It’s late and I’m a stone’s throw from the ocean listening to the crashing waves. It’s a warm night, and the tide is low so a walk at the water’s edge keeps me far from the busy boardwalk and music-filled cafes. No one else is out here, and the light from the moon makes it easy to see where I’m going. I’ve been walking an hour. Some nights it takes longer than others to slow down my mind and clear my head.
I heard once that if you spend enough time near the ocean you can hear it as far away as Nebraska. This must be true. Even in college, six-hundred miles and thirty-five years away I seemed to sense when the water was like glass or choppy, or, like tonight, smooth with four foot waves coming to shore in sets of three. There’s a light wind.
Over the years it has become for me a safe place to be. Ironic, really, when I stand at night close enough for my feet to get wet and face east, and the dark and distant horizon seems unforgiving. When I was seventeen I stood here looking out toward Spain, thinking about the reach, contemplating the journey. I’m not smart enough, as James Taylor writes, for this life I’ve been living, but I know all I need to know when I’m near water. I don’t have the science to explain the currents and I can’t remember the names of the seabirds. But when a dolphin breaches the surface I have all the information necessary to satisfy why I’m out here to begin with: to slow down my mind and clear my head.
I have just over a month left at the college. It occurred to me tonight that I knew more people when I started thirty years ago than I do now. We used to stand in the hallway or someone’s office between classes and talk, tell stories, or go for coffee. My office mate and I went out for lunch on a regular basis, and sometimes we’d walk to the local grocery store. Over the years some have left, some died, but most simply retreated to their offices to work at their computers. Really, even when you do happen by someone’s office, that person more often than not carries on the conversation without ever looking up from the screen. We always had a sense of growth, of the spark which led to the conversation which led to action; now, it’s as if everyone has hit their pace and decided to coast. I don’t understand that.
I’m ready to go. It’s too lonely there, too isolating. It lacks passion and possibility. Some years ago the best ideas came when hanging out in groups, interrupting each other and building upon each person’s thoughts, and students knew each other’s life stories by the third week of class. Now they don’t even know each other’s names and we have less than a month left in the semester.
It makes no sense to have busy hallways that are as silent as this empty evening along the eastern edge of the continent. In fact, I feel less isolated here than I do on campus. That’s just wrong.
People need to shake hands more, ask each other where they’re from, where they’re going. We need to stand in hallways laughing, building possibilities on the backs of anecdotes. It should take a while to get the room to quiet down. I shouldn’t have to suggest people look up from their laps. We are on the edge of a dangerous change, and I fear if we’re not careful, our efforts to be connected will cut us off completely.
Isolation is killing growth and suffocating ideas. And this great migration toward absolute individualism is rampant. People along the boardwalk take selfies instead of asking someone to take a picture, and in the process talk about where to eat, where to explore. Students sit before class in deep online conversations with friends they’ve known since seventh grade instead of finding out how the people around them might be part of their future, part of changing what’s next and what can be. I have lost interest in this regressive approach to life—I hesitate to call it life.
Life is the way we make eye contact and understand each other; life is the stories we share of the times we laughed so hard it hurt. Life has depth and can’t be communicated in memes or posts. It is about character, not characters; it is about making connections, not being connected.
So I come here and walk in seeming complete contradiction to my disdain for such growing isolation. But out here life is entirely visceral. The sand and the mist and the quiet distant call of a gull is primal and ancient and eternal.
The waves are gaining strength and the tide has turned. By morning the water will be choppy and the gulls will feed on schools of fish being chased by dolphins, and it will fill my mind with such peace I long to share it, to gather my friends and sit on blankets and watch the daily repetition of miraculous life, but I can’t find a soul.