Things as They Are When You're Nearer to the Earth

ON the Georgia coast, seasons slip into being. At the waning of summer, there is only the anticipation of cooler weather in the offing. The days are still hot but there is a different slant to the light in the mornings, and the leaves of the dogwoods hold a faint blush. There is the bittersweet promise of a season to come that will be brief and dear and can't possibly last. But autumn is the perfect time for the beaches here. The tourists have returned to their natural habitats, and now those of us who live on the coast can reclaim the place. Ours are the lonely beaches where sea oats rustle in the wind, audible now that the radios have mercifully disappeared. We are back in control; the lonely, the old ladies in their baseball caps, the young boys casting nets into the surf, the solitary fishermen, the walkers with their dogs (for some reason usually retrievers), and those of us who simply love the solitude and space offered by windswept strands. On a sunlit morning, I took my 18-month-old grandson, Mark, to the beach. The moment his feet touched the sand, he began running as fast as his strong little legs would carry him, listing slightly leeward in his headlong rush to the sea. His hair was a golden aureole of curls in the sun, his skin taut as a plum. From the beginning of life, he'd never shown the slightest fear of the water. He'd flown to the sea like a martin to the gourd, with adults in hot pursuit. But this morning when he reached the wa ter, he stopped. He looked out to sea, then down at his feet in the surf, then up to the sky. Then he turned to me and smiled. It was a smile of utter, beatific joy. In that instant, it had all come together for him; earth, sea, and sky were his. As I stood next to him, my hand on his head, a single curl wrapped around my finger like a strand of silk. The tensile strength of that fragile strand metamorphosed, wrapping itself around my heart as well as my hand. And I knew that long after he'd returned to his own island, t hose fragile strands would hold, unbroken. I think that sometimes, as we get taller, we forget to look at things closely that are nearer the earth than we are. When you are with a child, you get down to his level and discover things you have forgotten. Mark and I explored the hidey-hole of a fiddler crab, he leaning down to peer into the dark recesses, while I knelt. He discovered a cache of sea debris at the high water mark; the black casings of skate eggs like tiny purses, the long strands of a channeled whelk, a frond of scarlet seaweed. Each item was a bright discovery, each an adventure. He listened to a shell that holds the sounds of the sea. Back at the house in the damp coolness under the stilts, we found tiny black frogs, no larger than my thumbnail. They may have been inhabitants all along, but I hadn't been on Mark's level and had missed them. A few days later, I walked the strand alone, missing my grandson and son, who is now a single parent. At supper hour, the beach was largely deserted except for a group of gulls that stood looking out to sea and some brown pelicans flying low in formation over the water. I watched as an old man walked slowly over the walkway leading down to the beach. At the snow fence that separates the dunes from the strand, he paused. Taking off his shoes and socks he placed them neatly, side by side against the fence. He wore the garb of a countryman visiting the city: a white dress shirt, starched, with sleeves rolled up, and dark trousers. When he removed his shirt, folding it on top of his shoes, his undershirt revealed his "Farmer Brown" tan, exposing arms and neck roughened and tanned by years of working in the weather, his upper arms pale and vulnerable. Like Mr. Eliot's Prufrock, he rolled the bottoms of his trousers, and slowly, carefully, walked toward the water. BY this time, the tide was going out and the sea had flattened and become calm. He walked down to the surf and stood there, looking out to sea, just as Mark had done. I had the feeling that this was his first time at the ocean. I sat nearby watching him, sort of waiting for someone to join him, maybe family members for a picnic. But he remained alone. He began walking further into the water. The waves caught him, drenching him to his waist and still he stood, balancing himself on the shifting sands. He d idn't smile or make a sound, but just stood as the waves buffeted him. Eventually he moved back up on shore, and walked to the high-water mark where there were myriad tiny shells and the accumulation of sea things. He poked gingerly at a jellyfish and rubbed a toe over the tiny shells. Leaning down, he picked up a shell to examine, then put it back to the place where he had found it. Each object he found seemed to be a source of delight, of wonder; each discovery like a newly minted coin. I thought about Mark and his response to each new thing, and as I watched the old man it was evident that they had something in common. A small boy and an old man shared the same sense of wonder, of delight. How the child in us loves what is wild and free, how the heart lifts at even a glimpse of glory. The secret is in the ability to see a thing with fresh vision, unclouded by worldliness. Each of them saw Blake's "world in a grain of sand," and each of them, for an instant, "held infinity in his palm." I had felt such joy that morning, watching my grandson discover the wonders of this earth with his receptive young mind capable of understanding, enjoying, and absorbing names and places in the universe. But watching the old man, I realized that it's not only the young who have this sense of wonder, but also the young in heart. Sky, sea, and earth brought forth that sense of delight; that rare, touching innocence usually glimpsed in small children. The Psalmist wrote about one "Who humbleth himself to be hold the things that are in the heavens, and in the earth." As I observed the old man and recalled the intense scrutiny of the very young, I felt that tiny bubble of joy that lies unbidden and unbiddable, rise to the surface and fill my heart. To see a thing clearly requires that the object be limned by time and space, visible to the observer with the inner eye open and the outer vision enhanced by calm and serenity.

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