I’m sitting on the balcony of our eighth-floor hotel room on a quiet Monday evening. The Atlantic stretches out below me like God’s welcome mat. A soft breeze kisses my face and leaves behind a salty film I desperately hope will never completely wash off.
I’ve abandoned my laptop for old fashioned paper and pen. On the small table in front of me is a rare indulgence of Hemmingway’s beverage of choice, and in my left hand is an even rarer indulgence of a long-forgotten vice: a very nice cigar. Bob Marley is singing “No Woman, No Cry” to me through the earphones on my head, and I lean back in my faded jeans and rest my bare feet against the wall.
This is what the ocean does to me.
It makes me smile, makes me relax. Makes me temporarily suspend my fears and regrets. It replaces the storms of my life with sunshine and the filthy mud with clean sand. And all those nagging cares that wash over me are silenced by the peaceful sound of waves meeting shore.
Here, I am a better me.
But this is not why I come here every year. Not why for one week out of fifty-two I say goodbye to my mountains to seek a distant shore.
If you really want to know why I make this pilgrimage, all you need to do is look at the old man in the bench eight stories below me. Sitting right there on the boardwalk, staring out to sea.
I flirted with the idea of taking a picture of him, if only so you could see what I’m seeing right now. But I can’t. It seems like an invasion of his privacy, a sacrilege to his holy moment. So instead I snap a picture of what he’s been looking at for the last six hours.
Yes, that’s right. Six hours.
We first passed him on our way out to the beach, loaded down with shovels and pails and chairs and towels. Seventies and tired, with a worn cane propped against his right leg. He stared out to the horizon with a soft smile on his lips. It looked to me that he was both there and somewhere far away.
When we passed him on our way back in for lunch, I nodded. He smiled. I nodded on our way back out afterward and got a wave.
Then, as we were calling it a day, I passed and said, “Pretty weather, huh?”
“Sure is,” he answered.
Sometimes having kids gives you opportunities you would otherwise miss. When my son began crying over a missing toy that he was sure would be swallowed by the sea overnight, I went back down to the beach to retrieve it for him. Another wave, another smile. On my way back, I decided to stop.
“Not much beats this view,” I said.
“Come here every day,” he replied. “It’s the only place where the scenery never changes but always gets better anyway.”
I liked that enough to stick around and hear more.
“You and your family from around here?” he asked.
“No, we’re on the other side of Richmond,” I said.
He nodded. “Nice country up there.”
“Beautiful country,” I told him. “But not like this.”
“My wife and I moved here from Iowa,” he said. “Came here, oh, twenty years ago. We retired and realized we’d never seen the ocean. Our kids were grown and gone, so we figured it was the right time.”
His wife wasn’t with him, and I wasn’t about to ask where she was. I knew. I knew by the way he had sat on only one side of the bench rather than the middle. Knew by the fact that he rested his cane against his right leg even though he was right handed. It was the product of repetition. Someone else had shared that seat with him for twenty years.
“Know why I come here?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Because the ocean swallows our tears. That’s what she always told me. ‘Harry,’ she’d say, ‘I think all that is all the tears we shed. God just bottles them up and pours them out so we can have a place to visit where we can leave our struggles.’”
“I like that,” I said.
I left him to his pouring, and then I went up to my room and onto the balcony to do the same. Because that’s what the ocean is to Harry and I. A place to pour out our tears and leave our struggles. A place to find the better us.
The thing about Troy Heatwole is that he’s settled. He’ll be the first to tell you that. Not outright, mind you. Troy never says anything outright and never has. He prefers instead to take the long way around to the point he’s trying to make. So instead of simply saying, “I’m settled,” he’ll say something like, “I ain’t as young as I used to be an’ I ain’t as smart, but the world’s quiet.”
And really, who doesn’t long for a quiet world?
Not that life doesn’t pose any challenges. Troy’s like all of us in that he has bills to pay and ends to meet. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say he’s settled. What I’m talking about is that Troy not only knows his place in the world, he’s accepted it with all the happiness and peace one could ask. There is no striving in him, no longing, no unmet expectations. Just a nice, peaceful quiet.
I say this because I want to say that I envy Troy Heatwole. Not so much for what he possesses (which isn’t much aside from a small cabin in the woods, a battered Ford truck, and a coon dog named Bo), but for what he has. There’s a difference between those things. What you possess can be taken from you. What you have can’t. And Troy possesses a settled life. I do not.
