Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Meditation on the Sea

In a week, summer school's out. My family and I are headed to the beach to a cottage there to hang out with good friends. I'm not even going to think about my dissertation (yeah, right). Trying to figure out what novel I'm going to take with. Know what conversations we're going to have. Imaging all the play, some without words . . .

Anyway, all this looking ahead while things are so crazy makes me love one essay. It's Phyllis Chesler's A Meditation on the Sea. She begins. . .

When in doubt or trouble, but also in times of joy, I always return to the sea: to put things in perspective. In America, only the elements seem eternal, and as such, afford splendid relief. Elements have the power to transport me out of my self. Perhaps the sea is my Confessional. Always, I come down smelling of the city and secular anxiety, grimed over with it. The sea washes all that away, I am reborn in her salty beginning.

I meant to go to France, but when the trip fell through, I found myself driving out to the Hamptons, on New York’s Long Island, a place that, for me, is far more than merely “trendy.” I’ve written books here; the place is my own splendid, shining, American Riviera. I need only squint, slightly, and I can see Monet’s Mediterranean: lush green foliage, dazzling white light, sails on the water, umbrellas on the beach, the human enterprise—sandy, wet, impossibly hopeful.

Before I see her, I can hear her, smell her, taste her in the air; she is misty-salty on my tongue, pleasantly rank in my nostrils, a rhythmic pounding in my ears. It never fails. I am always slightly overwhelmed each and every time I first catch sight of the sea, it is so heart-stoppingly enormous and yet utterly familiar; it brings one back to childhood summers—no, to a world far older than that: to the very origin of our species. When we left, we took the ocean with us; it is in our every cell, we are, as biologist Carl Safina writes in his recent book Song to the Blue Sea, “soft vessels of sea water…70 percent of our bodies is water, the same percent that covers the Earth’s surface. We are wrapped around an ocean within.”

In America, the elements remind me that life is short, and therefore precious. Only the elements truly comfort me. Sky, sea, stars, all were here long before human beings first built campfires; with any luck, they may still be here at the end of time. The elements test your mettle against natural forces. The sea reminds us that we have to take what comes as it comes, that some disasters cannot be avoided; that luck or fate is everything, but skill and courage count too. Especially, expect the unexpected and prepare: to ride it out, pray, die, live—and live hard.

and Chesler continues . . .

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