December 19, 2017 / Praxis
C. Wess Daniels reflects on family photographs and Advent.
October 27, 2014
I grew up in a mile-square beachfront town sixty miles south of New York City. From the time I was six years old, when my family left its North Jersey urban roots, every summer day was spent on the beach. When my sister and I were old enough, we peddled there on our bikes to meet our friends, then slathered ourselves with Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil and baked, posed, and floated in the sea until the sun went down.
In fall and winter, when the tourists fled back to their cities, I learned to love the mental space occasioned by the empty beaches and barren streets, to appreciate the bracing wind that whipped off the gray-green sea and smacked me in the face.
So thoroughly was I transformed from a city girl into a surf dweller that when I arrived at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I struggled hard against the feeling of being landlocked. And as a new Christian, I was dismayed to learn that the Bible, in Revelation 21:1, says there will be no sea in God’s eternal kingdom.
Other Christians get tripped up by the violence and sexism they find in our sacred text. Those elements are challenging, but when John writes, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea” (NKJV)—these are deeply troubling words for me. Oceans, in God’s economy, seem to be vehicles for storm-tossing, prophet-swallowing, and humanity-destroying judgment more than the sources of joy and sustenance many of us have known.
Even now, in Washington, DC, where I work and mostly live, it was a profound relief to find that my tiny abode is within walking distance of an extensive trail system that winds its way through the city and alongside a creek. In the absence of ocean, rivers and creeks will do.
I yearn always though for that strip of coastline I call home and I’m really no good in suburbia. I need streets that can be walked to a destination beyond endless housing developments and strip malls. Small town life can be stultifying and oppressive, but if one endures, uncommon and enduring loyalty can be found.
The cadence of assertively engaging the world and then pulling back into quiet is my lifelong rhythm, one I learned living at a beach in range of New York City. It’s also why I find it impossible to consider trading our little place there for a bigger DC home or more money in the bank.
So what’s it all about, this Jersey Shore that MTV made infamous and Hurricane Sandy decimated? There are certainly the tourists—or bennies as they’re known on the north end of the coast—coming down from New York and North Jersey to relax in ways both wholesome and debauched. But there’s also a permanent culture that keeps the party humming and, in the increasingly difficult to find off-season, has a rhythm and spirit of its own.
There is fertile inland soil that sustains a vibrant agriculture industry and fishing fleets that mine the watery depths. There’s bluegrass music, minor league baseball, and a diverse religious landscape. Irish and Italian Catholics are the salt of our small towns, but Methodists founded beachfront communities in the late 1800s that still serve no alcohol. And the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva keeps pushing outward from its inland base so that it’s now common to see, side by side with women in skimpy bikinis, others in wigs and long black dresses splashing in the surf.
In season, locals know where to go to avoid the visitors that keep our economy afloat. It would be breaking hometown code to identify my favorite beaches, but as teenagers in the 1970s, where my friends and I went to escape both bennies and parents was into the Pine Barrens—New Jersey’s 1.1–million–acre, federally protected forest that sits atop some of the cleanest drinking water in the country.
This is where Bruce Springsteen comes in.
Bruce embodies a Jersey Shore vibe—at once rugged, tense, laid-back, and poetic. When he inducted the E Street Band into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in April, he demonstrated yet again why so many Jersey Shore natives of a certain age are passionately devoted to him.
“Real bands—real bands are made primarily from the neighborhood. From a real time and real place that exists for a little while, then changes and is gone forever. They’re made from the same circumstances, the same needs, the same hungers, culture. They’re forged in the search of something more promising than what you were born into,” Springsteen said, describing how his band came together in various towns dotting the terrain I call home.
I had a friend who was crazy for Bruce in high school, but I wasn’t a fan. I was listening to the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and the like back then. I became a fan only when I was old enough to look back on my teenage years without judgment.
But I remember speeding down a dark country road one night with a group of friends, music blaring from the car stereo, all of us high on pot and booze and maybe acid, when we crested a hill and saw a comet shoot across the sky. Looking back, it was as if we were living inside an early Bruce Springsteen song.
His 1973 debut album Greetings from Asbury Park both lyrically and melodically paints the picture of our teenage escapades. In “Spirit in the Night,” he sings about driving to a mythical place called Greasy Lake “on the dark side of Route 88.” There’s a bottle of rosé, some buddies, and, of course, a girl for making love with in the dirt: “I’ll take you all out to where the gypsy angels go. / They’re built like light / And they dance like spirits in the night,” Bruce sings.
The dark side of Route 88 is a reference to what was a sparsely populated stretch of inland pine where the horse flies would torment you but where chances of adult interruption were slim in the 1970s. The cranberry bogs, Double Trouble Park, the gravel pits—these were our Greasy Lakes.
