What brings me home?
What kind of light brings me home?
What brings me freedom to be the one that I am?
Struggling with the waves, the storms of life, am I able to see the light?
These are maybe strange questions to ask on a beach, any beach, but Sanibel’s beach especially – this calm, almost empty, bathed in salty air, and warmed by afternoon light. But they’re end-of-a-year kind of questions, emerging from the darkness of the season, from the depths of this strange year, and from my own unknown inner space that resembles a deep dark well, so I allow them to surface.
When asking a real question, we don’t really look for an answer from the mind. If the answer will emerge, it will come from life. Yet the act of asking is still more important than this answer. Allowing our mind to relax and not be on guard may bring out interesting things. We may even start to feel more alive…
What is it like to stop trying to direct life all the time?
This past year has been a deep inward curl for some, and I’m among those who are slow to emerge from that place. So even when landing in Florida, I’m not that eager to go out, I just want to see Sanibel.
It’s good to start a trip to this island from visiting a lighthouse. It’s been a year of looking for a lighthouse (or a light) for my husband and me. We’ve been visiting lighthouses nearby, and called it “A Lighthouse Project” as it was a nice name for our weekend wanders. It gave us a sense of purpose and continuity, and served as a symbol of constant guidance in the year of changes and adaptations. It was also a theme of my photography project (that debuted - in miniature - during “Hope” exhibit launched by local artists).
Sanibel Island Light feels like it would make a good picture. It was one of the first lighthouses on Florida’s Gulf north of Key West, and it’s an iron skeletal tower, about 100 feet tall. Christmas decorations give it a cheerful feel. When we look down, the grounds and beach nearby are covered tightly in seashells. This 120-year-old lighthouse sits on a wildlife refuge (Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation manages over 1200 acres of conserved land and is the largest private landowner on this island).
We hope to spot some interesting birds, aside from the surprising pair of little ospreys nested in the chimney of the oil house next to the lighthouse, yet the beach here is pretty crowded, so we just stay little longer to capture the silvery glare of water from the midday sun.
Walking from the beach back toward the parking lot, I notice some activity along the road. The line of cars stopped in front of something causing a little traffic jam. People gather around.
- A perfect one! – says someone when noticing the camera around my neck. Others who watch and cheer have to rely on their cellphones.
I can see the reason for this cheerful gathering and prepare to become a wildlife photographer… will I be quick enough?... well… it’s a turtle. Turtle crossing, in his natural rhythm, and with unobscured dignity.
Why, a perfect illustration of being in a Sanibel… frame of being.
Every year hundreds of sea turtles nest on Sanibel’s and Captiva’s beaches. They’ve been around for about 110 million years. This turtle… he may be old. Older than me, older than all of us. He may be even carrying our world on his shell. Sadly, he is among endangered species.
Sanibel may be experienced in many ways. One can tailor the degree of immersion to suit one’s temper and explore, or cocoon to one’s comfort level. You may find a pristine beach with multitudes of shells – and there are beaches all around this island - and stay there forever (or for most of your time) soaking in vitamin D until the sun dives into the silky golden honey-like ocean depths, and disappears for the rest of the day, while you wonder at the beauty and mastery of the sky painter’s creations, and don’t ask how many more sunsets like that would be given to you. Others may come up with their own plan, or just allow the right leisure tour to unfold before their eyes.
The wintry weather is right for all that, and you’ll be wearing your bathing suit most of the time. After a year of hardship and worry, you deserve some comfort. Finally, you may even feel like a butterfly, leave your cocoon, and fly back to snowy Boston.
Sanibel will stay with you – the perfect “beat the winter blues with subtropical weather and sky-ocean blue” memory.
Winter blues on Sanibel felt good. At the end of a long day it stretched before our eyes in this pristine almost empty beach.
It was a special time of a special year, when everything changed pretty much for everyone, and we all acquired a feeling of certainty that the change is something permanent, perhaps the only permanent thing?... Nature breathed with a relief and a new depth. Cleaner, purer, happier without constant disturbance from us…accordingly, something purified inside.
I wanted to find some shells for my mom, yet this wish was not very active in my mind, and I completely forgot about it after a long day, which we decided to end on a beach that looked good enough for us to stay there for the last sunset of this memorable year.
After a short walk I found a little “cove” surrounded by bushes and sat down, my back resting on a palm tree trunk. I opened the “Secrets” issue of Parabola Magazine (Winter 2020) and started to read The Gospel of Thomas. I was drawn to this non-canonical tale of an inner world that Christ had access to (and therefore was called Christ – as this wasn’t exactly his last name). Christ, who – as Thomas Merton says – always comes uninvited into this “demented inn”, our world. Disturbing us, when we want to sleep peacefully in temporary shell, on some beach, in this hotel that we call home. With illusions based on the main illusion that this visible world is the only one that exists, and that it will last for us alone permanently.
I had this thought about sea shells for my mom somewhere at the back of my mind. But I was too busy sunbathing and reading, and thinking of where we’ve all been this past year, and how much it was an awakening from this sleep that all gospels speak about… I was too busy to notice that I forgot.
Suddenly a Hindu man stopped by, accompanied by his wife and a child.
