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Beaches In Winter


ISSUE:  Winter 1994

We know our dreams as we come to know our weaknesses, with the soft familiarity of acceptance. But the acceptance of one’s own weaknesses should not be confused with self-indulgence. That, I suspect, explains as well as anything else why I no longer find dreaming of beaches threatening. For even in my dreams, beaches have become pedestrian places. And why not? Those long stretches of sand were never intended to force passion from the soul or to plague the introspective will with reminders of all the work that has been left undone. It would be difficult for anyone to transform a dream of beaches into one of those confessions writers nervously offer, afraid they may unintentionally reveal the crazed Poe lurking within the inner anguish afflicting their own souls.

All right, then—beaches are pedestrian places. And I dream of them. Pedestrian places merit pedestrian dreams. Admittedly, I am old enough by now so that I no longer hunger for dreams of insatiable sexual appetite or weirdly exotic adventures. Adolescent dreams bore anyone who is not himself any longer an adolescent. By the time a man reaches 30 his dreams tend toward the parochial. The lines of sun and sand that I dream of form a maze for the reflective imagination. A quiet maze at that, a labyrinth in which form is drama.

At best, dreaming of beaches offers nothing more than a drift into the familiar. Beaches do not threaten. On the beach, one serves as pleasure’s attendant—not the most taxing of roles. Even in the space they occupy in imagination, beaches tend to be tranquil places. Dreaming of them does not hint at forebodings of tragedy or some impending catastrophe about to swallow up existence the moment one awakes in terror to grasp at the relief offered by, “It was only a dream.” Most people look at a beach and discover a meditative introduction to surfaces that have flattened complexity’s curves. To dream of beaches is to feel a quiet satisfaction with the world as it is.

I have been dreaming of beaches for 28 years, and I suspect I will continue dreaming of them until the day I die. As dreams go, the prospect is not particularly disturbing. The sparkling plane of ocean waves serenely lapping against sloping white sand is not an image to intimidate man or woman. Dreaming of beaches allows for emotion recollected in tranquillity, the core, Wordsworth tells us, of all true poetry. And I am now at that stage in life where I prefer emotion recollected in tranquillity to the rage and sense of loss more violent dreams arouse.

Dreaming of beaches, I feel neither envy nor animosity. I am not dissatisfied with my lot in life nor am I angry at the world. Dreaming of beaches does not prick my concern for the homeless or force me to think about AIDS or what I can do to lessen tension between blacks and whites in New York City. Neither the demands of my own ego nor my obligations to the egos of others concerns me. It is the play of light on water that concerns me, the dance of days whipped by wind. Fog and cloud and mist and the smell of an impending storm concern me. Like the prospect of retirement, a beach forces a man to focus on what lies beyond, to squeeze understanding from observation.

I am writing these sentences at a Parsons table which serves as my desk in an apartment overlooking a long stretch of gray sand in the South Carolina Low Country. I have come here to get away from the rawness of New York in winter and begin work on a novel. At least, that is why I tell myself I have come. But I suspect that what I have actually come for is precisely what I am doing at this moment—gazing out at the splendid beach below my window in an effort to fortify my spirit.

It is a week before Christmas and I sit here watching a lone man wearing a blue windbreaker take long strides across the sand. A big gray dog lopes at his heels, occasionally darting ahead and then playfully circling back, raising his head and barking for his owner’s approval. The man and dog share the soft familiarity of the beach, a loose equality of motion which allows them both to move with grace toward their destination. The scene itself embodies a certain perfection of form: space, sand, and the movement of man and dog. It is 7: 25 in the morning and I have been sitting at this table since 5: 30. I saw the sun rise and I watched as the darkness outside gave way to this ocean so flat and soothing I can scarcely tell where the sand ends and the water begins. This beach on a winter morning has drained me of the burden of self. Watching the man and his dog move across the sand, I feel extraordinarily happy.

On the line of horizon where ocean meets sky, two shrimp boats methodically rouse themselves toward the near shore. In another hour, their gull-like riggings with the box traps that stir bottom water will slip around the long sand bar that visibly juts at low tide a mile into the ocean. Toward the shore, toward me, hesitant, tempting the moment with a purposeful drifting. For some strange reason, the slow movement of the shrimp boats toward the shore brings to mind burlesque dancers in Union City, New Jersey, who tempted my adolescence as they tempted the adolescence of any number of other city boys in the 1950’s. The image is sudden and unexpected enough to be embarrassing. Seeking to protect myself, I laugh.

