Monday, January 23, 2012

My Lesson From the Sea

It's now going on two years since I visited the Atlantic Ocean. It was time spent, for the most part, on a quiet beach in the off-season, which was, for me, the perfect time to be there. There were early morning walkers, some with dogs, some in pairs, some alone and deep in thought. Many were visitors from someplace else who had their own purpose for being there. Almost always these fellow travelers offered a hello, or a nod in greeting and, occasionally, would stop and visit with me about the ocean, the day, the weather, some observation they had made. And some would sit quietly on the benches, set near the sand dunes, just looking out to sea.

My time included some deep thought, but mostly it was about opening my arms wider to life and taking in all that the ocean had to offer by way of understanding myself a bit more. Some lessons were hard-won, and some were dropped at my feet unbidden, as wholly unexpected gifts. I have only recently come to understand more fully just what the ocean and the days spent there really brought me, and eventually taught me. The ocean is a wonderful thing, full of deep mystery, and so inviting. It offers us an opportunity to write our names in its "book of waves," to feel a part of that never-ending night sky; it teaches us to become our own lighthouse.

This morning, with several inches of fresh snow outside the door, a morning poem arrived in an email that left me smiling with its beautiful timing, its ability to so poetically distill these lessons from the sea, what it has taught me:  it drew me to its shores so that I might become better able to See.

"I Was Never Able to Pray"

Wheel me down to the shore
where the lighthouse was abandoned
and the moon tolls in the rafters.

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
and see the stars flaring out, one by one,
like the forgotten faces of the dead.

I was never able to pray
but let me inscribe my name
in the book of waves

and then stare into the dome
of a sky that never ends
and see my voice sail into the night.

~ Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch lives in New York and is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Painting by Winslow Homer. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he once lived and painted in a studio at Prouts Neck, just down the beach and around the corner from where I stayed. Perhaps one day I'll return and pay my respect for all the hours of pleasure his paintings have brought me.


  1. Powerful poem, and lovely post. I can watch the ocean for hours too and I appreciate it more the older I get.

  2. Good on Edward. The ocean to me in many ways is like the sky. One can get lost in its immensity and be easily put in their place about where they fit into the big scheme of things.

  3. "Powerful poem" is exactly what I was about to say when I saw that Jenny Woolf said it, too. I love the smell of salt air and the sound of ocean waves rolling up on shore. Now I will also think of images from this poem.

  4. We pray everyday whether we realize it or not, Homer is one of my favorite artists.

  5. Jenny, I was so taken by its timeliness and the images are so stirring. I think we see many things differently as life moves forward.

    One Fly, They are really, in many ways, mirror images of each other. I like how the poet couldn't pray, but yet his thoughts formed a non-traditional form of prayer, not to someone or something, but to Life itself. but, that's just me. :) It certainly does offer perspective, in many ways.

    BLOG Nancy, I loved falling asleep to the sound of the waves, as you said, "rolling up on shore," just outside my window. Very nice.

  6. Love the poem, love the painting, and, mostly, I love your beautiful meditation on the sea. Here in South Carolina, where I am spending the winter, I walk the beach almost every day. I assume you have read Ann Morrow Lindbergh's "Gift of the Sea." If not, you will love it.

  7. Paul, I agree, and each person defines for themselves what that means.

    George, Thank you so much for your comments. It sounds like a wonderful way to spend the winter. I have read her book, and it offers some fine thoughts and observations. Perhaps it's time for a re-read.

  8. I have journeyed far through the fires of my youth and, like the heroes of old, I have come home to the welcoming embrace of the everlasting sea.

    Cletis L. Stump

  9. I have such a great fear of the ocean... but this poems speaks my language and I wept on a second reading.
    I have missed something in my fear. I will return to the edges of the Pacific with a different eye after reading this amazing poem.

  10. farmlady, I'm so glad this offered you another look at the ocean. I hope that you will visit and that it will enable you to see it with new eyes, and no fear.

  11. Oh, this fine piece of writing brought back the best memories. I spent a lot of time on the ocean, literally my dad had a small working boat, and learned to love its boundless energy, and never ending horizon. When I was about 20 I had to make a choice as to where to live, the forest or the ocean. I made my choice and have never regretted it, but I return to the ocean once or twice a year and wonder what life would have been had I chose a different path.

    And I loved the poem. Thanks.

