Embracing the In-Betweens

Overused expressions from popular culture are to be avoided in general, often repeated as they are to the point of becoming trite.  But I can think of no more appropriate phrase for this post than that of John Lennon in his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”:  “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  An unfortunate side effect of the holidays (which begins for me the moment Halloween decorations hit store shelves) is the occurrence of lulls in the in-betweens.  The three month period for which the Halloween season and New Year’s Day serve as bookends may be viewed as an imaginary mountain range.  The peaks in this range are the calendar holidays themselves, and they are connected by a lengthy trail which requires time and patience in the ascent of each peak but then plunges precipitously down the other side, dipping into the mundane.  An irony of this festive time of year is that what is considered mundane–the ordinary chores, the routine tasks, the minutiae of the workday–begins to feel even more so.  Jobs become drudgerous with much clock-watching.  Occupations that allow for little time off during the holidays can even become sources of bitterness.  We who appreciate this part of the year juggle conflicting feelings of eagerness for cherished traditions with the fear that they will end too quickly.

 

So here is a challenge to myself and to anyone else who struggles with finding a balance between these special days and all the tedium-laced, unremarkable ones that surround them.  Let go.  Halloween, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve will take care of themselves.  The embedded psychological weight of each of these all but insists on their prominence on the calendar.  Keep traditions, but understand that they will endure without excess of effort and anxiety.  The preparation of food or the purchase of gifts may be necessary, but fretting over making the day memorable is not.  Instead, direct that energy into embracing the in-betweens.

 

Nature is a worthwhile place to start.  Fall colors peaked weeks ago, and a majority of hardwoods have lost their leaves, but throughout Middle Tennessee there are little pockets of color–solitary maples clinging stubbornly to their bright reds and yellows, which appear all the more dazzling amid the encroaching browns and grays of the surrounding trees.  To a willing mind, even the browns and grays have their charms.  A line of bare branches, when positioned opposite the sun, has a way of softening the waning rays of dusk into a mellow red-orange glow, which in turn is complemented by a paled and deepening turquoise sky, quilted with magenta-pink cirrocumulus clouds.

 

Cold nights are here, yet there is an alternative to bemoaning the onset of early darkness.  When the premature sunset fools us into thinking the hour is late, shift focus to the comforts of home.  Home can be a loaded concept, but hopefully it is a positive one.  Perhaps it implies family, but it also can imply warmth and refuge.  In the abstract, home may imply a place inside ourselves, where we are able to retreat regardless of our physical environment.

 

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, the mountain peak at which we arrive this week, I suggest one last way to ease the anxiety of the mundane (and I do it with another potentially overused phrase):  count your blessings.  Loosen your grip on tomorrow’s ambitions and take stock of what you already have.  Everyone has something, and most of us have much.  Inevitably, the in-betweens will be sweetened, and an impulse toward generosity may just reveal itself.

A Message from the Portal

Of all the views afforded by beach and sea, the one that enchants me most is that of crashing waves.  Whether they be large, small, or barely existent, waves are always there, and that is where I fix my eyes most often.  At the time of this posting, we are there.

 

Hours are being spent in a flimsy chair, under a flimsy umbrella, staring at the incessant inflow and outflow of briny water.  Sometimes the waves crash with a deep, hollow-sounding thud, which hints at their power; sometimes they lap against the sand with a liquid whisper, showing their gentility.  But always, they are coming in and going out—for eternity, as far as I can tell.

 

The consistency of waves gives us a sense of the passage of time and a feeling that our lives are but a hiccup on a continuum.  If this makes us feel insignificant, though, it is soon countered by a profound sense of wonder at nature’s timelessness and vastness.  We just as soon feel a part of it.  For the meditative, there is an attraction found in this dichotomy of insignificance and participation.  As regards meditation, it is worth saying that the off-season invites this very state of mind.  If soul-searching is on the agenda, few settings are as conducive as an abandoned beachfront, a few feet from the water, watching a red sun emerge from pink-orange clouds and then drop beneath the horizon.