Cautiously, the boats work in toward the shallows. I assume that the eyes of the shrimpers, like my own eyes, are on the flock of pelicans skimming the water directly in front of their boats. In flight, the pelicans look like torpedo bombers in a black-and-white movie about World War II.They fly side by side, in parallel formations of six. I expect them to peel off to attack an enemy ship. Along with the boats and the man and his dog and the raucous if embarrassing memory of burlesque strippers in Union City, New Jersey, those waterskimming pelicans feed my joy.

On the television news from Beaufort last night, a shrimp boat captain complained that Low Country shrimp were smaller than in years past. The true source of his irritation turned out to be not the size of the shrimp caught off coastal Carolina but the massive imports from China which, he grumbled, were killing the trade.”In a few years, there won’t be a shrimp boat left in the Low Country.” Listening to him filled me with the same irritation at my countrymen I invariably feel when I shop in the local supermarket and note that the six cars lined up next to each other in the parking lot are all Japanese. My countrymen are taking a beating. This Carolina shrimper’s anger echoes the Detroit auto worker’s indignation at what commentators on CNN persist in calling “free market forces.”

But the sight of the man and his dog on the beach and the pelicans and shrimp boats moving across the ocean makes it difficult to focus on trade policies. When I think of beaches, politics and economics grow distant. What is important is watching the early morning sun enfold the sands of this Carolina coast in winter, the season when beaches are true to their own nature. The sight of the beach makes me want to examine more cosmic urges than trade policy. A beach in winter is a bargain between an individual and God. Who can think of trade policies when the whole world seems alive with Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility”?

Curiously, it is only the beach in winter that shows up in my dreams. I have spent summers with my family on Spain’s Costa del Sol and on Cape Cod and Fire Island and in the Hamptons. Yet I cannot remember ever dreaming of beaches in summer. The beaches I dream of are hard clear landscapes, the air in my dreams soft yet sharp, the way the air is here in December in the Carolina Low Country, like the cutting edge of a bright diamond that cannot scar. In my dreams, I never see myself sweating as I stroll along the beach. Nor must I apply lotion or cream to block the sun’s rays from face and shoulders. In my dreams, the beach is not a window on real life. It is an ordinary escape hatch, an alternative not only to getting and spending but to the idea that memory must protect those private moments one feels privileged to have witnessed—Sal Maglie’s stubble-darkened face as he wound up to throw a curve ball or the way Ted Williams would stare at a pitcher on the mound 60 feet away.

I am not the kind of man who looks for eternity in a grain of sand. Nor in a billion grains of sand. I accept the curves of the mind with as little resistance as I accept the curves of the universe. What choice do I have? For me, beaches link space to space—sand to water, water to horizon. Their beauty is not what man brings into being. That is the beauty of music, of words, of the language of the human. Even in dreams, however, the beauty of beaches denies man’s preeminence. What’s Mozart to hundreds of gulls pirouetting into the sun, as if they were casting for roles in Hitchcock’s The Birds? Beaches were not made for man; La Nozze De Figaro was.

I love mountains and cities as much as I love beaches. And I continue to feel an unbroken if increasingly angry passion for the battered streets of this New York City where I live and where I have lived for almost all my life. But I do not dream about mountains, and I do not dream about cities. Of course, the action of my dreams may be scripted in mountains or on city streets. But locale is secondary to meaning then. What is important is narrative line—what, how, and why what happened happened. Let me confess that I haven’t been in a New York subway for 32 years. Yet I still occasionally ride the subway in my dreams, searching for that deus ex machina to bring me from place to place, from action to action.

William Jennings Bryan, the famed Boy Orator of the Platte, felt enough fundamentalist fervor as he was testifying at the Scopes Monkey Trial sneeringly to inform the great counsel for the defense, Clarence Darrow, that if evolutionists like him wanted to waste their time hunting for Cain’s wife, that was their privilege. Bryan himself, however, wanted it known that he didn’t particularly care who had been the mother of Cain’s children. Any mystery good enough for the God of Genesis was good enough for Bryan. In much the same spirit, I invite others to decipher the significance of mountain or subway in my dreams. Only when it comes to dreaming of beaches, my message is sharper: keep your theories to yourself.

