Sea Library: Coast as Muse

I was honored and happy to be invited to participate in Coastal Connections’ seminar Coast as Muse on February 3. The wonderful seminar series is organized by the University of Portsmouth. The Zoom event was recorded and here it is available on Youtube, but here is also my presentation as an essay.

I am Anna from Latvia. I live with my family in the coastal city of Jūrmala. The city is built on a dune by the Baltic Sea and I have opened a Sea Library here.

How did it all start? I blame the sea. It put a spell on me. Ever since I started to live here it made me curious. What will it look like tomorrow? I kept coming back. I noticed other water-gazers doing the same. Arriving at the beach, standing where the land runs out and looking at the big blue sea. “But look! here come more crowds,” writes Herman Melville in “Moby-Dick”, “pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; … They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand…”

I’ve noticed in many books the eyes of those who are looking out to sea. Those eyes often are in the colour of the sea itself. Has sea affected them? Do we become changed by the sea? I love to imagine a long and timeless beach where all the sea lovers from books and stories stand and gaze at the horizon. Here’s young Stephen from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” crashing with his boots “crackling wrack and shells”. There’s Moomin family collecting white shells for mum’s garden, and there’s Hemingway’s old man Santiago pushing his boat into the dawn. It’s forbidden to look straight at the sun. It’s said you can become mad by looking at a full moon for too long. But what about the sea? What happens if we are looking at it too often?

There’s a magnetic pull, appearing in many books. Sea is the cradle of life. Many of us feel at home when close to it. We feel better. I do. It’s said that only in Romanticism did people start to look at the sea itself. To appreciate the beauty of it. Soon the sea became something healthy too. As Jonathan Raban writes in the introduction of “The Oxford Book of the Sea”, “Just as sea was being recognized as sublime, so it was beginning to be seen as healthful.” Sublime sea merges with the therapeutic sea. The seaside holiday drastically changed the way in which the sea was conventionally viewed, writes Raban. Working-class fishermen’s beaches became pastoral places. It’s how my city was born too. On mud SPAS, sea-bathing and the development of trains. On feeling better when by the sea.

For a short while, I earned money for new books by writing guides about Jūrmala for tourists. I wrote about sea air for lungs, aromatherapy of pines, many benefits of walking barefoot on sugarlike sand. And yet in books, there’s so much more. The longer I live here and the more I read, I start to silently believe in sea gods. There’s something sacred about the wild sea. It’s beauty. It’s power. In the ancient Greek epics, Outsider Achilles went to the beach to cry his anger out. In the culture of Oceania beach is a sacred place for inner transformation. Because the beach itself is transforming. A marginal place, ar Rachel Carson says. “Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less,” she writes. “Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.”

Beach is a place for surprises. “Everything you find looks ancient and mysterious,” writes Tim Winton. “Things brought home from the sea and its margins become emblems, talismans to the beachcomber.” A coast is a place for a chance, for the unexpected. You never know what the sea will look like today as you never know what you might lose – or maybe find. You stuff your pockets full of smooth black pebbles, driftwood dragons, sea glass, feathers, and shells ­– souvenirs from your own seaside travel and it’s time to go home.

Being away from the sea is also a part of sea literature. It’s this push and pull of our own inner tides. Longing for the sea. I can’t stay here forever is a phrase I sigh to gulls and crows when I have to leave the beach. As Derek Walcott wrote, “When he left the beach, the sea was still going on.” In magnificent books by Philip Hoare, there’s this restlessness when not by the sea. And an irrational fear of sea suddenly gone. With tides, it does disappear and appear.

I don’t live right by the sea. I can hear it on stormy days and smell it if the wind is right. But I don’t see it from my window. I have to cycle or walk as far as the ocean – on average – is deep: four kilometers. I once was so jealous of a house tucked behind dunes with romantic towers with seaward windows. I wanted to be that house or at least to live in one. Until I realized that this straight Olgas street to the sea and back has given me ideas. The idea of the Sea Library was born somewhere in the middle of our house and the sea. On the road in-between.

I’ve born in a city of pavements and streets and lived in apartments for my first 30 years. To suddenly own an old house with a garden is an adventure in itself. The house changed the way I wanted to spend my days. I left my previous job and became a sea librarian. I changed trains and planes to a bicycle and books. I changed crossing the seas to standing at the edge of the sea and returning each morning at this very same spot. This hundred years old riverside house changed me. Just like the sea did. It imagined me.

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” wrote poet Mary Oliver who lived by the sea. In the beginning, there was a room in this house with no purpose. For a while it was a bedroom, for a while it was my eldest son’s room, but the furniture kept floating around the house and this room kept losing its name. When I left my job and started to walk to the sea every day, I started to buy books about it. It’s here where I kept them. In a room with no name.

