Looking at the Sea Without Curiosity or Ambition

Jun 3, 2014

Newcomb Hollow Beach
Credit Joan Sol / flickr

Last Thursday evening about six, at the end of a long and somewhat wearying day, I drove out to Newcomb Hollow and sat on the wooden bench there, looking out to sea. Despite the beautiful, clear, evening light, there was only one other person there, a fisherman way up the beach to my left.

The ocean spread out before me in all of its vast blue splendor, empty of boats, and, with the exception of a few cruising gulls, apparently empty of anything else as well. I was glad, since all I wanted was a moment of peace, a moment of balance between sea, sand, wind and light.  The waves broke as they do, as all they will ever do.

In recent years I have spent time in the summers on rocky shores to the north, and I find that I involuntarily compare the beaches here and there. This evening I found myself indulging in musical analogies. On a straight, sandy, shore like this one, listening to the surf is like listening to an endless Vivaldi concerto, composed of clean, elegant, and inventive variations on a limited set of themes. On rocky shores the surf has more of a Romantic character, more like a symphony by Beethoven or Mahler – more complex, sensuous, conflicted, overreaching. At another time I might have explored the similes further, but this evening I’m content to let them go and simply listen. 

Out of habit, I experience some slight urges to stand up and do something: to go down to the edge of the surf, to converse with the fisherman, to check out recent erosion of the clay cliffs to the south, to explore the newly fenced-in plover nesting area to the north -  but these fleeting moments of ambition and curiosity quickly fall from me, like leaves from a rock: No, I am content just to sit, to let my years of memory on this beach do the walking for me.

I do manage to lift my binoculars and focus them on the vast expanse of deepening water in front of me. When I do I see a hitherto invisible city of lobster buoys in bright electric colors, bobbing across the surface just beyond the bars: hundreds of them, scattered across hundreds of acres of water surface. How empty the sea is! How busy it is! I start to wonder: how do lobstermen know where to place their traps? Do they have grants to specific areas of the ocean floor, as oystermen do? But once again I let curiosity and ambition go, and simply watch.

This would be a perfect time and place to meditate, if I practiced meditation. But I don’t want to empty my mind. Rather, I want to fill it more deeply with what is there. I don’t wish to detach myself from this solid, perishable world, but to feel it even closer, to pay it the attention it deserves. The shadows of the low cliffs have already crept out over most of the beach, but the low sun still highlights the breaking brows of each long wave. Randomly choosing a natural clock, I decide to stay here until the breaking waves are no longer hit by the sun. And so I do, content merely to notice how slowly, steadily, and unhurriedly the sun sinks behind me, casting its ever-venturing light further and further out over the purple sea, until at last it blinks out and there is no turning back the night.