Between the lines: Pondering the Maine meaning of life
“We’re all bozos on the bus, so we might as well enjoy the ride.”
— Wavy Gravy
There’s something about the Maine coast that just swallows up your daily cares.
It buries them in the sandstone that’s shot through with quartz veins rising up from the ocean floor. Splinters them in the light playing off dark blue lagoons. Washes them away in the swell of waves slamming the shore and slipping back into the deep.
You can also find that sort of benign, healing indifference to human worries in Vermont — in a stately white pine that will outlive us all, in the endless running of the New Haven River, the silent depths of Lake Champlain.
But the Maine coast is so vast — more than 30,000 miles of it, were one to straighten out the land between New Hampshire and Nova Scotia — that it specializes in making our little human worries seem inconsequential.
Not in a way that belittles them, but that invites us to lay down our weary cares, lay down.
We’re spending this week in a cottage on a little pinnacle up the coast of the Pine Tree State. Recovering from the recent passing of a parent, the rigors of running a business, the endless to-do lists that litter our days.
I’ve been spending a lot of time here staring out the window at the ever-changing view of the ocean and islands.
Which is the real view, I wonder, the one that reveals the meaning: the view where fog obscures even the neighboring cottage? Or the one where three lighthouses and a rising half-moon come into crystalline focus, as the late-afternoon sky clears to a lightning blue?
With so many visual transitions and the ocean so huge and near, it’s an environment that invites an honest reassessment of one’s place in the continuum of life.
One that brings not answers, but questions. Big ones, set against the big ocean sky.
For example, is there a purpose to life? There’s time and safety to ask that kind of question here.
Maybe we’re just meant to spend our days absorbed in nature, and this whole leaving Eden thing has been a lengthy adventure gone wrong?
Perhaps meaning lies somewhere between the kelp on the sandy beach we walked today, and the clashing world views of the presidential race in today’s Times? It’s closer to the kelp on the beach, I suspect, but the campaign does make for absorbing theater.
“Just when I found out the meaning of life,” said George Carlin, “they changed it.”
Yet the myth chronicler Joseph Campbell once said that human beings don’t so much want to know the meaning of life, as they want to have the felt sense of being truly alive.
I’m still stubbornly looking for meaning. But in the meantime, the succulence of a buttery lobster hitting my tongue reminds me that feeling the pulse of life will do just fine for now.
In 40 years of adulthood I’ve looked hard for meaning in many realms of life. And experience has been kind enough to strip me of the illusion that there are ultimate purposes to be found solely in political power, status, money, literature and other endeavors where various messengers have claimed to find The Truth.
Maybe Wavy Gravy is right, and we’re all just bozos.
“We are built to make mistakes, coded for error,” said the essayist Lewis Thomas.
That thought scares me: How will I screw up next?
But knowing that we are coded for error also heartens me. Even our stumbles might launch us through a secret door into one of life’s little classrooms that we would not have chosen to enter, because we didn’t even know what we needed to learn there.
Enough philosophizing for now. Back to the grounding of the basics. There are some Maine potatoes in the kitchen that need chopping, and a steak to cook on the outdoor grill. There are steamed clams and a fresh peach pie.
That half moon is rising higher over the bay, and the surf is speaking in surging whispers. We’ll finish off yesterday’s yummy Cote du Rhone and drink a toast to the sea. Just a couple of bozos, riding the bus on the coast of Maine.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him at [email protected].
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