But that’s not really what I’m getting at, either. I suppose I’m taking a page out of Troy’s book—I’m taking the long way around to the point I’m trying to make. How else could I bring myself to admit that I’m envious of a man whose life, settled or not and quiet or not, revolves around cleaning and draining septic tanks?
Oh yes, that’s right. Troy’s the septic man.
It isn’t that he loves his job. He does, however, find a purpose in it. Because just as Troy once told me that “Even the Lawd woulda had trouble lovin to do what I do,” he also said that, “Dis here world’s fulla crap, an’ somebody’s gotta clean it all up.” Wise words, those. Kind of makes you think.
I pass Troy on the road often. Our workdays tend to end around the same time and converge at a stoplight just outside of town. He usually gets the green while I’m stuck at the red. He blows by in his big pumper truck, windows down and long stringy hair waving in the breeze. And smiling, always smiling, because Troy has a quiet life and he’s settled.
Me, I’m not.
That’s not a big deal, I guess, assuming you’re not closing in on 40 and you don’t have a family and a mortgage. All of which describes me. If I’m ever going to be settled, this should be the time when I should get started. But I can’t. Even though I’ve been blessed with much, I can’t escape the feeling there’s more out there I should be shooting for. There are other lands to travel and other things to do and other Me’s to be. I want to settle and yet I feel I shouldn’t settle for less than I should.
That, in a nutshell, is why I’m envious of Troy the septic man. He has no need to ponder such things. He’s found his life. He doesn’t have to wander anymore.
But there are times when he passes me at the stoplight after a long day and I see his hair waving and his face smiling and I think differently. I think that maybe I have it all backwards. Maybe we should all be craving to be a little more than what we are. Maybe we should all be wanting to grow a little more each day.
Deep down we all want to be settled, but that may be more a trap than a treasure.
Maybe only as far as we’re unsettled is there any hope for us.
I’ll admit I’m a little late on the death of Steve Jobs. Truth be told, I didn’t know he’d died until two days after the fact. It was all over the news and the internet, people tell me. And you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without seeing his face on the front page. I guess that’s why I hadn’t heard. I don’t really keep up with the news. I’ve found it helps me enjoy the world more.
More truth: I hate computers. Maybe that’s the half-Amish side of me talking. Maybe I’m secretly afraid technology will steal my soul. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that I’ve never been able to work them well. Whichever the case, I count myself among the few who trust pen and paper more than keyboard and screen.
I heard last week that his biography, titled simply Steve Jobs, will be released sooner than expected. Evidently he granted his biographer unparalleled access to his life and sat for hours of interviews. Quite a coup, given that Mr. Jobs was a pretty private man. The book is already number one on Amazon. Sony purchased the movie rights for a million dollars.
Imagine, someone paying a million dollars for the rights to make a movie about your life. Your accomplishments. Imagine being called this century’s Thomas Edison. Or being compared to Leonardo da Vinci.
And yes, that’s the sort of person I’d like to be. Shouldn’t we all? I’m around college kids five days a week, almost ten hours a day. You know what? Most of them don’t want to become great. Most of them have somehow become convinced that they’re already great. They don’t want to affect the world, they want the world to affect them. I think that’s kind of sad.
I think there should be more people who say “I want to put a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs once said.
That’s what he did. He dinged the universe. But I wonder at what cost. His biography was written with his permission, he sat down and did all those candid interviews, not for the reason you might think. Not to inspire or inform the world Steve Jobs helped to transform, but simply because of this:
“I want my kids to know who I am.”
Of all the things I’ve read about Steve Jobs over the last week or so, that’s the one that stands out. Not the iPod or the iPad or the iPhone, but the iWant.
It takes a lot of effort to put a ding into the universe. A lot of time and failure and trying again. A lot of passion. It demands that priorities be set clear. Things like work take precedent. Things like family do not. And while I’m thankful for the Steve Jobs of the world and their dedication, the sacrifice the make is one too steep for me.
Steve Jobs’ death struck me. By all accounts he was a brilliant man who changed our world. There are a good many people in this world who long for those two things—to be both brilliant and remembered. I don’t mind saying I count myself among them. But honestly, the odds are good I’ll be neither. Maybe you, too. More probable than not, I will pass through this life just as the billions before me. My footprints upon this earth will be small and vanish. My picture will never grace the front page. The world will not notice my passing.
I will not ding the universe.
But when my time comes to trade this world for the next, I will pass with a smile. I’ll be ready, because I may not have much, but my kids will know who I am.