 

Some time during my meditations on this border between land and water, I had the notion of crashing waves as portal.  The portal exists in the imagination.  It inhabits the quiet and reflective corners of the mind.  It blossoms upon the minutes and hours spent staring into that rollicking, roiling churn at the beach’s declination.  The crashing waves are a passageway between this world and another—not necessarily the afterlife, but a parallel world.  We can play in the waves, but we cannot cross over.  The other world can be known only in dreams, where the soul swims through coral caverns with wondrous and mysterious creatures in a bottomless, aqueous vacuum.

 

After lengthy spells at the water’s edge, watching and listening, it becomes possible to feel transported, like the soul has been sparked.  It is similar to the sensation one gets before certain paintings or in a balcony at the symphony, when a rare lucidity grants us heightened awareness of the finer points of art and nature.  It is as though, all of a sudden, communication has been achieved with another realm, with the unknown, with God.  This is an effect of the portal.

 

Why the Beach in October?

“He did not know why, but he had suddenly an irresistible longing for the sea.” –W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

 

A twin dislike for heat and crowds are legitimate explanations for the attraction of the off-season, and probably the reason I have never tried to go to Bonnaroo, but there is more behind what has become a Fall beach obsession than that.  Driving to the beach at this time of year may seem anachronistic to many, including myself the first couple of times we did it.  It felt unnatural for a Fall-lover to be leaving home at a time when the season was in its full glory.  It is like leaving one world to go to another, a world in which the Halloween and harvest decorations we see serve as emissaries of the world we leave behind.  So Fall is still the setting, in a sense.

 

But why the beach?  Why not the mountains, or any number of cities?  A compelling argument is that I am drawn by the beauty of beaches.  A sunset over the water rivals any breathtaking phenomena that may occur in nature.  Sitting at the water’s edge at dusk, with eyes drifting up and down between the red setting sun and the steady waves washing onto the darkened sand, is a moment relished each time I am fortunate enough to be there while it is happening.  It is a moment that insists on reflection—reflection on art, self, God, and the universe.  It is a moment that tends to clear the mind and make you feel at once intensely alive yet fading into oblivion, like the sea will eventually claim your spirit if you sit there long enough, and it will be a transcendent thing, not a fearful thing.  But if it was beauty alone that draws me to the beach, it could be argued that beauty alone draws me to the mountains, or to the desert, or to any number of naturally beautiful places in our world.  It is not that beauty is not part of the picture, it is just not the whole picture.

 

In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy refers to the sense of a place as its “genie-soul”.  It is something “which every place has or else is not a place” (Percy 202).  He goes on to say it is something to be mastered or else it will master you.  The genie-soul that is found on the Gulf Coast in late Fall is a sort of deserted loneliness, and it will control you if you let it.  I have felt this most acutely at sunset, which is simultaneously luxurious and lonesome at the end of October.  The sadness that can overtake you is real.  The days are getting shorter; people are becoming scarce.  A sort of communal empty nest syndrome hangs in the salty air.  The feeling of being at the edge of the world is at its strongest during sunset on an empty beach.

 

There is something beyond this sadness, however.  There is a reward for acknowledging it, getting past it, and embracing the melancholy.  There is a sense of longing that a lonely beach seems to nurture, and this is somehow attractive to the more pensive among us.  In spite of my wordiness, I find it difficult to put this feeling into words.  I only know that it exists, perhaps as some psychologically necessary quality of the human soul–an essential counterweight to the joy we feel at other times, providing balance.  The sweet spot for the off-season beach visit seems to be late October, when it is still comfortable enough to sit in a beach chair for hours yet a little chilly by the traditional summer-loving beachgoer’s standards.  Crowds will never be an issue at this time of year, for regardless how compelling mine or anyone else’s arguments for the off-season may be, they cannot compete with popular opinion.  For this, the few of us who have fallen under the spell of the off-season should be grateful.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

Maugham, W. Somerset.  Of Human Bondage.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1963.  Print.

 

Percy, Walker.  The Moviegoer.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1998.  Print.