The charms of the sea
The following is an excerpt from Robert Finch's book "The Outer Beach," pages 148-149. It's as if Finch sees into my own experience of the beach and why her charms have never lost their effect on my heart.
Over the holiday weekend I was visited by an old friend from the Berkshires who at the moment is undergoing a crisis of sorts, both personal and professional. He recently lost his teaching job in a local high school, his marriage is deteriorating, and he seems to have lost his bearings. In short, his life seems to have gone awry. But he wanted to talk, and so late one afternoon, in descending dark and light snowflakes, we drove up to Nauset Light Beach in Eastham and walked along the barrier beach. The sea kept us ceaseless company.
As we talked, he seemed to be fighting for a sense of individual significance in a world focused on abstract mass crisis. He seemed to be looking for someone to tell him that he’d made some of the right choices, that his existence had mattered and had some form to it. He was, as we all are at times, close to being overwhelmed by life. I reassured him as best I could, but I knew I could not really solve anything for him.
He is from the hills of western New England, the mountains of the Berkshires and Vermont. He was formed by them, as were his father and his father’s father. He belongs to that place in a way I can never belong there. I got to know him when, for a few years, he lived and taught here on the Cape. But even then he was always mocking us as “flatlanders,” and he returned to the hills as soon as he could. He trusted their laconic solidity and unmoving expanse, and not what trust seems to have failed him.
I think I took him to the beach that winter’s day to show him that it offered a truer image of the human condition. One’s foundations continually shift here; the sea regularly breaks through in new places, constantly forming new inlets, closing off old ones, running in new currents. The beach teaches us the need to adapt continually to change, always to be watching for undertows and rogue waves, to dance nimbly along its edges. If I have learned anything from living here, it is that this world is not geared for large answers, and certainly not for final ones.
I didn’t say any of this to him, of course. Most men tend to speak indirectly, obliquely, about such matters. But I knew he understood what iw as trying to show him that day on the beach, as I knew that he would reject it. For it is, after all, the place where we live that gives us the metaphors we live by, whether we’re born to a place or choose to make it our home. If I were to live by aesthetics alone I would probably live where he does, among mountains, for I actually prefer them to the low grandeur of the sea. But the sea tells me more about myself, as the hills do him, and so that I why each of us chooses to live where we do.
He left the next day, and seemed glad to be going home. We both knew that he’d have to continue to take his chances in an uncertain world. The hills may temporarily seem to have failed him, but he would never leave them. They are his hills, they belong to him as he belongs to them, and, just as I seek solace and reassurance from the beach, it is from the hills that he will have to find new patterns for his life. (January 1974)