I kept reading and reading. From Homer to Joyce, from Joyce to Hemingway. Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville. Anything I could find. One book leads me to many others. I was curious to see how writers are dealing with this question of why we keep coming back to the sea? And how they are dealing with describing the ever-changing beauty of the sea. Will they not run out of words? Little did I know how many books there are about the sea; how very different; how many are being published today; even written right now at this very moment. My lonely wanderings and wonderings turned into an instinct to join a secret crowd of water-gazers around the world who love to write and who love to read. With the first hundred books on my shelves, in the summer of 2018, I opened the doors. I called this room the Sea Library. There had never been a plan to start an institution of some sort. A real library, as some say. The Sea Library grew inside this house, it is part of me and my life. Books grow on these shelves like barnacles. Yes, it’s still just a room in this house. A room with a name now. And yet it is so much more. The flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open.

From the moment on when this room became an open library, – books, letters, and gifts started to flow into it. Something I didn’t expect at all. All I wanted was to share my books. But there are so many who want to share their own stories about the sea and coast and I am here to listen. There are artworks and postcards covering the walls of the Sea Library. I have treasures like a mermaid’s purse, a sliver from John Steinbeck’s boat, big seashells from islands I’ve never been to. Coast and sea are muses. I’ve crocheted corals that grow in the corners of this room. I’m weaving bookmarks inspired by the sea. It’s a library and inspiration for me as well.

After the first postcards and letters soon visitors followed. Families with kids, who want to be pirates, an old retired captain who brings black and white photos with him, a marine biologist who explores streams, a kayaker who loves lighthouses. Visitors from nearest towns and farthest lands. Everyone has a story to tell. Each has her own set of sea skills. Some know how to sail, swim long distances or how to paint the sea. Some understand the classification of all its animals, while others turn seaweed into delicious meals. Some, like me, are here just to read and marvel at all this wonderful world of the sea.

I thought I will become a forgotten loner, moving away from the city life, walking to the shore. Turned out it was the other way round. Sea just like stories unites in the most magical ways.

As Tongan and Fijian writer and anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa wrote, “The sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean in us.“

Many books tell about sailing adventures, stories of crossing the dangerous seas. I’m amazed by the bravery of sailors while I myself was desperately afraid of another vector, of the depths of the sea. “[The sea] is a solid horizontal plane and a liquid vertical abyss, a surface on which to sail forward and a chasm in which to sink down,” writes Marie-Claire Beaulieu in “The Sea in the Greek Imagination”. Before I opened the Sea Library, I was afraid to swim. In the first summer of the library, I learned how to do that. And have been swimming ever since, except when the water is covered in ice. I don’t want to break it. I’m still not a strong or a good swimmer and yet, I’m there. Inside the sea. The depths of the sea are real, a home for a large part of this world’s inhabitants. But we also need for the sea to be deep as a mirror for our own inner life.

I’ve turned into a dreamer here by the sea. Letting myself read books deep into the night. Daydreaming in the afternoon sun. Just like a kid. I said no to a good salary in order to have more time with my own children and a time to explore what ideas will I find here at the coast. I blame the sea, again. In the best possible way. Hasn’t it changed you as well?

And yet it’s by the sea where I am most awake. In this ancient world of the coast nothing is fixed, everything changes, it’s inspiring and dangerous at the same time. Whenever I swim, I know I can drown. Whenever I spy on seaside houses I know they can be swept away one day. A couple of weeks ago we counted fallen pines with my sons. Some storms are stronger than others. I love to read fictional stories with characters living right on the coast. Nearly all those fictional seaside houses are blown or washed away by the end of the story. Sea doesn’t care, it’s a phrase in many books.

When I come home from the beach and lead my life on land among books and kids and visitors, the time comes when I need to return to the sea. This wave-like rhythm back and forth and back again is what keeps my days together. Time weaves through them like a yarn, back and forth and back again. Sometimes I am not even sure where I want to be more. I love to read about cultures like Makah Indians where the sea is their home, their ‘land’, while the coast was a dangerous place. Or the Tlingits who had a thousand names for the sea, while the mountain peaks, as Jonathan Raban writes, “in all their meaningless variety, were unnamable.” Do I have a thousand names for the sea?

Not that long ago I started living here and reading about the sea. Now I feel like Moominpappa, who wanted to write a big book about the sea, to write down the rules the sea obeys, make some order, understand it. But the more he watched, the more he observed, the less he understood. He was angry at first, angry at the stupid sea until Moominmamma helped him to realize that he loves the sea, and has always loved it. That’s why he moved to the lighthouse. That’s why he wanted to write a book about it. That’s what the Sea Library is about. I believe, if you will fall in love with the sea, you will always want to protect it, take care of it. But just remember, the sea doesn’t care about you at all.

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