The sinking sun turns the ocean to liquid gold as hundreds of boards glide through the water, headed for the growing circle gathered for Wednesday’s Memorial Paddle-Out. I look around to see hundreds of my classmates bobbing beside me, hands interlinked in solidarity. We splash the water; chants echo to the open sky as we remember those we have lost. A feeling of unity flows through the vast circle like electricity. Saltwater mingles with tears, and flowers arc the air, making rainbows on the ocean surface. Looking into the glowing faces of those around me, I have never felt so deeply connected to my fellow Gauchos.
When I arrived in California from London, age 19, the kindness of this community astounded me. It took me from a scared, lonely freshman thousands of miles away from home to a passionate advocate for our little town and all its beauty. Isla Vista has mystified me, taught me, and inspired me beyond my wildest imaginings.
“Now, turn to the person next to you and greet them,” the megaphone says. “Touch them, rub their hair, hug them.” I look around to see the ocean shift in a thousand embraces, and I realize in this instant that our community is more powerful than I had ever imagined. I have never seen smiles more genuine or felt hugs more sincere than in these moments, as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean.
In Harder Stadium the day before, the names of the deceased had rung out: “George Chen, Cheng Yuan Hong, Weihan Wang, Veronika Weiss, Katherine Cooper, Christopher Michaels-Martinez.” Amid the silence, there was only the barely audible click of press cameras. But the beauty of this place and its people can never be captured by cameras. They will never see us enter as wide-eyed freshmen, smitten with partying on Del Playa, but leaving as activists, teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs. They weren’t there as we swept broken glass from our streets after the riots, when we cleaned our beaches, or raised $200,000 to save our local Food Co-op. We are so much more than the cumulative sum of our headlines. We are two square miles of passion, of learning, and of growth, a town so compact that it sometime seems we feel a collective heartbeat.
My mind left the stadium and wandered to the swaying eucalyptus groves that line the bluffs, their trailing leaves rustled by warm afternoon wind. They carry an unmistakable scent that any Isla Vistan will recognize; the earthy fragrance of bark mixed with ocean breeze, and just a hint of oil. For many of us, it smells like home.
As UCSB students, we have slowly become desensitized to the ritual weekend emails that populate our inboxes in the early hours; we reach for our phones and glaze over yet another police report: “Attempted robbery” blurs with “assault” and “suspected weapon.” To the outside world, we are a town of riots, tear gas, beached bodies, and binge drinking. We seem the perfect paradox; a coastal paradise plucked straight from a movie set, yet marred with the crime rate of an inner city ghetto.
Right now, we may feel small and fragile beside those who would tear us down. But this week has taught me that the only power we have against them are our small kindnesses to one another — the time we take to smile at strangers, to listen with sincerity, to show empathy and kindness. Days after the event that shook our town, a sense of frailty still fills the air, but it is tinged with something else, too. Now, words seem gentler, the smiles longer, the embraces tighter.
On my way home from class, I gaze at flower petals spread over and around the wounds peppering the glass of I.V. Deli, the site of one of the shootings. They almost eclipse the scars in the window and spill in their hundreds onto the sidewalk below. A banner tied to a house on Sabado Tarde sways: “What we do now is up to us.” As we begin to recover, I can only hope that we don’t forget what this week has taught us. Let us tread lightly on this beautiful patch of land we call home for four years. Let us realize that our love for one another is our only defense and that together we are strong.
Like seals, a sea of students bobs in the glassy ocean, a movie scene that could be just another Wednesday afternoon in Isla Vista.