The front yard of the town I live in, is the beach. It is a fragile string of low lying dunes which struggle to hold back the surges of the north Atlantic during the winter storms. Then in the spring, the beach becomes host to migrating birds, residents, and out of towners, who drive their vehicles to a favorite spot to spend the day. Children squeal with delight, parents collapse into lounge chairs, gulls stalk scraps from picnics, as the tide encroaches or flees. The sun makes its joourney to the horizon, and “..purple velvet fingers mark the end of day.”
This almost mystical place, where land, sea and air meet, must be connected to our very distant past, when small groups of hominoids likely settled near resources for food and water. Passed down memory over thousands of years, or perhaps genetic coding, serves to make this special place feel comfortable and inviting. In our wooded town, as in much of New England, it is probably one of the few places to experience the vista of an unobstructed view of a distant horizon, which always creates moments of reflection in me.
We visit regularly with a group of close friends, usually around a bonfire, to share experiences, memories, and reflections. The wives, over the years, have been the most comfortable in bringing up the ebbs and flows or our lives. Lately though, the guys have participated more as the topic of aging has become a focus of concern. We have all begun to experience what “old” might mean.
We are all “retired”, though a couple of the group members continue to keep up with the demands of work schedules, or business management. The term “on the beach” is actually an old Royal Navy term meaning “retired from the Service.” So we gather, retirees from ordinary work and family service, on the beach of our town, to continue to connect with those we care about, those whose children grew up with ours, and those who share this era of life with its peculiar ups and downs.
This setting of the beach has long attracted poets, artists, and writers, who use it as the backdrop for their explorations into the human condition.
T.S. Elliot, for example, in his famous poem, “The Hollow Men”, describes a moribund scene of the beach as a final meeting place: “…in this last of meeting places//we grope together//and avoid speech//gathered on this beach…//this is the way the world ends//not with a bang, but a whimper.”
Unlike Eliot’s dark vision, we are a lively crew, comparing notes on this or that political issue, or biological happenstance, or trip planned to some distant place, or issue with kids and grandkids. We have not gathered to grope in silence. No whimper here either.
Laughter and spirited conversation abound. Voices rise, as those across the bonfire ask for comments or information to be repeated. We acknowledge we all need to check out our hearing—but maybe not just yet.
Nevil Shute, probably having been influenced by Eliot, chose “On The Beach” as the title of his existential novel. This work, published in 1957, describes the ending of human existence following a nuclear war. In keeping with the existential stance, the characters in the novel exhibit various choices as ways of coping with their inevitable demise, as the radioactive fallout spreads to the remaining outposts of life in the southern hemisphere.
In the novel, some of the main characters, who are in the military, seem to cling to the las vestiges of hope for survival. They set out to look for other possible survivors, or regions not contaminated by radiation. Their hopes are dashed when they find that an intermittent Morse code they have received from the American west coast is the result of a shutter in the wind. Others abandon caution and sensibility, and start participating in high risk activities, rather than passively await their demise. Yet others, in some form of denial, continue their daily routines of mundane activities such as planting and tending their gardens, opting to use the pills provided by the government when they become ill. Shute gather a bleak bouquet of possible responses to an inevitable outcome.
Our group, on our beach, agains seems very different from the vision created in the novel. Fortunately, there is no spreading cloud of radioactive fallout approaching. But we are well aware of inevitabilities. We know time is limited. The aging process has already taken some of its toll from all of us. Yes, there are shades of denial, and bucket list adventures, and submersions into the mundane in all of us. But our shared choice in response to the tides which will sweep away all our sand castles, has been evolving over the years of being together.
We choose to enjoy our weekly outing on the beach as testament to our common journey. We gether to celebrate. It is our “Life Is Good” party.
We choose to adopt the stance that the joy of life, and the response to inevitabilities, is not found in a final destination. Rather, it is a manner of traveling together. And that is what makes all the difference–as we gather– on the beach.