Nonetheless, theories persist. A good friend of mine once chanced my enmity by suggesting that perhaps the reason I dream of beaches is that they have made me physically uncomfortable ever since I lost the use of my legs to polio at the age of 11.My friend undoubtedly had a point. No matter how firm and well-packed a beach is, crutches and wheelchairs sink in sand. When I was younger—both as a man and as a cripple—I was fiercely determined to outmuscle fate. That was when I forced myself to walk across the grainy traps of Robert Moses’s Orchard Beach in the Bronx on braces and crutches. Like swimming against heavy waves, the task proved exhausting. A crutchwalker can match strength and will against an ocean of sand—but he has to possess hubris tempered by chutzpah if he intends to make it a persistent habit. In the final analysis, all excess of effort denies significance to motion. And while pushing a wheelchair over the sand can be done, the fact is that it, too, exhausts a man, making him feel punchdrunk with the cost of effort alone.

And for what? Loss is loss and one cannot explain the world from the scars loss leaves. The crippling effects of polio made it equally impossible for me to climb mountains or to ski. Yet I do not dream about mountain-climbing or skiing. I have traveled in the Alps, have driven through the mountains of Spain and Colorado, of New Mexico and Utah and the northwestern United States and Canada. I love mountains.

Even today, at the age of 59 and with lifeless brace-bound legs, I sometimes feel the urge to climb a mountain.But I don’t dream about climbing mountains. And that is a truth worth noting.

In the summer of 1977, when he was ten years old, my younger son climbed Mt. Saandia outside of Albuquerque with a friend of mine, an experienced hiker and climber. I drove up to the summit to greet them and when Bruce arrived at the top, out of breath and irritated by the climb, he testily said, “Okay, I’ve done it. And I hope this gets it out of your system.” Such psychological precocity irritates more than it enlightens. A grown man in his mid-twenties now, Bruce still refuses to believe me when I insist that the desire to climb a mountain wasn’t in my system. Mountains are beautiful, yes, but they don’t intrude on my psyche. Sure, I would like to know what it feels like to climb a mountain. But that is mere experience. I would like to know what it feels like to ride a rocket to the moon, too. Only I don’t dream of climbing mountains and I don’t dream of rockets to the moon. I dream of beaches in winter.

I did not begin dreaming of beaches until 1964, a few months after my wife and I and our older son, then three months short of his second birthday, arrived in the Netherlands for a Fulbright year abroad. Housing was in very short supply in the Netherlands in 1964, and two weeks after our arrival we three were still stuck in a hotel room in the Hague, still searching for a place to live. One afternoon we were driven to a seaside village between the Hague and Amsterdam. Noordwijk aan Zee still housed fishermen and tulip growers in 1964, but its chief function now was to serve as a summer resort for vacationing Germans, already the economic kings of postwar Europe. And there we found an apartment facing the beach and the pounding surf of the North Sea.

I had never before lived with a view of beach and water. And I had never before been conscious of the surf pummeling the shore, the way I became two weeks after we moved into that apartment in Noordwijk, when a two-day blow tore into the North Sea coast with awesome power. That Dutch beach was not as attractive as the beach I look down on here in South Carolina or the splendid ocean beaches of New York’s Fire Island. But there was something remarkably seductive about it, some presence that held me, face to the harsh wind, not wanting to surrender the glimpse into my soul living on the beach offered.

For my wife, the beach at Noordwijk was a spiritual sanctuary. Bundled like a Dutch huisvrouw in coat and heavy stockings, kerchief tied around her head as the thrust of wind slashed against her face, she used to go for long walks, alone or with our son. Perhaps because the Dutch were such stolid law-abiding people, Harriet took particular delight in spotting the mast antenna of an illegal radio ship on the horizon— the Dutch gave it the Brechtian name, “Pirate ship Veronica”— swaying in the wind like a drunk on the subway. For our son, the beach was a huge sandbox that filled him with apprehension. Benjy loved the beach, but he was frightened of its capricious moods. After romping with delight across the sand, he would quite suddenly back away from the pounding surf, testing not limits but caution as he acknowledged the incipient danger of a horizon so vast it threatened to scoop mother, father, and self into oblivion.