  12. Hi Bill, They certainly offer different ways of life, but the forest, as you so keenly know, offers its own gifts. That never-ending horizon drew me down to its shores time and time again. Such wonder.

    Thank you.

  13. I really like the ocean, I try to include it in most of my vacations.

  14. We went to Florida many summers when I was a kid. Haven't been to the ocean since, but you never forget the scent of the salt air, the rhythm of the waves, the sand between your toes, and sound of the gulls. The flat prairieland reminds me of that endless ocean view. ;)

  15. Strange How, if walking by the Ocean or in Forest,You Meet A Stranger + (usually)You Greet Oneanother.....acknowledgement......Yet on a busy city street ,The Stranger is ignored .Hence the expression Dont Make Waves !?

  16. I have to agree with both your words and the sentiments expressed in that delightful poem. There is something about the coast which calls upon you to open up. I suppose it is being faced with a physical presence that is almost without boundaries, it somehow forces your mind along similar tracks.

  17. It's been about 10 years since I saw the Atlantic, and I'm way overdue. Reading your post, I could imagine myself there, sitting & thinking and just enjoying. Oh yeah, having some lobster too.

  18. Steve, It provides endless days of beauty and wonder. I loved it.

    Rita, Yes! The prairie can be like an ocean of gently waving grass for as far as the eye can see. It's that limitless horizon that's so intriguing. ;)

    Tony, It's true. we do tend to greet one another in those cases, but the city hurries everyone along. Perhaps we should start a new trend and perhaps it will have a ripple effect. ;)

    Alan, It does open ones mind up and I think it also pulls us into its sense of mystery. It's almost impossible to resist, isn't it?

    Bob, Well, now you've gone and done it. ;) You have me wishing for lobster, too! Oh, does that sound good. The ocean stays with us, doesn't it?

  19. I am living here on the opposite coast, the Pacific one. It's different, but being near the water is magical to me. I moved here from the center of the continent (Colorado) just so I could be close to the ocean. I know what you mean about how soothing it is to contemplate writing my name in the book of waves. Thanks for such a lovely poem.

  20. DJan, I do wish I lived nearer the ocean so I could at least pay a regular visit. The woods offer something similar, just in a different form. I want to look out at that endless horizon again....
    Thank you!

  21. Walking on the beach is my absolute favorite thing to do in life. And I just got back from my favorite beach in Dominical, Costa Rica. Life is good.

  22. Sharon, That sounds absolutely wonderful! I was just telling a friend today, that I would love to visit Costa Rica! ;)

  23. I love the ocean, but make do with the beach these days. My years of open-ocean sailing probably are over, but the lessons I learned will endure. There is nothing in the world like the night watch, a rising storm, the ongoing shush of the waves passing the hull.

    One of my favorite writers about the sea, Tristan Jones, had a few words I think apply here;

    The Sea knows nothing of money or power.
    She knows only loyalty and audacity and determination and courage and, by God, she knows an unthinking, unseeing fool when she encounters one.

    She knows awareness.
    She knows patience.
    She knows staunchness.
    She knows foresight.
    Yet she knows nothing of our longing for riches or fame or even of our efforts to overcome or thwart her.

    She gives an illusion of freedom,
    but in reality she demands restraint, caution, self-discipline, and a deep belief in the grace of God.

    If we have none of these attributes
    when we join her,
    we shall have them when we have known her
    for any length of time,
    or we will be defeated or dead.

    Yes, ma'am.

  24. Linda, I like this poem very much. it certainly does describe how to approach her. I cannot understand people who walk beside her, oblivious to the grace right there at their feet.

  25. Dear Teresa,
    I liked everything about this post: the Winslow Homer watercolor, your stay by the ocean and the line "it teaches us to become our own lighthouse," the poem by Hirsch, the thoughtful and reflective comments, and the poem that "shoreacres" shared with you.

    All of these combine to make me long, really long, to visit the ocean and spend time there. I've never done that.

    Teresa, my two Garrison Keillor anthologies arrived yesterday: "Good Poems" and "Good Poems for Hard Times." They sit now on by bedside table. I so look forward to memorizing some poems by contemporary poets. Thank you for encouraging me with this.


  26. Dee, It is a wonderful poem shoreacres shared isn't it? So apropros. I hope you give yourself the gift of the sea. Nothing else quite like it. You and she seem perfectly suited for one another.

    I'm so glad you received the two books. I think they're wonderful compilations. Enjoy!