- May I take some of these shells, or did you collect them? – he pointed out a meaningful pile of beautiful and quite large shells that were obviously carefully picked, gathered, and abandoned there by someone. On the sand, about 6 feet from where I sat. Some were broken, but most were not. I must have been blind, and at the same time something in me (instinct?) had a pretty good sense of where I should be.
- Yes, please – I replied. – They’re not mine. But may I also take a few?...
“for my mom”, added humbly a tiny voice in my head. How could I forget? He didn’t mind. We shared this unexpected discovery, and it felt like I was presented with an unusual gift. Maybe even more than one.
(As I write now, I look at the shell from my mom that arrived with her Christmas gift for us this year, from her most recent trip to the Baltic sea.)
She would love Sanibel.
This island is just the right mix of shell beaches (15 miles, 250 kinds of shells) and wildlife refuges (230 types of birds – and you may have even more luck than us). People call Sanibel a quiet kingdom of shells. Quiet - as the only buildings on the island taller than two stories are from before 1974, and there are no fast food or chain restaurants there (except a Dairy Queen and Subway, opened before the new law was enacted, as I read). Sanibel’s shells are famous across the United States, some are considered rare and precious, and one of the reasons why they’re here in such abundance is that Sanibel is a barrier island sanctuary, and part of a plateau that extends far out into the Gulf of Mexico. The plateau serves as a ground for accumulation of shells. Many tourist practice what locals call “shelling” here.
And one of the most popular beaches for “Sanibel Stoop” as they also call this shelling - is Blind Pass Beach that connects Sanibel with Captiva with a bridge. This was exactly the beach where we found ourselves at the end of that day, although we didn’t plan on it and didn’t know it at the time.
If you love shelling, or hunting for treasures that wash up, and nurture some harmless addictions like collecting shiny shells, this is where you should go.
Islands in our culture have always been associated with a secret: be it an escape, secluded paradise, buried treasure or a prison. This narrative changes, when our mobility allows accessing every possible escape and all secrets fade, when shared on social media. Or when a secluded paradise becomes more and more threatened by climate change and traveling becomes a risky business or a way of escaping this strange island that we have created in our homes during the pandemic.
Yet there are still secrets to discover on Sanibel (or elsewhere, if you have the right attitude and time). A little easier to do that, when you contemplate setting sun (and when it comes to sunsets, Florida has almost no competition). So if you’re ready, here’s one:
There’s light buried in you. The same light that gives life to everything around you.
Nice sentiment? Yes, but also truth.
For a few brief moments I don’t think about anything, but it’s not that mindless and numb state in which we usually distance ourselves from our present moment. I acknowledge the reality of the body: the breath, the sense of warm sand between my toes, the distant laughs of happy children, the rhythmical sound of waves crashing, the smell of salt coming with the ocean’s breeze. I narrow my eyes as the sun is still bright, and my jaw is almost relaxed. I have a sense of something upright supporting my spine from inside, while my back is supported by the palm tree trunk. My body responds with gratitude to this moment of being more present, more receptive.
The mind alone—the mind that is not nourished by the silence of the fertile void of pure Being—as such is incapable of guiding human life. - writes Jacob Needleman in his preface to the translation of The Gospel of Thomas that I started to read on Sanibel. - The ordinary, isolated intellect, no matter how brilliant or inspired, has not the energy to command our thoughts, words, impulses, memories and experiences in a way that conforms to truth and the Good. This, in sum, is the tragedy of our era, of our knowledge in the modern world. All that science has brought us—the phenomenal, wondrous discoveries it has brought us about life, matter and the universe—will eventually bring us nothing but destruction because we have forgotten that the mind alone cannot direct itself or the whole of ourselves. It does not have the energy for this. It is an energy that must come from another, higher level within the human psyche, a level that is experienced as silence.
So, this peaceful ending of the year, this silence and magic of the sun feel appropriate, and at the same time – a gift. The quiet deepens as the orange ball comes closer to the water and the air cools. Suddenly, everything has more space, more depth. It feels like our own interiors have a second bottom, where things fall, as poet Rainer Maria Rilke once observed. Sorrow-like slow pulse of this old, tired world. Depth requires stillness, hardship, time... Waves come and go, filled with grace of movement, moment, of the wind. We listen to the world outside and within.
There’s this golden light above my head that I can breathe in, I can open myself to it, and maybe it can even open my heart, rest in my belly, make me feel - for a moment - like a being of light. Like someone who knows that all is right and all will be right. Feeling the void.
As the sun kisses the ocean, and their union is sweet and liquid, and golden, I feel like carrying something heavy and shiny to the waves. I recreate on the sand the writing that years ago I saw on some shore online. “Love yourself”.
And, later on, “Happy New Year”.
A wave in the ocean thinks that it is separated from the rest of the ocean. One sunbeam thinks it is separated from all the other sunbeams. Yet no one knows where one wave ends and another starts, and no one knows whether there are separating lines between the beams of light.
I could have written “Love your Self”, I realize as the ocean comes to take my writing in.
Maybe it’s a gift, but it requires something of me. It’s like the wind, but I have to put my sails for it ~ John Pentland
I never underestimate