In the constantly shifting sands of the “backshore” of Provincetown, a number of tiny structures sit, precariously perched. “The Dune Shacks” as they are affectionately known, are vulnerable not only because they have a habit of falling into the ocean and having to be rescued, but because, like all of us, they eventually surrender to time, wind, weather and just plain gravity. The future of the shacks is additionally uncertain because they sit within the boundaries of what has become the Cape Cod National Seashore. As each of the current owners passes away, the shacks are absorbed into the domain of the National Seashore. What will become of each one remains to be seen, but the long and fascinating Who’s Who of dune shack “owners” has come to an end. The good news is that a few of them can be accessed through the two preservation organizations that work with the Seashore to provide stewardship and temporary stays for artists, writers and community members. Last summer, for the last week of August, I joined the ranks of the blessed who have had an opportunity to stay in one of them.
Although excited about my upcoming venture into isolation, I confess to also having had just a wee bit of trepidation about being out there, alone, without any of the modern conveniences for communication that we all take for granted. Even more intimidating was the knowledge of all the literary and artistic greats who had gone before me. What would I bring to this wealth of accumulated response to the dunes and what would I take away? What would my experience be? This is what remained to be seen.
The Provincetown Compact, the organization that cares for two of the shacks, drove me and my gear out to the one-story, wood shingled, three-room structure nestled into the dunes with the Atlantic Ocean on its North side, open dunes to the East and West and a sand access road through the dunes to the South. Although it had no running water or electricity, there was a pump for water “adjacent” to the shack, a tiny propane fridge and a composting toilet.
The stillness in the dune valleys behind the beach where the shack sits is almost deafening. It comes in through my pores not unlike the way a winter snowstorm blankets the familiar landscape silencing the sounds I’m accustomed to. For the first few days I can’t stop yawning and sighing out loud. My body is letting go of the pace of my normal life, catching its breath as if dying to breathe deeply. In my work I often do breathe and sigh deeply. My practice members laugh and call it “The Debra Breath.” When they begin to get the hang of it and start doing it themselves they tell me that the people at home and at work always ask them what’s wrong. I say, tell them that’s what’s right. Here in the dunes I find that I too need to breathe even more fully.
By about the third day, I start to breath normally. I watch as something begins to trickle through spaces opening up inside me. I begin to notice the sensations of my actions and choices more vividly. I notice what it feels like to sit in the grasses at the top of the dune, until it feels like time to stand up, or to move, and then, to walk, slowly, without any specific purpose in mind of where I need to walk to, or anything I need to do, until it feels like time to stop, for a moment, or an hour, for however long I want, to find out what it was I have moved for.
I am rarely hungry in the dunes. Going to sit up at the top of the dune is my morning worship. Meditation happens naturally rather than at planned times. It’s all a meditation. It’s all prayer. I begin to realize that I have this extended period of time, seven days, to experience complete and total freedom of choice.
One night I lay awake, unable to sleep. At 3:30 in the morning I go outside. The stars are everywhere and finally, there is the moon just beginning to rise up over the dune in its perfect, crescent shape. This is the Shiva moon. In India they say Shiva wears it as an ornament in his black hair. I stay outside for awhile letting the endless darkness and the sharp air permeate my skin, loving the night and the animal prowling around in me, thinking about how many other animals might be awake and outside at night right now, right here. I see what I think is one of the Dippers. I try hard to remember how it all works, the daily turning of the earth, the monthly revolution of the moon around the Earth, the yearly moving of the earth around the sun and how that all fits together with the stars, the other planets and the constellations. How is it possible to navigate by the stars if they’re always moving too? Is the Dipper always to the east from here, or does it change because we’ve moved through the seasons? How can it be that I am surrounded by these stars, and the sun, and the moon every night and know so little about them? After a while, I leave it alone. I go back inside and read until I fall asleep.
I begin the next day sweeping and remember my teacher of several years ago advising us to “Take a broom and sweep your heart.” I think, perhaps I am sweeping the cobwebs from my mind as well. Later I go up to the dune to sit down with my friends the grasses and eat my bread and cheese and drink coffee from my thermos. An orange helicopter goes by, very near, with its side door open. Inside, someone dressed head to toe in orange is sitting, hands on knees in a perfect Lotus posture on the floor of the helicopter. He is facing out the open hatch as they sweep along the shoreline – the Buddha, getting a Dune Tour? At times like this it is one’s other life – one’s “real life” – that feels so much less real.
