few examples of Black women alone at the beach staring into the water.

Daughters of the Dust came to mind, but the Gullah women on the island aren’t alone. Once, Eula dances to the sea. One of the children asks her sister Viola, “What they got out there anyway, Viola” She responds, “Life, child. The beginning of a new life.”

I did find Aisha Sabatini Sloan writing her book-length essay, Borealis (Coffee House Press, 2021), alone from Kachemak Bay along the Homer Spit, Alaska: “I almost wrote, ‘I am the most interesting thing on this beach.’ This is not how I talk, but when there is no Black figure, what am I supposed to like looking at?”



can see music as color. When I listen to her voice, I see rolling waves of endless ocean. In an interview with The Guar- dian, Amos says,

I was grieving not playing live . . . There isn’t the spiritual ceremony of the collab- oration with a live audience. We’re talking about a voltage that I can’t achieve by myself   The closest thing was to go

to the ocean and feel when the tides are coming in and hitting those rocks. Yes, the sea can be calm and gentle, but when the gales are blowing, my goodness—now that’s voltage.

Daphne Du Maurier also lived in Cornwall, which is where she wrote her novels, including My Cousin Ra- chel, which was adapted into several movies, including one starring Rachel

Weisz. Rachel has arrived at this guy Phillip’s manor in Cornwall, by way of Italy. There’s a whole legal issue about who owns the estate, as Phillip’s cousin, Ambrose, is the true owner but forgot to leave it to his wife, Rachel, and it in- stead fell into Phillip’s possession. Rachel travels to Cornwall to debate the propri- etorship.She and Phillip start an affair; when he tries to put a label on it (mar- riage), Rachel denies him. At the end of the version with Rachel Weisz, Rachel rides her horse along the cliff’s edge to look at the seals in the sea and falls to her death, her body distorted on the beach. This looking on one’s own, this life of wanting something for one’s self, can’t sustain the weight of Rachel’s searching. It’s possible this essay says nothing

about women looking at the sea and it’s even more possible I prefer it that way.

How rare it is to see a woman staring at the beach alone. So rare, I can remem- ber easily the last time I saw her. She’s not looking to build a boat or to conquer; she’s reminded of something, of what is none of our business. We’re not even supposed to see her there. Says poet Brenda Shaughnessy, perhaps writing as an octopus: “At seaside I have that fa- miliar sense of being left out, too far to glean the secret: how go in? . . . I was a woman alone in the sea. / Don’t tell any-

body I tell myself.”2 D

  1. Brenda Shaughnessy, “Identity & Community (There is no ‘I’ ’in ‘Sea’),” The Octopus Museum, (Knopf, 2019)






Picture her there: at the beach, alive or dead, searching. It’s a well-spoken cliche: we know more about the universe than we do the bottom of the ocean. It’s dark down there. Strange earth creatures swim down there. The depths of our psyches swim down there, perhaps spring from there. To renew, we must get to the bottom somehow, so we stare it in the face. For a woman to do so, she’s living in that space of the intellect. No one is around to observe her body (not yet, at least) as she stares that vast unknowing down in an attempt to better see within. Again, Dante: “Weeping itself there does not let them weep, / And grief that finds a barrier in the eyes / Turns itself inward to increase the anguish.”


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