Today is the end of what has become a rocky, tiresome, and utterly aggravating road. That’s something I’ll tell you, dear reader, and no one else. Especially my son. Because he is to blame for all of this. And, by extension, so am I.
I’ve always found it fascinating how certain traits in parents are passed on to their children. I’m not talking about things like hair and eye color. I’m talking about attitudes and preconceptions, things that go a long way in defining how they see the world. Good things. Bad things, too.
Take my son, for instance. Folks say he has my looks and my hairline, two things for which I’ve already apologized to him. Like his father, he loves baseball and walking through the woods. And he also has a tendency to fixate on something he wants to the point of near obsession.
It’s this last point that has led us down the rocky, tiresome, and utterly aggravating road.
My son also loves Star Wars (again like his father, once upon a time). Five and a half weeks ago found the two of us in the toy aisle at Target, where we stood face to face with what he described as the single greatest thing ever in the history of the world—a Darth Vader costume. Complete with mask, utility belt, cape, and a genuine imitation lightsaber.
“I gotta have that, Dad,” he said.
“Sure is nice.” I looked at the price tag. “How much money do you have?”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out three quarters, a rubber ball, and three Legos.
“Don’t think that’ll do it,” I told him.
My son knew that. Reality is rarely comforting, however, so he spent the next few days sulking. All of his other costumes—and his has dozens—paled in comparison. His life would not be complete until he could walk through the house as Darth Vader, doing that deep, throaty breathing and intimidating us all with the dark side of the Force. His paltry (to him) allowance meant he’d have to wait months to save enough money, and by then the costume would be gone. It was hopeless.
But then my son remembered his report card and his standing deal with his grandfather. Good grades equaled good money, much more than what I’d give him for cleaning his room and taking out the trash. The problem was that he had five weeks to wait.
And let me tell you, that was a long five weeks. A rocky, tiresome, and utterly aggravating five weeks.
He marked the days off his calendar. Asked me to float him a loan. Stared at a picture of the costume he found on the internet, then stared at me with puppy-dog eyes. He moaned and whined. He yelled and pouted. He even said he dreamed he’d finally bought it. My son obsessed over that costume for five weeks, and he just about broke me in the process.
Then came today.
Report card day.
His marks were good, which meant a quick trip to the grandparents between the end of supper and the toy aisle at Target. Two hours later, it was all mercifully over. I peeked at my son through the rearview mirror on the way home. He was cradling his prize. You should have seen the smile on his face.
It stayed there for a while.
As I write this, my son’s beside me on the sofa. He’s dressed to the nine’s—mask, cape, belt. Lightsaber. He’s slumped in the corner watching a rerun of Phineas & Ferb. During the last commercial, he said, “Did you see that new Lego set they had at Target? That would be awesome.”
I figure I have another six weeks or so to hear that. Yet another rocky, tiresome, and utterly aggravating road.
I suppose I’ll comfort myself with the hope that he’s learning a valuable lesson through all this. One that we all should learn at some point.
Because there are a lot of things in our lives like my son’s Darth Vader costume—things that are wonderful before we attain it and nothing special afterward.
“Excuse me,” I said, “can you help me with this? I have no idea what I’m doing.”
The twenty-something man—Kurt was on the nametag, with Can I Help You? under that—looked at me and smiled. When he did, the ring in his nose inched upward in a way that reminded me of winking. I fought the urge to reach out and pull on it.
“First time?” he asked.
“Well, things are tough all over, right?”
Since it’s just the two of us, he makes his way around the counter. The first shift at the factory would be over in fifteen minutes, which meant he had about twenty to get me taken care of before the afternoon rush. No problem. I’d be out of there by then.
“Here.” He pulled one of the slips from the kiosk and reached for a tiny green pencil with VA LOTTERY stamped on the side. “Here’s your ticket. You have five choices, just fill in the numbers you want.” He pointed to one of the boxes at the bottom—“Powerball goes here. Easy peasy.”
I thanked Kurt and he left me to brew more coffee and add another roll of quarters to the register drawer. If I’d asked him, he would have said he was getting ready for the rush. But I suspect that’s a lie, the truth being something a bit more esoteric—a person needs his privacy while choosing his lotto numbers.
That was the first time I’d ever played the lottery. And while Kurt was right when he said things were tough all over, that’s not why I played. It’s research for my next novel, a story in which the lottery plays an important role. And since I couldn’t very well write about something I didn’t know, off to the 7-11 I went.