Today, suburban sprawl has heavily encroached upon those lairs and everyone, everywhere, is under a microscope. The gravel pits have been tamed: a man-made reservoir surrounded by a paved pedestrian walkway floats atop that rocky ground like a raft in a lifeless pool. Where my friends and I once drank Boone’s Farm strawberry wine and rolled around in the dirt, senior citizens now stroll with tiny dogs.
Perhaps I shouldn’t confess this, but I hate it.
My husband and I both came to faith after paying high prices for the choices we made in and around the places about which Bruce sings. Though we’d spent time getting into trouble together, we went our separate ways and reunited at church after we’d both been converted.
The church, a Baptist one that welcomed barefoot hippies, borders the edge of the gravel pit–cum-reservoir on what was the dark side of Route 88. When our little congregation bought the property, it was far off the beaten path. In recent years, the ever-expanding township has expressed interest in acquiring the building and land because wouldn’t it make a lovely addition to the neutered trouble spot? Get rid of the sin, get rid of the saviors, and give the good citizens more suburbia to cure what ails them.
The great thing about marrying someone whose personal history mirrors one’s own is that there are few cultural barriers to overcome. The fact that we were formed in the same place and through similar experiences meant my husband and I were free to keep being ourselves.
In fact, what most attracted me to him—besides the fireworks and his radical faith—was the feeling that I didn’t have to strive or pretend to be someone else. We’d both danced like spirits in the night—there was no shame or guilt in that. We kept dancing too, a sanctified gypsy-angel duo. As Bruce put it, we’re “made from the same circumstances, the same needs, the same hungers, culture,” and we were “forged in the search of something more promising than what [we] were born into”—something we both found in Christ, something that satisfied the longings and hungers that drugs and drink had only numbed.
There’s more though.
We raised our children in that pinelands church until they were nearing high school age and it got to be too far to drive from our new home up the coast. In my mind, the sounds of their preadolescent voices singing and playing echo through the sanctuary, across that scrappy land, and over the reservoir’s stagnant waters.
After one of our sons died and his funeral was there, glass doors were donated to the church in his memory so more light could shine into the foyer. Looking out through those doors, I see not so much the suburban sprawl as my own baptized history.
I could say much about why I love the ocean. I could describe the sublime sensation of dipping under clear, cold Atlantic waves on a blistering hot day. I could compare the experience to that of being tossed about in the waves along the Southern California coast, where we lived for six-and-a-half years. But as much as I love the smell of salt and sound of waves wherever I swim, it’s this particular stretch of land and sea that relentlessly calls me home.
It’s this particular patch of earth that means so much that when my son died in California, there was no question of where his body would rest. It was flown home at great expense to rest atop a hill on the Jersey Shore. On his gravestone, along with his name, are engraved mine and my husband’s too.
This is right and good.
We rode sleds down that hill when our boys were young. It’s a couple miles inland from the beach where we swam and ate ice cream cones together, where on mornings in the late spring and summer, I’d take my coffee and newspaper, sink my toes deep into warm sand, and wake myself up to the music of crashing waves until the sun got too hot or the day’s business too pressing.
I’ll be laid to rest where I’ve been lucky enough to live my life, at the north end of the Jersey Shore.
Hurricane Sandy, of course, changed everything and nothing. Like few other storms, this one gave us a shot at preserving our battered coastline, at rebuilding the detritus of shoreline with conservation and not commerce in mind, but it also opened the door for more middle-class families to be priced out of a way of life that has nurtured generations.
Like the flock of bennies who brought McMansion fever with them in the 1980s and 1990s—decimating small, bungalowed communities and turning landscapes dominated by sand, sea, and sky into vistas polluted by their odes to excess—a new flock, emboldened by their own uncommon wealth, threatens to prey on desperate homeowners and finish off what was. Nonetheless, we locals find ways to keep the faith with each other and with our way of life.
As to the future beyond this life, if John’s Revelation had stopped with the shocking statement that eternity will be landlocked, I wouldn’t know how to hopefully envision it. This is not hyperbole.
But thanks be to God, the apostle doesn’t end with “no more sea.” Instead, John says that Jesus will “give water without cost from the spring of the water of life” and this water will be “clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city”; it nourishes everything around it, and beside it stands the tree of life, whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 21:6, 22:1–2 NIV).
One in the long line of pastors who journeyed through our Baptist church said heaven will feel like home to us because it was made for us. God’s eternal kingdom will feel like home.
I take it on faith that I won’t miss the sight, sound, and smell of the sea there. Because I’ve been baptized in the living water of which John speaks, I know it feels remarkably like dipping into clear, ice-cold waters off the Jersey Shore on a scorching hot summer day. I can, without hesitation, look forward to an eternity of that.
 Springsteen quoted in “Read Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band Induction Speech,” Rolling Stone, April 11, 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/read-bruce-springsteens-e-street-band-induction-speech-20140411.
Christine A. Scheller
Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC.