Windows to the sea

It was autumn and leaves were falling, when my friend Inga told me about the little beach house perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific - an available sublet for a few months, maybe for the whole winter. ''You should be living in it,'' she said.

At that time in my life, just after my divorce, I didn't care very much where I lived; I was more concerned about getting along with my parents, who had taken me in - concerned with mourning my defunct marriage, and getting back on my feet financially. But once I saw the little house, I knew Inga was right.

From the street it looked like a shack. The tiny porch slanted downward like a failed cake; it was rotting away beneath one's tread. The yard had reverted to a semiwild state with high grass and vines and secretive thickets.

Inside the cottage, all things had the yellow and brown patina of age and neglect. There was a bright pinhole of light coming through a bare seaward windowsill where termites had eaten through to sunlight. Water stains were a mute history of coastal storms on floors, sills, ceiling. When I poked around in the fireplace, a brick fell from up inside the chimney, raising a cloud of fine ashes. The little house would have made a splendid bonfire.

But the windows! On every outer wall were marvelous bare windows that confronted the street, that surveyed an open field, that overlooked the sea. On the seaward side of the house there were great multipaned French doors that opened out onto a spacious sunporch that ran the length of the house. The sunporch was all windows - windows to the sea.

Upon moving in, I resolved to keep the windows bare. I had nothing to hide; from every window, there was something different to see.

My first day in the house was largely spent gazing out at the 180-degree panorama of seacoast from the sunporch windows, or else listening to the sounds of the place: the all-embracing murmur of the sea far below; the creak of ceiling joists as the warming sunlight moved from one side of the roof to the other. Putting my ear to the wall, I heard the sound of bits of grain slowingly being poured into sacks, the sounds of termites. A wind came up off the sharp cliffs, and the cottage trembled. It survived as Asians say trees survive - by bending, by moving.

I found myself standing in the center of the living room, motionless, listening, not even thinking. It occurred to me then that, for the first time in my entire life, I was living alone, completely alone.

The winter I spent in the little cottage on the cliff was also the winter of my heart. My son had gone to live with his father for a year. I lost my job. I survived financially by eating dinner every night with my parents.

But suddenly there was time enough for everything. Time to gather driftwood on the beach and haul it up a hundred steps to the house. Time to collect shells and sea-polished glass, to write bad poetry, to work on a novel. I had no television, just an old radio, vintage 1930.

Everywhere I looked I wanted to sketch. For hours I sat on an old army surplus campstool and drew what I saw - views of the sea in every mood, views of the house in every room. As an artist I lived dangerously - no pencil, no eraser - drawing that first tenuous ink line across the pristine page, in search of something I still cannot put into words.

Whenever I sketched, I entered completely into the scene, became the scene, the process of sketching. Three or four hours later, I had to force myself to climb out of the picture, out of the scene, to get on with life. I had found the perfect escape from this century through a form of adventure that was also a profound source of peace.

I kept an informal journal in which I recorded the inner and outer storms of that winter. Also described were my friends I saw nearly every day. There was Hiram, an eight-inch lizard who entered and left the house at will (I never found how), and a fat mustard-colored spider who flung its giant web across the outside of my bedroom windowpane in gallant defiance of gale-strength winds. Reginald, a territorial hummingbird, loved the flaming red cactus flowers that grew on the cliff and sat on the very tip of a vertical cactus spike, guarding and defending its kingdom against all comers.

By the end of April, the sublet time was up. I left the little cliff house reluctantly, but not before I had two dozen sketches and a wealth of other gifts from the house.

Among those gifts: a winter of seascapes and sunsets and golden sunrises. Time to become reacquainted with myself.

I learned a new conception of beauty, which honors the essential form and design of things more than appearances.

Perhaps the best gifts of all, though, were the windows - all those bare, wavy, rattling, seaward windows that let in the sun, the wind, the rain. They would not let me fold inward upon my pain.

Because of the cliff-house winter, I will always have in my heart windows to the sea.

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