The sacred places, the ones that become annual rites of passages, mark the year’s progress. The landscape reminds us where we’ve been, and the breeze carries our dreams for the year ahead.

Newtowne Neck State Park is one of my special places, as much for the memories the contour of the land holds as for the people I spend time with when I’m there.

The state of Maryland purchased a peninsula that jets out into the Potomac River from the Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests who farmed the land for 300 years. The State of Maryland developed a paradise for swimmers, sea kayakers, and stand up paddle boarders along seven miles of sandy shoreline.photo1Back when the Jesuits still owned it, I was twelve-years old and my family lived about a mile away in a rundown farmhouse.

Landlocked, my brothers and I explored where we could, wandering the graveyard dating back to the 1700s and making up stories about the children buried there. We rode our bikes between fields of towering corn stalks well past twilight.

The state park provides something for our kids that we never had for the year we lived there – access to the river. The strands of golden beaches offer a connection to the water, a place to swim, crab, beachcomb, and launch kayaks.

It’s become a family tradition, to load our own kids and a fleet of kayaks and pile into a couple trucks.

Newtowne Neck is still a place with more land than people, where time seems to slow down and even our kids get quiet and still enough to notice the changing tides and the ospreys diving for dinner.photo3My sister-in-law, Oona, and I float in kayaks while our kids splash in the water.

She turns to me. “What a difference a year makes. Remember the conversations we had here last year?”

Memories wash over me. Last year I was talking about taking Tobin sailing for a month. The idea seemed so daunting and impossible, but also possessed me because at the time it was the only thing I really wanted to do. I was contemplating leaving a job and starting my own business. A year later, I have started a business and we set sail last January.

I gaze at Tobin. Last year he was three, a few months away from turning four. He was still shy most of the time, greeting strangers with his face buried into the back of my knees, terrified of being seen by the world.

Tobin calls out to me and interrupts my thoughts. “Mama, we want a turn with the kayaks.”

I see his older cousin already climbing into a kayak, so I paddle to shore and watch as he gets into my kayak.

Tobin paddles his own kayak for the first time. The kayak, big and unwieldy, makes it difficult for his small body to control. When he can’t turn the kayak, he stands up and sits down facing his body toward the stern, continuing to paddle forward in an effort to keep up with his big cousin.

I dip my toes in the water standing side-by-side with Oona, admiring our sons’ respective growth over the past year. We do the thing parents do, wondering aloud, “How did he get so big?”

The boys paddle further out into the water, further away from us.

I try to remember who Tobin was a year ago, trying to recall what phrases he said and what he liked to play. I struggle to conjure up his three-year-old self and I begin to doubt if I was present enough in his life, or even my own.

Tobin lands his kayak and pulls it up on the beach, out of reach from the incoming tide. His shoulders and back look so strong. He’s all muscle and ribs, none of his toddler fat remains.

He runs up to me. “Mama, I leaned my kayak way over, I was tacking it.”

I laugh. Tacking is a sailing term for turning the bow of a boat through the wind and inevitably the boat leans over on its side. We’ve led a watery life together and he’s integrating the experiences in his mind, making them his own.

The sun lowers in the sky and I wrap a towel around Tobin. He reaches his arms upward, toward me. “Mama, hold me.”

I scoop him in my arms and press him close, aware that time passes and we grow older, whether we intend to or nor. Standing in there bathed by the bright pastels of the setting sun, all my other goals and dreams fall away.

All that is left is the important stuff – I am experiencing this sacred place with my son and some of our most beloved.

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