Towards the end of the week I pull my yoga mat out onto the deck. I find myself spontaneously reaching my arms up fully or standing strongly as I hinge forward from my hips, surrendering my head, bowing to the ocean before me. Last night, at the top of the dune I stood in tree pose and then Padangustasana, balancing once on each leg in the wind while I stood firm, arms up, one leg reaching out and rooting down into the cool sand with the other.
Now – my mat spread out on the deck – I begin to move in a way I haven’t for a long time. For many years, my practice has been more studied, chosen. Today, it is like the movement of my early twenties, before I knew so much about yoga. I let my body move however it wants to for as long as it wants, sighing deeply and frequently, for some time. When I am done I feel like I have added ten years to my life.
In the afternoon I walk up to the dune above the nearest shack. As I pass I see a huge five-foot long, inch and a half thick, black snake moving up onto the steps of the porch. It sees me and slithers away. I have read of snakes out here, but this is my first encounter. Sheesh, what the heck is that supposed to mean, I wonder. “Whatever meaning you give it,” I hear from inside.
On Saturday morning it begins to rain. I think how at the beginning I wanted to wander, to see, to discover. Now, I only want to sit, to be, to do nothing but read, write, close my eyes and listen. In the afternoon the wind blows up. Squealing swallows fly overhead, a storm is coming. On the back porch, as the sun goes down beneath a bank of clouds, ready to light up the world from underneath, I think, I am returning also. Am I ready to light up the world from underneath?
My last night is a dark one. No moon. No stars. I go outside in the middle of the night, as has become my habit, and cannot see anything at all, barely even my hand. I feel fear for the first time. Thunder is bowling in the distance. That’s what my parents told me thunder was – angels bowling in heaven. I believed this, it sounds just like it, doesn’t it? Woops, gutter ball, rack em’ up. And besides, it so benign, so comforting really, alone out there in the night, at the edge of the ocean, in the thunder, to think of angels bowling.
Back at Home
Questions arise in the dunes that many of us rarely have the space to consider in our daily lives. How shall we live? What shall we do? Who shall we be? Which beliefs offer hope? In the dunes the single thing I “worked at,” was letting go of ideas about what I “should be” doing (reading, writing, eating, practicing) and when I should be doing them. Getting up at 3:30 in the morning and going outside into the still dark night, sitting up in the dunes wrapped in a shawl until it was time to move along, singing to the seals as they swam by in the evening, talking to the little red squirrel who visited me daily until he turned out to be a she and gave birth to three babies on the porch. Listening to the sound of space and the voices of all the people I’ve ever read about who’ve lived out there, watching my skin turn brown, eating little, standing in the sand on one leg at the top of the dune in the wind, I was practicing santosha, the Yoga niyama (restraint) of contentment, imposing very little of my will on any given moment and yet freely choosing at every moment. It was easy there.
Back at home, with so many more commitments and other people to consider, my awareness of the freedom of choice is even more apparent and more crucial. At home, nothing has changed, except that I have been steeped in a dye bath of my own color. Calling up the image of sitting in the dunes, I practice witnessing whatever is occurring in front of me, whether it’s my husband talking or the ocean moving, remembering that now is the moment that the freedom of choice lives in. The lesson of the dunes – of sitting still and staying present – even in discomfort, in the face of whatever is occurring, until it becomes clear from inside that it is time to move or take an action, even when I don’t know what that is, is not a coincidence or a blessed gift randomly bestowed upon me. I chose to go out there to begin with not knowing what would be. I have returned with another reference point for staying present. The endless present is the same as the empty fullness at the top of the dune. Looking out over the beach and the sea and back across the dunes behind with me in the middle of it, there is no edge. It is just the landscape, and I am a part of it. Even the place where the land and the sea meet is not an edge. It’s a living, moving, fluid ribbon between sand and water and one is filled with the other.
Sunday morning – the final day
A star shaped balloon blew up and over the dune
And just as quickly, disappeared.
It was attached,
To no one.
Could catch it, if indeed,
It could be caught.
Wear your birthday bathing suit today.
Prepare for the day.
Prepare to be,
Writing and photography by Debra BabcockDr. Debra Babcock is a writer, chiropractor, yoga teacher and the founder and director of Harmony Network Chiropractic and Yoga in Mashpee. She can be reached at
email@example.com or 508-419-7070.