Other people’s words about … beauty
I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.
from To the River
by Olivia Laing
Haunted by waters. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase?
Though the words I’ve quoted above are about a river rather than the sea, still, they ring true for me. For most of my adult life — except for the two or three years I spent in my early twenties, travelling and working abroad — I have chosen to live within walking distance of the sea. In my late twenties and thirties, as I’ve mentioned before, I lived in a series of share households: different houses every eighteen months or so, different housemates. But each of those houses was close to the sea.
These days, I live in a house just a few minutes’ walk to the beach. Open a window, and you can hear waves rolling onto shore. Step onto the front porch, and you’ll smell seaweed drying out beyond the water’s reach — a damp, bleached, faintly rotten smell. Look around indoors, and you’ll see drifts of sand piling up in the corners.
The sea surrounds me. It’s how I make sense of things. It’s how I feel at ease.
There’s another phrase I love in the words above: susceptible to beauty.
Like anyone else, I have good days and bad days. There are days when I feel at home, here on this earth: when my skin feels comfortable beneath the layers of my clothes, and the warmth of the sun feels kind and good. And there are days when the world seems vast, alien, spinning, remote. What gets me through those latter kinds of day are tiny moments of beauty, out there by the water: pinpricks of sunlight sparkling on the tips of waves, like sequins on a piece of cloth; clouds chasing across the horizon, billowing and grey; a cluster of yellow flowers growing in the dip of a dune, petals cupped to reflect the light.
I took the photographs you see here late one August afternoon, just a few weeks ago. Sitting at my desk, working at my computer, I felt hemmed in suddenly: by streets and footpaths, by fences and cement driveways, by the sound of my neighbour hawking up sputum in his bathroom. The longing to get away from all of that was so strong it felt akin to starving. I felt hollow through and through.
I shut down my computer, stepped outside, and walked down the road to the sea.
Five minutes later there I was, standing on the sand, looking out at the water and the sky. It was close to sunset and I wandered a while along the shore, released at last: from work and worry and words. And I saw something, then, that I don’t know how to describe, though I’ll try: I saw spring coming. The air had a certain quality to it — a softness, perhaps, after the steely bleakness of winter. I thought that if I reached out with my hand I might touch that beautiful softness. It seemed possible, just for a moment.
Looking at the photographs now, I don’t see what I did then. Perhaps you don’t, either. But I know that I saw it, all the same. It was one of those moments — those tiny moments of beauty — to which I, like Olivia Laing, am susceptible.
I am grateful for those moments, is what I’m trying to say. They give me a kind of gladness. They bring me home.