This is my work

Other people’s words about … the sea

Vale, Mary Oliver. I’m not a fan of all of her work — not by a long shot — but I do love the way she observed and wrote about nature: intimately, intricately, affectionately, quietly, humbly.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I Go Down to the Shore
by Mary Oliver

That lovely voice

This day, and the next, and the next

Other people’s words about … the vastness of the ocean

For every day went ahead like a ferry on its cables, from one shore to the other, passing on its route those same red buoys tasked with breaking up the water’s monopoly on vastness, making it measurable, and in so doing giving a false impression of control.

From ‘Flights
by Olga Tokarczuk
(translated by Jennifer Croft)

A false impression of control:
breakwater in the foreground and a line of buoys on the horizon …

Grey

Other people’s words about … the sea

He opened the window and let in the ocean, gulped in that grey air as though oxygen was enough to save him from the people in the house, watched the waves, noted the dark rip forming at the southern end of the beach. He ignored the sound of Charlie’s voice in the lounge, hilarious, oblivious, the sounds of the girl in the bathroom behind him, scrubbing insistently; called to mind the tentacles of the cloud from earlier, saw the colours he’d mix [if he were to paint it], the strokes, the shapes. After a few moments, his breathing slowed and he began to enter the place where no one else could come.

From ‘Bluebottle
by Belinda Castles

Like Jack in the quote above, sometimes I find that the best cure, the only cure, for my day’s woes is a few deep breaths of fresh ocean air. That’s why I live so close to the sea, just a few minutes’ walk away.

The kind of seaside scene Castles describes in the passage above isn’t your stereotypical calm blue seas and white sands and warm, soft air. No, it’s a grey day, a wild day, an ominous day, heralding the end of summer. And yet it save[s] Jack, all the same.

When I took the beachside photos you see in this post, just a few weeks ago, the air was grey, just as it is for Jack as he looks out of his bedroom window onto the beach scene below. But in my case, the greyness came from a winter fog rather than a summer storm. This was a thick, dank, spectral fog that hung over the ocean for half an hour or so and then drifted away again.

And, like Jack, I gulped in that grey air and let the rest of my day fade away — and felt all the better for it.

The silent sea

Other people’s words about … the sea

I thought about the kind of people who come to the sea to look at it: how they put themselves down on whatever rock or bench is around and gaze for hours into the distance as though something out there makes life seem meaningful, or at least less incomprehensible. What are they looking at? I asked myself. What do they see when they see the sea? Most people seemed to find the sea deeply interesting but it held no particular depth or virtue for me. The most profound effect the sea had on me was that sometimes, from the living-room window, it quite literally made me want to throw up. I’d always thought that people who liked the sea were people who didn’t like society, that it was people who’d failed in their relationships who turned to the sea. There was something in their glazed faces — leaning on harbour railings, walking along the crumbling promenade, staring over the tops of their newspapers — which disturbed me. It seemed they wanted to be immersed in it, that as they looked out at the sea they entered into a special relationship with it which, to a certain extent, entitled them to speak to it. Because people who spent too much time looking at the sea did start to commune with it, as if nature held the answer to all of life’s important questions, their expressions suggesting that they were not so much watching the sea as conversing with it. I could tell from the way they sat, dead still, that the sea spoke to them and that they, for their part, were receptive to its communication. But what was the sea saying to them? The sea didn’t speak to me. What do you say to them that you won’t say to me? I asked the sea, but the sea was silent and had no communication to make.

from ‘Somehow
by Danielle Dutton (in the Paris Review, #224
)

This passage made me laugh (which I think — although I’m not entirely sure — was the writer’s mischievous intention). So I had to include it in my collection of passages about the sea, didn’t I?

Anyone who even glances at my blog will know that I fall into that category of people to whom the narrator in the passage above, Mr Field, refers as people who spen[d] too much time looking at the sea

And I suspect I always will!

Something out there …

One day

Other people’s words about … the sea

After lunch, as a reward for their fine behaviour, Nurse allowed them to bundle into coats and hats and bolt from a back door along a path that ran behind Mr Styles’s house to a private beach. A long arc of snow-dusted sand tilted down to the sea. Anna had been to the docks in winter, many times, but never to a beach. Miniature waves shrugged up under skins of ice that crackled when she stomped them. Seagulls screamed and dove in the riotous wind, their bellies stark white. The twins had brought along Buck Rogers ray guns, but the wind turned their shots and death throes into pantomime.

From ‘Manhattan Beach’
by Jennifer Egan

I have never been to a beach in the kind of winter that Jennifer Egan describes in the passage above. Many years ago, in Michigan, I walked across a frozen lake (and thereby learnt the meaning of the term ‘wind chill factor’), but that was a lake, not the ocean. I’d like to experience that wild, violent chill, just once in my life.

The beach I know and live by has its own seasons of peace and restlessness. Often, the early months of Autumn are times of softness and stillness, and this past April there were several days when the sea lay like blue, shining silk on a bed of sand.

I took the photos in today’s post one evening around sunset in the first week of April.

As you can see, my coastal world is utterly unlike Egan’s, but there is wildness at its essence, all the same.

Unpacked

Other people’s words about … surfing and the sea

Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable — language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment was frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water colour; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. The last factors are like the ones that the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.

Of course, the moment can’t be frozen.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

My partner is in his mid-fifties now, and, like William Finnegan, has been surfing since he was a teenager. Though he and I are both avid beach-lovers, I know that when he looks at the sea, he sees something different from what I see.

I (from my admittedly middle-class, Western, leisured perspective) look at the sea for beauty. I don’t understand the sea’s tides, its swells, its waves. I understand, simply, how the sea makes me feel.

It’s hard to express my feelings about the sea in actual words, though. They are, to use Finnegan’s words in a slightly different way, subtle, fleeting,subcortical, ineffable.

And … good.