It’s early March, the season of Lent, a time for many Christians of fasting, prayer, reflection, and almsgiving. As I was at Christmas, I am alone at the coast for a few days. Here on Topsail Island I will write, read, deep-clean my son’s beach house in preparation for the tourist season, and live in a solitude providing the opportunity for reflection on my past.
Having arrived only two hours ago, and with what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “gear and tackle and trim” snugly stowed away, I am seated at a large table facing a glass door and a wall of windows through which I can hear the bitter wind and the crashing of the surf, and see the Atlantic with its white wingtips rolling toward shore. On the horizon the dark blue-green waters kiss the cerulean sky. If I step to the porch and look to my left or right, a Mardi Gras of houses greets my eye, some of these dwellings freshly painted pink, or blue, or Nantucket grey, others shabby as gamblers down on their luck, paint-frayed, weather-battered, mildewed. Attached to the houses, of course, are the decks, some tidy as a sailor’s kit, others a mess of tables, chairs, grills, and beach equipment, all with stairs shambling down to the sand and the drop-off where last year’s storm took a bite out of dunes.
What is it about the beach? Why do the water and the waves, the constant wind, the sun on the sand, and the lonely cry of the gulls always work a magic on me like no other place?
Put me in a cabin in the high mountains, with all the amenities, and yes I would write, read, think, and ponder my wrongdoings. Install me in a garret in New York City, and I could and would do the same. Set a camp for me in a desert, give me drink, food, and a rickety cabin, and sure, the juices would flow and I would engage in the work at hand, make time for prayer and reflection, and cast a critical eye over my life.
But none of these places casts a spell like the beach.
For me, the shore—whether I am alone or with family and friends—loosens me from my schedule. Here I know what I need to accomplish, but somehow the priorities don’t matter as much as when I am back in the real world and checking off a to-do list. Today on my arrival, for example, I took stock of the house and realized I needed certain supplies for cleaning, for making coffee, and for washing some laundry I brought with me. Part of me demanded I drive back into town and pick up the necessities so that I might start the work in the morning, but a contradictory interior voice reminded me I had just spent seven hours in the car. It was time, that voice strongly suggested, to cool my jets. I could jerry-rig the morning coffee, the laundry could sit another day, and the house cleaning could wait. So, guided by that interior voice, I plan on looking out the window at the ocean, make some pasta and a salad for supper, and work on an article I owe to a magazine.
Moreover, something about the beach inspires in me a combination of sloth and energy. Like the clean sand stretching out before the house in which I am staying, like the wind and water, this palace of tides, rain, and sun strips away the extraneous and helps me focus on my real work: writing, the cleaning, and, in this penitential season, prayer and reflection. No one cares a fig whether I shave, whether I wear a bathroom, t-shirt, and pajama bottoms until noon, whether I eat supper at three in the afternoon or nine o’clock at night, whether I leave a dining room table strewn with books, papers, backpacks, and boxes, as it is now. (So much for snugly stowed).
Given these conditions, would living at the beach year-round not be of great benefit to me? The answer is a most definite no. That ease I feel here would, I suspect, mutate into lethargy. Too many days on the sand might find me one of those grizzled, sun-blackened, wine-befuddled old men one sees in the local grocery stores picking over cans of beans and tuna, sad flotsam washed up by the travails of living rather than by bucolic waves on a stretch of sand. The demands of my other life, my life back in the world of work and family, help keep my working habits in line.
One final note: The house where I am staying is named “The Great Escape.”
That pretty much sums up the beach for me.