But there was more than simple ignorance working against me. There was also disdain. I’ve never been a fan of the lottery. I’ve seen what it does to people. I frequent the 7-11 in town often, and each time I see the poorer folk of my fair town preyed upon by the false gods of riches and good fortune, plunking down dollar after dollar that would be better spent on bills and groceries. They say the Virginia lottery paves our roads and saves us money. That might be so. But all that makes me do is think about my smooth ride to and from work and how my comfort is surfaced by the unrealized dreams of others.
But I played anyway. Just to learn, just to write. Filled out one ticket and handed it to Kurt, who exchanged it for a receipt that went into my pocket. I left just as the afternoon rush pulled in.
The Powerball drawing was that night at 10:55 pm. I’ll be honest, I thought about my ticket more than a few times. Thought about it when the mailman shoved six bills into the box. When I remembered the grumblings of cutbacks at work. When I thought about just how better my family’s life could be with a few million dollars in the bank.
You don’t have to say it. The “Money isn’t everything” line , I mean. I know that. Believe it, too.
I sat there in front of the television and waited for the man in the cheap tuxedo and the woman in the sequined dress whom Kurt said would announce the winner. Sat there and watched as the big lotto machine whirred to life and all those numbered ping pong balls fluttered in the air. Sat there and dreamed of a life when finally—finally—I wouldn’t have to worry about electric bills and gas money and if the water heater was going kaput.
And you know what? It was a good life. It really was.
And also a life that evaporated in the twelve seconds it took for the machine to spit out the winning numbers.
I’d lost. Terribly. I’d lost as bad as a person could. Didn’t even get one number right.
Yet I still remember that world my longings built, one where want and worry were nonexistent and where I could exchange one set of problems for other, hopefully less intense ones. And I suppose that’s why so many people line up in front of Kurt each day. They don’t want to let that dream go, no matter how elusive and impossible—perhaps even immoral—they may be.
But then I ponder the fact that we all long for fairer lands, no matter how fair our surroundings here are. We’ll always want more or better or different. The learned among us call that a flaw.
I think longing is a blessing. No matter how much its barbs and spurs prick, I welcome them.
Because we all long for fairer lands, and that is a holy longing. A beacon from God.
Guiding us home.
Last January, satellite pictures of the Amazon rain forest revealed the presence of a hidden community living in three clearings in the Javari Valley, which lies near the Brazil/Peru border. Subsequent flight expeditions over the region confirmed about 200 people lived in the tiny village. Not a big deal, really. Despite notions to the contrary, the Amazon is home to many communities. What set this community apart, however, was that it had never been seen before. Scientists had stumbled upon a tribe of people unknown to the world.
I confess to a geeky side. News stories such as that one rock my world. Imagine that in an age of telescopes that can see into the farthest reaches of the universe and submarines that can reach the very depths of the ocean, there are still entire cultures that have somehow managed to remain hidden in the untrodden places of our fair planet. Cut off from civilization, blissfully ignorant of things like debt ceilings and Charlie Sheen and Jersey Shore. It’s a storyline straight out of Indiana Jones.
It’s enough to make me giddy.
It’s also enough to make me wonder what happiness they must enjoy. Imagine being able to live life unfettered by nasty things like time and career. You rise with the sun, venture into the jungle to either kill or dig up some breakfast, and eat it in a hammock surrounded by your family and friends. Repeat again for lunch and dinner. Maybe weave a basket or have a dance. Watch the kids play with critters and pets. Make sure the fire has plenty of wood. Go check the crops, then maybe visit your buddy who lives in the next hut to shoot the breeze and engage in a bit of gossip. Watch the sun go down. Go to bed. Do it all again the next day.
No taxes to pay or commutes to endure. No 401k to watch as it shrinks into oblivion. And who cares about gas prices when you’ve never even seen a car? No, the busy world you’ve never seen simply passes you by and leaves you alone. No muss, no fuss, just a hammock and the jungle around you.
I’ll be honest, I envy those people. They don’t know how good they have it.
Regardless of how much I long to chuck it all, fly to the Amazon, and apply for admission into the tribe, it won’t happen. The Brazilian government has a strict policy regarding uncontacted tribes. They are not to be bothered.
But just in case I would get that chance, I could see myself trekking down some forgotten jungle path and coming across the tribal chief, who would invite me to his hut for a little food and a lot of talk. And more than likely, he’d look at me and laugh.
