On the Emotions of Erecting Walls

beach fenceNo matter how beautiful the weather, no matter the sweet endorphins that kick in, no matter the jaunty music coming from my iPod, there is only one word to describe my recent walks along the oceanfront promenade in Lavallette, New Jersey:

Sad.

One foot in front of the other, it’s like walking through someone’s broken heart.

With dunes taller than me (I’m 5-foot-4) piled along the entire length of the 24-block walkway, there is no ocean view as you stroll. The sound of the waves hitting the shore is tantalizingly close. The Atlantic Ocean, the very reason this community and so many others have been built, is on the other side of a manmade barrier constructed to keep it at bay.

Sad.

We have that raging bitch Sandy to thank for this manifestation of a town gripped in fear. It’s not the only town. This conversation about dunes has been happening in communities up and down the Jersey coast. There is overwhelming evidence that dune-protected towns fare better in storms. Still, there are holdouts – they own a home by the ocean and want to enjoy all aspects of that ocean.

I’m a renter. My stake in this is tied to nostalgia and four decades of memories renting in Lavallette with my family. I don’t own there. I get why that means I should get little say in the matter. But I’m not chiming in with an ‘official’ stance here. This is about a feeling, a strong one that has been sitting with me since I returned to my ‘real’ life in Hoboken a few days ago and I simply must express it.

When Super Storm Sandy hit in 2012, I was devastated to see what it did to so much of my town. My home was blessedly spared, the advantage of living on high ground. But once power was restored a week or so later and I saw on television and on the Internet the destruction to my beloved Jersey Shore, I was distraught. High school years spent winning record albums at the Seaside boardwalk that was now ruined flashed through my mind. When I got to ride through Ortley and Lavallette months after the storm, I was shattered by the sights of houses off their foundations.

I take none of this lightly. And I’m not even suggesting the dunes shouldn’t be there.

But oh, the feelings they evoke … like hanging out with the lover who’s been wronged and is determined to never let anyone in again. Walls are not just made of sand or cement or physical materials. They’re emotional, so steadfast in their steeliness.

Each day of my nine-day vacation in Lavallette, as I took my morning walk, I was acutely aware of being deprived of the view behind those dunes. It didn’t feel as sad to me last year. Maybe it was a stronger feeling for me this year because the news is so much about people wanting to erect walls. Barriers are a hot topic, especially if you’re running for President. Show ‘em you can keep out those they perceive as undesirables and you’ll capture a nice-sized portion of the vote.

When is it protection and when is it fear of the unknown? What a fine line.

What else are we keeping at bay when we erect walls? The broken heart metaphor keeps coming up for me, over and over. The wall staves off the hurt, but it also puts up a barrier to love and real, raw emotion.

Is this simply an extension of how we choose to live? In the ‘safe’ zone vs. open to whatever life brings? Interesting where our boundaries lie. Different for everyone. Willing to risk this, but not that.

Word is that the dunes in Lavallette will be built up even higher by next year. Entry to the beach will go up and over them. Gorgeous multi-million dollar homes whose ocean views have already been compromised will now face taller mounds of sand instead of a raging, foamy sea.

Sigh.

I understand the hurt, the loss, the fear. I get the pragmatic aspect, the financial aspect. I do.  I even understand those who have decided post-Sandy that oceanfront living just isn’t worth the risk for them. It’s too hard now. The majority of those who have stayed have decided it’s OK to do so, as long as the dunes are there as an insurance policy. A barrier on a barrier island.

It’s clear to me why.

But it doesn’t make it any less sad.

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