Make My Heart Come All Undone

I was in San Sebastian when I took this photo.

I was in San Sebastian, with its endless beauty and tranquil charm, its plentiful pintxos and varying skies, its cute little shops that are closed for so many hours of the working day that you wonder how they stay in business until, after a day or two, you stop wondering that, you stop thinking like an American, focused on profit and how to maximize it, and start thinking more than a San Sebastian, focused on how to enjoy the life you have been given.

A few days ago, I walked across the bridge from the Old Town into Gros. Once of the first things I saw, beyond the vast and unbeautiful performing arts center, was a surf shop. “Surf San Sebastian!” encouraged a t-shirt adorned with little fishes. Sweet. Then a surfer walked past me, clad in a wet suit, carrying a surfboard. Then another surf shop. Then another surfer. I crossed the boulevard and sat on the wall by the beach, and watched the whole bay of them, out on the waves, whatever the collective noun for surfers is. Communion? A communion of surfers, paddling, leaping and falling for just a few possible moments of transcendence.

I watched them for a long time, my heart a precious thrashing thing. I have always loved surfers, which is strange for a stout ungraceful girl from the land-locked midwest. And I have always loved surf music. Dick Dale and Jan and Dean, yes, but especially the Beach Boys. Even I found this odd, in my odd adolescence. My stepsister, captain of the pompon squad, fashioned a sprightly dance routine to “Be True to Your School” for the halftime entertainment of the Kirkwood Pioneers, but I preferred the slower darkness of “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl,” which is neither a tribute nor a love song, since it mentions no actual qualities of the girl in question, but masks a darkness beneath its kind melody, like a bloodthirsty cradle-will-fall kind of lullabye: “Little surfer, little one/make my heart come all undone . . .”

Sometimes in my teenage years I would select this album, “Endless Summer” (even its title a blend of promise and threat), from my collection of Springsteen and Costello, La Traviata and Beethoven’s Ninth, and weep into the false sunshine of the hideous yellow shag carpet my stepmother had chosen to adorn the girls’ bedroom. I heard the shadow in the sunshine before Brian Wilson’s mental problems became public knowledge, before I came to terms with the fact that I would have to reckon with my own on my own, since my parents considered them little more than adolescent indulgence.

And this is as far as I got in my musings before I returned to my budget pension on the boulevard above the little glove shop that was never open, so I couldn’t buy my sister the pair of driving gloves I saw in the window. I returned to my stark room and saw the stark news.

I have been in Spain for ten days now and there have in that time been two mass shootings in the United States. This most recent slaughter of children is covered differently here. There is no braying about the right to bear arms, no hypocritical clucking over “mental health,” no admonishments not to “politicize this tragedy” for those whose politics help these tragedies to occur, but no weepy hand-wringing, either. The latest news from the Estados Unidos is presented at most with a raised eyebrow, but in a straightforward manner, the footage shown between footage of the war in Ukraine and some incident in Brazil, the latest development from another country of violence.

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