“What are you doing here?” he’d ask. “What, you think WE have it good? Really? Tell you what, you try growing all your food in the jungle. Doesn’t always work, you know. And it’s not like you can just run down to the Food Lion for some chips and dip if the animals and the weather take your crops. Which happens, like, ALL the time.
“You can go hunting. Lots of animals in the jungle to eat. Of course, most of them will just as soon eat YOU. Try stepping on a snake or a spider or running across a panther. Tell me how that goes for you. And you better hope you don’t run into anyone from the tribe down the river, because they’ll just as soon kill you as let you pass.
“Can’t go to the hospital, either. We don’t have one here. We have a doctor of course, and he’s a real smart guy, but in the end the only thing he can do is pray to the gods and give you some plants to eat. Plants don’t cure everything, you know. And the gods…well, let’s just say they do their thing and we do ours. We don’t understand them, we just try to keep them happy.
“Sure, you can stay. You’ll probably live a few more years, most of us make it to 50 or so before we’re so worn out that we drop. That’s assuming you don’t get bitten or eaten or killed, though. Actually, why don’t you just run on back home where you belong.”
At which point I probably would.
And I would take with me this lesson: Life is tough. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you are. We’re all looking for something better, we’re all stressed, we’re all struggling for a little hope.
In a world that seems determined to point out our differences, those are similarities we will always share.
What I pondered last Thursday morning:
I suspect the ocean is one of those precious things in life that one never tires of seeing; every time is as the first. Always the same sense of awed silence, always the deep exhalation of weights left behind to be picked once more later, once the ocean is still there but you are not. If the evolutionists are right, we all come from the sea. My yearly first glance at the ocean always makes me wonder they may be correct—I feel as though I’m home.
There’s little doubt the sea is in my blood, tucked somewhere in the folds of my DNA alongside a craving for sweet iced tea and an affinity for all things old. My parents have a copy of the Coffey family crest prominently displayed on their living room wall. Among all the colors and adornments are three dolphins in the center. Family lore states that the Coffeys of old were fishermen and sailors who left the Irish shores for the adventure of lands unknown. That would explain a lot in my case, though for me those faraway and mysterious places I long to explore lie not in the hidden corners of the world, but in the hidden corners of my own self.
It is freedom that the ocean symbolizes, at least to me. Possibility. A sense that despite how much we know, there is much more that waits. In a strange way that comforts me. There is a certain beauty in knowing you are small that cannot be found in adopting the lie that you are large. Humility may not be the most desirable of the virtues, but it is among the most valuable. And if the ocean gives me anything, it is that needed sense of knowing my place in the world.
I have no knowledge of what first drew my ancestors to the sea. As much as I’d like to believe it was pure wanderlust, I understand it may well have been a simple matter of economics. The first Coffeys arrived in Virginia around 1609 as indentured servants. I have a feeling we’ve always been a common lot, scraping and struggling and working to survive.
Still, the sea called them as it calls me these many centuries later. We have that in common. In the end, time is the only thing that separates us. Despite everything I have that my ancestors didn’t, I suspect I’m much the same as they once were. Same worries, same fears. Same dreams. The only difference between us is that they listened to that siren song over the waters and I have not.
But there are times—many of them—when I long to do just that. For the freedom, as I’ve said. And the possibility.
That’s what I was thinking last Thursday morning, all in the span of a few brief minutes as I stood on my balcony with a pair of binoculars and watched as a shrimp boat made for the distant horizon. I watched the rising sun cast its light against a white hull that bobbed in the currents. Thought of the men on deck—who they were, where they were going, the ones, if any, they were leaving behind. And despite the comforts of place and family that surrounded me, I quietly longed to join them. To break free. To sail away. Just as my forefathers.
As those thoughts clunked around in my head, the binoculars found one sailor on the stern of the boat. Though the distance between us was far, he appeared scruffy, grizzled. A veteran of the sea. A man you would want next to you when the sky and sea turned angry. In him I saw a ghost of a man I could have been in another life had I been born to mountains rather than water.
He was my mirror, this small speck of man through my lens—the me I never was.
As he stood there I saw that he was not looking outward toward the horizon, but inward toward land. To home. And though our eyes never met, I knew his thoughts.
I was weary of the earth and longed to escape to the freedom of the sea.
He was weary of the sea and longed to escape to the warmth of the land.
And I thought then that perhaps that is all of us in our secret hearts, you and I and all who have come before us—seldom content to be here, always longing to be elsewhere.