Beach wisdom

Ritterbush finds life lessons at water's edge

April 12, 2009|By Kellie Woodhouse | Kellie Woodhouse,kellie.woodhouse@baltsun.com

In her Annapolis home, nestled against the Chesapeake Bay, Deacon Ritterbush can point to the many small treasures she's found while sifting through sand on beaches nearby and around the world.

Since she was 3 years old, Ritterbush has been drawn to the water's edge, pocketing sea glass, seashells, old bottles, driftwood, snail shells, quartz stone and sand dollars. Now 57 and with nearly a lifetime of discoveries in the sand that she likens to lessons in life, Ritterbush has begun sharing her love of beachcombing with others.

"Beachcombing is a metaphor for life," Ritterbush says.

"You come home with this pocketful of treasures. It's not just collecting castoffs on the beach, it's really just collecting yourself."

She refers to herself as the quintessential beachcomber and motions toward the ornaments in her home as evidence. A large glass bowl overflows with turquoise and emerald hand-blown Japanese fishing floats discovered along the beach. On a windowsill, the sun reflects scattered sea glass - blue, green, orange - and dozens of seashells.

"It's just an activity to get you back to the important things in life," says the woman who gives lectures on the subject and who is known by many as "Dr. Beachcomb." "We're so frenetic in this country. It's kind of frightening how we are.... Sometimes it's very good to just stop and give your head some space, and that's what beachcombing does."

Ritterbush has strolled beaches from Hawaii, where she went to graduate school, to the New Jersey Shore, near her mother's hometown. From small islands in Scotland, where she worked for a relief agency, to the South Pacific island of Tonga, where she met her husband, an archaeologist.

Now back in the Bay Ridge community where her mother taught her to beachcomb, Ritterbush is raising her third child. More than ever, the importance of the sea and its treasures is a tangible reality to her.

"She becomes completely engaged in place," says Shanon Brownlee, Ritterbush's longtime friend and fellow beachcomber. "She doesn't just live on the Chesapeake Bay, she knows the sounds of the Chesapeake, she knows the seasons of the Chesapeake, she knows the biology of the Chesapeake; she's completely immersed."

Five years ago, after a trip discovering the beaches of Italy with her daughter, Ritterbush decided to take her hobby of beachcombing to another level. At the time, Ritterbush was working at a recruitment agency in Alexandria, Va., but didn't enjoy her job.

"Life is too short," Ritterbush says, "I just couldn't go back to that life. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown."

After the visit to Italy, Ritterbush left her job and finished writing a book that chronicled her experience as a beachcomber. The book, published in December, weaves Ritterbush's life story with recollections of beaches she's combed and presents beachcombing in a philosophical way.

"Her book ... offers people a doorway into a hobby and also into thinking about their lives in a different way," Brownlee says.

After being turned down by multiple publishing companies, Ritterbush decided to publish A Beachcomber's Odyssey independently.

"I've done all this with no money, no contacts, no backing," Ritterbush says. "This could certainly fail - and I could certainly lose my house - but I don't think it's going to. There are good intentions behind it."

Natalie Silitch, who sells Ritterbush's book in her downtown Annapolis crafts store, says the beachcomber takes her art to "a whole new plane," practicing on a level unique to the current beachcombing "craze" going through Annapolis.

But Ritterbush's risk-taking and fresh perspectives come from a desire to serve others.

She is heavily involved in Teen AID, where she helps community youth organize volunteer events. She has been the racial justice coordinator at her local YMCA, served at her church's homeless shelter, and tutored for the local literacy council.

After completing an undergraduate degree in anthropology, she received her doctorate from the University of Hawaii, where she was an East West Center scholar in political science. Then she used her degree to help South Pacific islands develop sustainability. Many of her beachcombing lectures and book signings are fundraisers to help disadvantaged youth take educational trips to the Chesapeake Bay.

"I have a hard time believing that there are children and families who live two to three miles from Chesapeake Bay, yet have never set foot on a beach," Ritterbush says. "So I try to rectify that whenever I can."

Ritterbush believes beachcombing can be an easy, cost-free service to oneself. She says she views it as a healing, self-discovering process. She's seen beachcombing strengthen an individual's sense of himself, mend broken lines of communication between family members, and help people grieve the death of a loved one.

"We all have these special places in nature that can get us in better touch with ourselves, who we are, and what we are doing," Ritterbush says. "I've even gone out to the beach angry and come home peaceful."

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