That beach at Noordwijk flagged illusion by making me acknowledge my limitations. But it also soothed, as nature is supposed to soothe. One can respect courage, inculcate its demands like a disciplined diabetic giving himself an insulin shot. But sooner or later, one must face the limitations of this mundane world’s mundane demands. And my dreams of beaches did not challenge those demands.

The beach ran parallel to a concrete boulevard. Turn-of-the-century resort hotels and spas stood alongside each other like aging sentinels left over from a Europe long since dead but not yet altogether buried, ornate wooden structures that seemed to have been lifted collectively from a single page of Thomas Mann’s imagination. (Mann, I discovered, used to vacation in the large luxury hotel at the end of the boulevard, the Huis ter Duin, the most famous of the hotels in Noordwijk. On this very beach, he had written his superb essay on Anna Karenina and had worked on some of his great stories.) The boulevard ran about a mile from end to end. I would walk it daily, thrusting my crutch-kissed shoulders and brace-bound legs into a wind that cracked at my body like a circus-master’s whip. It wasn’t merely cold, that wind. New York winds can be just as cold. And anyone who has braved the lake winds of Chicago might even think of those North Sea winds as mere practice runs. But there is something about the rawness of wind on a beach in winter—and northern European winters run from mid-October to the end of April—that sends one plunging into the self.

Sometimes, I would simply stand on that boulevard and watch my wife walk on the beach, a figure growing smaller and smaller as she moved south toward the dunes of Katwijk. At other times, when Benjy decided he would rather walk with his father on the boulevard than remain in the apartment with the young woman who worked as our huismeisje or accompany his mother, he would move alongside me, fingers confidently curled around the pinky of my right hand that jutted out from the crutch like a cannibal’s nose bone. Or I might stand alone, with neither wife nor child, my eyes frozen to waves breaking against the beach, trying to insinuate myself into nature’s good graces as I braced my body against the wind.

None of this seems particularly dramatic. Why, then, was it in Noordwijk that I first became a man who dreams of beaches? Is it because the sands of that first beach I lived alongside made life richer and more challenging? Of course, I thought nothing of walking long distances on my braces and crutches back then. Yet will and determination and the strength of my arms were never quite sufficient to master the sand. I knew that. Nonetheless, I tried to master it. I loved that beach as one loves the image of a high school sweetheart. Yet I hated its coarse grittiness. A few miles up the road, the sand was hard and solid and as easy to walk across, even on crutches, as the beach at Daytona. On the beach at Zandvoort, they raced cars. On the beach at Noordwijk, horses and their riders splashed through the sand at low tide.

Whenever I tried to play with my son on the beach, my crutches would sink as if I were on quicksand. The beach at Noordwijk challenged my fatherhood, denied my recurring images of the American man I wanted to be. In my mind’s eye, I would throw my two-year-old son’s legs across my shoulders. As he straddled my neck, imagination would send me running like a fullback straight into the oncoming waves. Or else I would visualize walking across the sand with my wife, pulling her against me, each of us part of the elements— earth, air, fire, water—as we sought love’s promise.

Of course, today I recognize that my fantasies were as adolescent and embarrassing as anything I can call up from a lifetime of memories. And yet, they remain remarkably vivid, an anchor for the imagination’s very real ambition. Dreaming of beaches may be pedestrian, but there is a romance to what is pedestrian, too.

And dreaming of beaches still freezes me against the childish ambitions I was forced to live through. Curiously enough, I no longer resent what I will never be able to do on a real beach. Crutches, I know, will sink in sand forever. And I will never run with that two-year-old’s legs straddling my shoulders (that two-year-old is now over 30), just as I will never walk on the beach with my wife. I will never slash against the open range of water. I will never stroll in the sharp light of a rising winter sun, dog at heel, as pelicans skim the flat ocean that slips like silence against the sand. I will do none of these things. I will merely dream of them until the time comes when I can dream no more.

And yet, I still hear—I suspect I will always hear—the dreamer in me demanding his right to run on a pristine winter beach. I still hear the sound of wind and waves and the nervous giggle of that two-year-old straddled across my shoulders as he urges me on, into those crashing waves. And I know that deep within me, I still want the dream made real. Just once. Afterward, I’ll be content enough to settle again for the sight of this long stretch of sand in winter, knowing that I have work to do and that the vacation is over. Like me, the people have left—all of them, still dreaming of beaches in winter.

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