My soul is full of longing
For the secret of the Sea,
And the heart of the great ocean
Sends a thrilling pulse through me.
The Secret of the Sea – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I’ve spent quite a few hours in the past week mindlessly staring at the movement of the Atlantic Ocean. I normally live on the edge of the same ocean some 21 degrees of latitude to the north, but I don’t do this at home. I stopped just gazing out at the ocean for hours about six weeks after I moved in.
Sure, I still look up out of curiosity when a container ship passes too close by the house for my liking. Every time I see a submarine slink in or out of the harbour I think of the U-boats and the net spanned from Hangman’s Beach to the shore at York Redoubt to keep them out. I wasn’t even alive then, but it is a vivid piece of history that always comes to mind. But, the Atlantic is still there; I’m still aware of it.
I’ll stop and watch a great winter storm, but otherwise I’ve become able to attend to the normal demands of life – washing the dishes, walking the dog, managing my working day, and, especially, hanging out with my friends and clients. With the onset of winter, however, and the closing of all double-glazed windows and sealing of leaky doors, I cut myself off from the sound of it all. Sometimes it is like watching a silent movie as the ships pass like ghosts in the night. When I struggle to find the right words or wonder if I’m on the right track, the waters of the harbour are there to draw my eye and calm my mind.
The sitting and staring, here where I am now, is the same and different. A mere 19 degrees from the Equator: warm enough to sit outside in December. The doors are open. The sound of the waves crashing on the shore is relentless. It is like my mother’s heartbeat. My brain is stimulated by the serotonin release triggered by the sun sparkling on the water. Time stands still and my coffee grows cold, untouched. I’m not wearing a watch; I don’t know what day it is; and I have no idea what’s happening in the world. No-one is telling me it is wrong to sit and do nothing and no-one is expecting me anywhere. It is guilt-free sitting and gazing. I can imagine that I could just sit here forever and petrify into another Buddha. My mind is empty.
Out of that empty stillness something small ignites. Tiny, barely perceptible: a little life force within me. I become aware of a sense of excitement, from nowhere. Energy seems to seep into my limbs. I keep still because I hate the slipping away of the tranquility, but I am so drawn by the sense of excitement. Ideas enter my head. I visualise the next step in my work and in my life. Without being aware of a conscious decision to get up, I get up.
Without thinking that it is going to be good for me, I start moving. A decision is demanded of me: Walk or swim? Will I then walk on the beach to the left or the one to the right? If I swim, shall I swim in the pool or the ocean?
Having decided, I start the slow, systematic rhythmic movement of swimming or walking. This is Phase Two of my inadvertent meditation practice. By emptying out my mind of any conscious and structured thought I released powers in my head I don’t understand but which I’ve grown to love and trust was Phase One – letting my eyes play in the waves and wander to the horizon. As I walk or swim, the temptation to turn back, to sit down and write action plans, work out budgets and to tell someone becomes extremely strong, but the pleasure of the water against my skin or the warm firm sand at my feet is stronger. I keep going.
By the time I get home there is no time to do the writing or the planning. The family is milling about and there are things to do together. I don’t talk about my new and deeper ideas because they’re still in their infancy. They would not survive the ‘yes, buts’; the unconditional, uncritical ‘go for it, girl!’ or the one-upmanship that tends to surface. The bemused looks are the worst, because then I have to try to explain my idea – still in an invertebrate state, no skeleton to hang things onto; no protective carapace; and the idea becomes discredited in the telling thereof. Instead, I hang out with the family and love to see the fathers my sons have become.
The next morning finds me, on the same wicker chair, cold coffee on the table, watching the waves crash on the reef and the sun sparkling on the water. I have come to understand everything by thinking of nothing.
POST-SCRIPT: When I’ve checked in on my flight home, and my baggage has been handed over to the airline staff, I’m in that state of limbo where you have to do as you’re told, line up, take off your shoes, be patted down or x-rayed, find your gate; and all that. I think of that as being in the bovine state. Cattle being herded through channels and gates: their behaviour and demeanour monitored and managed to ensure that they’re loaded into the right transport for what awaits them in the future. A different kind of mindlessness.
Then, as the plane accelerates down the runway and that feeling of weightlessness arises upon lift-off, I reach for my pen and notepaper and I start writing. I am so full of the joy of it that not even the little boy kicking the back of my seat can get me off course. I’m sure the airline will be saving on its fuel costs on this flight because the thrill of that clarity of vision makes me weightless in my seat. I know I can and will do everything I’m jotting down. And, I know that the cold, grey north Atlantic outside my window at home will keep me on track, even though it isn’t swimmable right now and there isn’t much sunshine.
I know, now that I’m away from it, that the north Atlantic had already worked the same magic on me as the tropical Atlantic has. The dreams I had, overlooking that harbour in the summer, were the humus in which my new dreams and plans are growing while I visit in the Caribbean. The dark uncertainty that comes with changing countries – even when you’re coming home – has lifted.
© Delphine du Toit Dec 2013