Secrets Hiding in Plain Sight: Life Along the Shore

There is a something about the shoreline that is magical. The gritty give of sand and its unique texture against the soles of your feet hints at life’s uncertain flow, one moment solid and the next, shifting mysteriously as you try to stabilize. The infinite line of beach extending to either horizon, suggests possibility in both the glimpse it gives, and the fuzzy unknowns of sights too distant for clarity. The persistent waves speak of hidden movements bringing life to and fro, like a heartbeat, steady, rhythmic, and frightfully beyond our control. The expanse of water, near and far, its size and depth beyond reckoning, contains life so abundantly that even our limitless imagination cannot comprehend its sheer scale.

What a beautiful backdrop for the wandering mind, the wondering heart, and the searching soul. We had a chance to get away to the beach last week, and there was more than jellyfish, shells, and driftwood resting upon the sand. Walk with me for a bit along its endlessly variable steadiness.

The Rewards of Going the Distance

During a two hour walk along the beach, one can cover significant distance. Even if the mileage isn’t dramatic, much is still revealed. Early, pre-dawn walking reveals the wildlife: a sole heron hunting along the shoreline, stingrays foraging in shallow pools near the beach, small terns diving into the water to grab fish, and little ghost crabs skimming along the sand and edge of the water grabbing little pieces of whatever they can find. They all prefer the beach when no humans are around. Go figure.

With the sun come the people: fishermen, vacationers claiming beach territory with chairs and umbrellas, shell collectors, casual strollers with coffee cup in hand, runners, and the workers setting up chairs, umbrellas, and other activities for the day. Moving along the beach each day, I passed houses and resorts before moving into a national shoreline park area and its more remote elements. For me, the rewards of such walks lie beyond the places where the people gather. Most never get there.

Watching the patterns of footprints along the beach, one can see where people turn around. Over a few days, individuals and their routines start to become apparent. Most people walk to the edge of the busy areas and then turn back. Footprints diminish quickly at half a mile, and there is almost no one to be seen at 2 miles. For me, that’s where the magic happens. The wildlife is visible, eddy’s form in undisturbed pockets of surf and sand, and the wind speaks truths uninterrupted by human activity. It’s not easy to get there.

Walking on the sand is tiring. However, there is a universal truth in pushing through the discomforts: there is always something interesting in those steps beyond the point where we turn around.

If It Doesn’t Happen, There’s Something Else

Pausing along the beach to look out over the ocean, I overheard a man with a southern accent talking on his phone. I say “southern accent” because, along with the curious dynamic of hearing one side of a conversation, there is always a sense of otherness in hearing a specific dialect doling out its own particular wisdom. Our regions all have their own colloquialisms but there are universals that come from a nation that is deeply rooted in the values, work ethic, and reasoning of Judeo-Christian thought. Despite our differences, we still share much of the same heritage.

Within seconds, it was clear that the man was speaking with one of his children. He listened intently, his tone was encouraging, and he had a clear sense of what was needed from him. I only listened for about 60 seconds before I hear him say, “If it doesn’t happen, there’s something else.” Faith. Trust. Hope. They underpin our worldview so subtly that we don’t even notice them. We are all hungry for them, seek them in constructive and destructive ways, and possess them as powerful currency in how we interact with those in our lives. We have the power to promote them and the power to take them away.

Of course, there’s always “something else.” Another job. Another love. Another chance. However, delivering what might be a trite response in a powerfully encouraging way is a special challenge, and gift. Here, we are dealing in encouragement and hope is a powerful salve.

The Fezziwig Principle

I like to talk about my friend Bill and his beach services business. Twenty three years later, he’s still out on the beach with his ever-changing crew. The young men who work with him each season, work very hard. They provide a “white glove” service to demanding vacationers, keep their beaches spotless, and manage the setup and take down of hundreds of chairs and umbrellas each day. We spoke every morning last week as I started my walks. One can cover a lot of ground in a five minute conversation.

Walking away from him one morning, I was reminded of Fezziwig from Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Remember Fezziwig? He was the joyful proprietor of the business where Scrooge first worked. Hosting a Holiday Party for his employees, he spent lavishly and encouraged revelry among his employees. I’ve never seen Bill dance, spend lavishly, or laugh out loud. However, he possesses a joy, a quiet serenity, that emanates from his person. He is not chasing wealth, an “exit,” power, control, or pleasure in his little business. He is chasing happiness.

The character of Fezziwig was a reflection of happiness. He represented an abiding joy that was not caught up in worldly notions of success, maximizing his wealth, or squeezing the last drop of productivity out of his employees. We get to choose our lifestyle, the way we live, no matter what we are doing, how much we are making, or the status of our particular occupation. There can be vocation and purpose in wherever we are, what we are called to do, and how we choose to respond. I think Fezziwig, and Bill, are on to something.

Do Not Enter Pool if Ill with Diarrhea

Returning to our condo one day, I noticed a sign at the pool nearby. “Do Not Enter Pool if Ill with Diarrhea.” For some reason, I thought of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Though I doubt this one will present itself in his next book, it struck me on several levels.

First of all, how sad that we need a sign reminding us to stay out of the public pool when we have diarrhea. There was a moment in time when this sign became necessary and everyone ever since must see it and wonder. Likely, it was a parent trying to keep a child happy and occupied but, come on, can’t we figure this out? Such is the way with so many signs and rules. We keep inviting other people to protect us from our own stupidity.

Beyond the obvious in this sign, rests something more profound. Think about your daily interactions. How often are you taking your illness into someone else’s pool? How often are they bringing their illness into yours? The reality is that we routinely bring our “diarrhea” into the lives of those around us, spilling our illness into the collective pool of our togetherness. Think about it: gossip, grumpiness, complaint, sarcasm, ill-will, indifference, and even sadness, are all part of our personal illness which we present to others.

For many, these things become habits which are very hard to break. They are an illness we often choose, then allow to spill onto others. Sometimes, we can’t help the holes we fall into. That’s life. However, we can help taking our sickness into the pools of others. We truly belong to each other and part of that is showing up for one another when in need. I’m not proposing a stoic, keep-it-all-inside form of living. However, my guess is that we could all be a bit more aware of sharing an excess of our own illness and take more responsibility in buffering a bit when we are in a bad way.

Life’s a Beach

There is something about the shoreline that is magical. The unique combination of surf, sand, and sky, can settle the soul and allow a wandering heart and wondering mind to find firm footing, even amid the shifting sand. The real insight is that we all need a bit of distance from time to time, to re-center, re-orient, and reclaim, perspective on our own lives. Life is the beach, and the biggest insights often come from the least obvious and most mundane aspects of our lives. The beautiful ordinary we so often take for granted holds it all, right in front of us, every day.

It’s good to be home. Bringing some of that beach back to Indiana today, the joy comes with it along with the steady rhythm of those waves still washing upon my shores.

Showing 2 comments
  • Trish+Berry

    I felt like I was walking on the beach with you. And thank you for the very vivid reminders!

  • John Harrison

    Love it. Thanks Phil.

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