A brief history of joy
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
—T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
The City’s halting trains have done everything in their power to block my escape, my pilgrimage to the coast. But I am finally in the water. The January morning is welcoming. Cold, yes, but sunny, no wind. The air along the shore is clear, bracing.
Despite the winter chill, there is a healthy crowd gathered in the shallow breaks off this barrier island. Maybe twenty surfers, all decked out, like me, in heavy wetsuits—hooded, booted, and gloved. We sit perched on our boards, backs to the beach, watching the horizon. Hawk-eyed, hungry. Some joke and holler, but most observe quietly, intently. The waves, when they come, are small, but consistent and rideable.
In the lineup I splash about inexpertly, trying to find the right spot to intercept the ever-shifting swells. I launch out on a few, gasping happily at the rush of ice water into my suit as I plunge once, then twice, beneath the surface. The cold hand of the ocean on my chest awakens me from the somnolence of the rest of my hours among the sullen streets and hushed offices of the City. Far from succumbing, my blood responds hotter, eager to be reminded of its will to fight, and to live.
In the first lull, I sit and wait patiently for my appointment with God. In my fumbling, pagan way, I repeat the prayer that I say each time. I request a safe outing, and offer my thankfulness, like the fisherman, for whatever the sea decides to give that day, fallow or plenty.
I’ll make that most banal confession of modern man: I often can’t bring myself to believe. Or to be more precise, to fully trust the part of me that believes. On solid land, swaddled in the numbing complacency of our civilization, the earnestness of prayer feels self-conscious, even silly. But in the water, the everyday reality of being at the mercy of a convening Power beyond comprehension is made manifest, incarnate beyond dispute. Out here, our true relation to the Absolute unfurls unobscured by the superficial domination of the world that we blithely take for granted while we yet may.
Sometimes it appears right away. Sometimes it comes later, sneaking up, surprising me just when I am exhausted by the sea’s recalcitrance and disgusted by my own ineptitude. But there is always, has always been, a moment when I am overtaken by joy, reduced to stuttering gratitude. When my conviction of the futility of my life simply falls away, like a scab, revealing healthy, healed skin.
And it is always different, the voice in my ear always different, the dancing visions never the same twice. Her sheer multiplicity continues to astonish: her shifting faces, her arcane languages, her inscrutable urges, her endless dark rooms filled with the libraries of the history of the world.
Noon comes and goes, and the others begin to clear out. I arrived late, and most of them have been out in the cold for hours already. The swell is dying down. Long stretches of flat now, only briefly punctuated by quickly closing crests. But I am fresh and warm. There is no question of going in.
Another hour later, it is just me and two others. We form a loose pack, lingering expectantly just off the stone jetty, huddled at the vanishing spot where the last of the waves are still breaking. Then they, too, head in. A jolly man with an impressive beard, the more so for being cemented in ice, shrugs as he walks his board past me in the whitewater.
“I can’t feel my feet!” he laughs.
I am still not cold. But I am tired, weighed down by thick neoprene and the lethargy of several weeks of holiday feasting. And I realize that, for the first time in my young career, I am by myself on the water.
Being alone in all this freezing ocean unnerves me. I suddenly feel very much the Midwestern boy that I still am, gaping at the incomprehensible grey expanse. An imposter here, albeit a sympathetic one: plucked by fate from one endless plain and flung around the world only to come to rest in another.
I crane my neck to see as far as I can up and down the shoreline, past the infinite regress of jetties receding in the distance. No one.
Alone, my mind is released from the incessant calculations over how to maneuver, how to navigate the jostling crowd. I bob on the gentle pulses—they are no longer big enough to break into waves—loitering in this calm waiting room between rideable sets.
I see now that I have been distracted, as so often, from the real events of the day. Quickened by fear, my senses return to me with what seems to be double the acuity. My consciousness has become supple, crouched: a radical receptivity.
I see now the improbable opera, the minute choreography of life and death, being performed just for me. I follow every gesture of the sea-cormorants as they call, then rise, then dive for their daily bread. I devour the light, the soothing texture of the matte-grey mottle that now shrouds the sun. I inhale the heavy salt of the winter air. I feel, as in my own chest, the variations in the sea’s breath as I am lifted up, and then set down, on her swirling lungs.
It is an unexpected, overwhelming sensation of being wholly absorbed into the natural order. I have become just another limb of her proprioception, my every act prefigured in her mind’s eye. The incessant anxious analysis of Being to which I have become so accustomed is resolved, simply enough, by participation in it: fully myself, and fully creation. The barnacled accumulations of defeat and despondency that perch and gnaw on my bones—these are scoured away, and dissolved in her blood. I am abolished; I am free.
And out beyond this whirling pageant: the darkening horizon. Far off, at the edge of the world, there is no more boundary between slate sea and slate sky.
Only minutes before, the hulls of distant lurking cargo ships, beetles on a ledge, had stood out in crisp relief. Now they are lost, subsumed in a towering pillar of clouds. The white columns at first appear stationary, but this is a trick of perspective. On patient observation one can discern that they are in fact sweeping forward rapidly, a charging battalion of downy soldiers.
For a moment everything is still. The calling birds fall silent. Then the wind arrives, the vanguard of the storm, its caressing hand raising goosebumps over the sea’s glassy surface.
Then the white curtains overtake me, and I am bathed in falling snow.
I gawk up at the flakes, delighted. As if I were a naive child raised in the desert, as if I hadn’t misspent my youth up to my neck in the stuff. In this implausible place, old things are made new. Like a child, or perhaps a madman, I cannot contain my laughter.
I am the sole citizen of this ephemeral snow-globe, this pop-up kingdom spanning only a few meters. Outside of her boundaries, nothing. All the world is now contained in this dome of sheer white: the jagged stone jetty looming out of the haze the last remaining evidence of the reign of man. The apartment blocks that once stood at the edge of the beach have been wiped clean away, and even the ineradicable rumble of urban life has dissolved, half-remembered. Now there is only the murmuring of the sea, her each lilting movement reverberating sharply in the silence, like an early riser crossing the creaking floor of a sleeping house.
I close my eyes, absorb the stillness. Reopen them. Where is the City? I try to recall, but my mind is smooth, serenely vacant. Does its vast hulking apparatus—the miles and miles of metal, ton after ton of concrete, the roar of billions of transactions underpinning uncharted territories of hunger, despair, desire, ambition—still exist somewhere? Had it ever existed? Or am I awakening, somehow, out of a frenzied dream of what an insane person once imagined human civilization to be? Into the only reality that exists, has ever existed—the sea, the snowy firmament, and the still-small voice of God? And when I return? Which will be the seductive illusion, which the firm foundation?