Reading Cowper on the Beach

I went to the beach twice this year, once to Destin, FL, for a friend’s wedding, and once to Rockport, MA, just because. And that’s the part that still confuses me a bit, the “just because,” the raison de la plage, and not just the reason for the beach, but for vacations in which doing nothing is the goal. Vacations crammed with activities are equally puzzling, and the reason they confuse me has to do with what they are vacations from. If I am following correctly, the message is this: most people’s lives–your life, sayeth the adverts–are stress-filled dashes along the edge of an emotional precipice, and we need to either spend a week or two each year being vegetative, or a week or two consuming as many “fun” activities as possible. A blend of the two is optimal for some people, a morning laying in the sun, reading trashy novels, followed by lunch at some over priced and over decorated joint, followed by jetskiing, then dinner, then dancing in a schmaltzy disco so everyone else can watch you dance while you watch them dance, then…. the activities are another way of becoming vegetative, of course, but don’t most people spend a lot of time doing that already? Staring at the TV? Staring at spreadsheets? And not nearly enough time dancing just for the hell of it? I would think something more meaningful, or edifying, or at least emotionally stimulating in a different way–something other than simple adrenal rush, or the dubious comfort of somnambulance–would help us return refreshed and healthily skeptical to our day-to-day lives. Maybe we wouldn’t be so ready to take the junk fed to us like baby birds.

Of course, I’m assuming a lot about the people I saw at the beach. Perhaps many of them did find edification, new ways of looking at life, spiritual restoration, as they lay on blankets with their headphones and sunglasses helmeted on their heads. Watching children play is certainly edifying, as is playing with them, and searching for beach glass seems to draw an interesting spectrum of people, as did scuba diving. But the overall impression I got from both beaches was one of desperation mixed with anger, the idea that this was our vacation and we’d better have fun, dammit, sort of like the imperative to enjoy New Year’s Eve. And of course, the idea that one should find something meaningful in one’s vacation just smacks of more work, yet another job to do… I spent some of each beach visit reading William Cowper, nervously ecstatic nature poet of the 18th century, because I thought he might bring me closer to the world I looked at once I put down the book:

                                                        Mighty winds,
  That sweep the skirt of some far-spreading wood
  Of ancient growth, make music not unlike
  The dash of ocean on his winding shore,
  And lull the spirit while they fill the mind,
  Unnumbered branches waving in the blast,
  And all their leaves fast fluttering, all at once.
  Nor less composure waits upon the roar
  Of distant floods, or on the softer voice
  Of neighbouring fountain, or of rills that slip
  Through the cleft rock, and, chiming as they fall
  Upon loose pebbles, lose themselves at length
  In matted grass, that with a livelier green
  Betrays the secret of their silent course.

Obviously, it is in poetry and literature in general and all art, in fact, that I find my own edification, and deciding that those who do not share this fascination are somehow missing an important part of life must seem a bigotry. But they are, because what I call “art” is the fabric of culture, it is how we learn to become, how we construct our identities and learn to live, and so much of it is so very, very destructive, telling us that the way to live is to consume, or submit, or accept mere distraction as a substitute for profundity.

All we behold is miracle: but, seen
So duly, all is miracle in vain.

I’m still listening to all my CDs, in order. I am roughly 1/3 of the way through them: 489) Rufus and Chaka Khan: The Very Best of; 490) Nina Simone: The Definitive Collection; 491) R. Kelly: R. Kelly (not sure where that came from, what a waste of talent); 492) The Roots: do you want more?!!!??!; 493) Nightstalkers: Drivin’ All Night; 494) Talvin Singh: OK; 495) The Countdown Quartet: The Countdown Quartet; 496) Parliament: Tear the Roof Off 1974-1980; 497) The Isley Brothers: It’s You’re Thing–The Story Of; 498) Boris: Pink; 499) David Thomas: Monster (this should really be a box set, there’s 4 cds, each one great. Oh well).