Wisdom is as ancient and recurrent as waves against seaside cliffs. Wisdom’s continual ebb and flow, its serenity and churn, are always there to be noticed. As with the sea, wisdom doesn’t cease existing if no one chooses to be with its constantly evolving depths.
On stormy days few may watch the sea, preferring the ease of safer but lesser places. Then in brilliant warmth, so many may swarm its shores that its beauty may be overwhelmed or obscured. Sometimes it’s harder to be with beauty when it seems everyone is watching it. Sometimes wisdom starts to resemble trite cliché because of its popularity.
One ancient bit of wisdom that’s always present and waiting for us to practice is simply this: Be there. It’s a wise core principle that applies to photography, relationship, and beyond. It can verge on cliché too. But if simple presence is cliché, then so is breathing. So are love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness. Wisdom and the sea do not wear out by pounding on our jagged shores, and for that I am grateful.
In the world and in my life, these past few years have felt like a recurrent process of insistently sitting with the cliffs not just despite the storms, but because of them. This particular Sunday is no different, as I take my weekly rest by making a barely-manageable day trip through the rain to Cape Arago. On the cliffs at Shore Acres, the waves are best when the storms are worst. A three-hour drive each way, to spend only three hours at the shore, where I may or may not be able to brave the elements enough to truly embrace the sea’s beauty and wisdom. Yet if all goes well, the drive itself will be beautiful and contemplative, even through occasional torrents. I’m at peace with the risk.
Strangely, the rain tapers off as I near the cliffs. Whether the reason is timing, geographical patterns, or factors I can’t fathom, it’s simply the way it is. For that too, I am grateful.
All but the world of the waves disappears around me. They’re present and brilliant, and I’m attentive to their sound, as if to a master speaking. The sea is indeed masterful. It’s nature’s wise and wordless voice at its best.
Even as I focus my visual attention on particular waves, I can hear the other waves around me. The rough way the point extends into the ocean ensures there there is always water foaming and crashing at any given moment, given turbulent waters. The waves are as high as I’d hoped.
I become aware of the intricate dance of waves and time, as I settle into the sea’s musical rhythms. Each wave has its duration, its unique expression, its time to quickly fade. Each drop within each wave has the same. I spend moments seeking to watch individual droplets until they disappear, noticing their individuality and inseparability from the greater wave at once.
It’s the same with each of us, I remember as I watch. The metaphor expands within my stillness, and I recall that each wave is much like an era, each droplet like one of our lives. That we are crashing relentlessly against time’s cliffs does not diminish our beauty. Neither does it diminish the pain of crashing. To experience one is to experience the other. Be there.
Presence and numbness are opposites. And those of us who are most sensitive to beauty may also have the most difficulty handling the pain. I remember that when a stranger joins me on the cliffs, asking clear and poignant questions about what I’m watching for within the waves, with more sensitivity and attention than anyone else I meet that day. Yet he’s drinking strong cheap beer from a large bottle in the early afternoon. From the condition of his teeth and reddened face, I see that alcohol is the sea in which he’s crashing against the cliffs. Behind him, his sober wife remains present, but with an air of helpless sadness. Their leashed chihuahua simply looks confused. We all watch the waves together, divorced from all else for now. Waves are our shared refuge, and we all leave more peaceful from having been touched by the sea’s turbulence. Even the chihuahua has a more relaxed expression.
Sharing a few of my photos later, I notice that others give me credit for their beauty. Yet all I did to capture them was to be there. I did not design the churn of the sea, nor carve the brilliant sculpture of the sandstone cliffs, nor ask each wave to manifest as it did. I simply put myself in their presence, and pressed my finger to the shutter button. I didn’t design that miraculous camera either.
I still think about the man with cheap strong beer and beautiful insightful questions. Do not condemn the droplet for hitting the cliff, I think to myself. You have no idea what currents of drowning took him there. It occurs to me that all of humanity, myself included, frequently grapples with the intertwined, overwhelming nature of beauty and pain. I return in my own swirling currents to the presence of compassion, of forgiveness, of simply being there without judgment. I celebrate the brief moments of the waves we shared. On the grand scale of time, our reintegration with the sea is already imminent at the moment of our birth. I hear the sea say, just let nature do its work, and surrender to its majesty. Be there.