With a little help from E.B. White's 'The Sea and the Wind that Blows'
Over the weekend, I traveled with my 8-year-old son to visit my parents, who live a couple hours’ drive away from us. It’s something we do as often as we can, as my parents are in their eighties now. I want him to have as much time with them as possible, and vice versa.
While we were in town, I called up an old friend of mine from college, who grew up about an hour south of there in a tiny rural Georgia community known as Birdsville. Though it was once a thriving town, there’s not much there today beyond a few farm houses, a mansion that dates back to the 1780s, and cotton fields as far as the eye can see.
None of that mattered to my son, of course, who absolutely loved being there with my college friend and me. He got to drive — yes, drive! — a tractor for the first time, see a rainbow boa constrictor snake up close, and ride around all afternoon in an open-air Jeep through fields, woods, and bogs.
In a couple of those fields we saw old cemeteries, which had graves that dated back to the mid-1800s, and my friend told us stories about the (many) ghosts that haunt the big mansion there.
We drove around in his Jeep for most of the afternoon, getting to hear stories about the farm’s Carolina Bays, oval-shaped indentations in the earth created by meteorites that hit the earth millions of years ago along the northern edge of Georgia’s coastal plain, and have since filled up with sandy, swampy forests.
What was so much fun for me about all of this — in addition to seeing my son have so much fun — was that my friend and I got to talk, to catch up. To just shoot the breeze about stuff that’s interesting, but in no way urgent. We got to spend a little time out of time, if that makes any sense.
In our everyday lives, between work and our children’s school and our other commitments, life can feel so urgent. All the time. This weekend, we got to jump off the moving sidewalk that is our normal life and see what life feels like with time slowed down, you know?
I grew up less than an hour’s drive from where we were, so it reminded me a lot of the daydreaming I used to do as a kid. A time when I felt no pressure, when life moved at a leisurely pace; in fact, when I couldn’t even detect it moving at any pace at all! 😃
By chance, I happened to stumble across this lovely essay by E.B. White about the exact same thing — only for him, the object of his daydreaming was a sailboat that was never far from his mind:
“Waking or sleeping, I dream of boats — usually of rather small boats under a slight press of sail. When I think how great a part of my life has been spent dreaming the hours away and how much of this total dream life has concerned small craft, I wonder about the state of my health, for I am told that it is not a good sign to be always voyaging into unreality, driven by imaginary breezes.
I have noticed that most men, when they enter a barber shop and must wait their turn, drop into a chair and pick up a magazine. I simply sit down and pick up the thread of my sea wandering, which began more than fifty years ago and is not quite ended. There is hardly a waiting room in the East that has not served as my cockpit, whether I was waiting to board a train or to see a dentist. And I am usually still trimming sheets when the train starts or the drill begins to whine.”
Writers, I know, are prone to this. To spending time far away from where they actually are at any given moment. (Donna Tartt, the famed author of The Secret History and The Goldfinch, said in an interview a few years ago that what she loves about writing is that it gives her the chance to “daydream all day, every day.”)
In White’s essay, he tells us not only of his constant daydreaming about sailing. He actually sails. It’s a real pastime for him. He really does get out there on the water and test himself against the sea, decade after decade: “Now, in my sixties, I still own a boat, still raise my sail in fear in answer to the summons of the unforgiving sea.”
But he still doesn’t feel like he’s quite up to the challenge of it, especially later in life. He agonizes over whether he even enjoys it anymore. He says he no longer enjoys the difficulty of it; all he longs for is peaceful, calm water.
Still, when he’s honest with himself, he realizes he can’t bring himself to quit:
“When does a man quit the sea? How dizzy, how bumbling must he be? Does he quit while he's ahead, or wait till he makes some major mistake, like falling overboard or being flattened by an accidental jibe? This past winter I spent hours arguing the question with myself. Finally, deciding that I had come to the end of the road, I wrote a note to the boatyard, putting my boat up for sale. I said I was ‘coming off the water.’ But as I typed the sentence, I doubted that I meant a word of it.”
There’s something about this that resonates deeply with me. We have to live in the world, we know this. (Unless, of course, your last name is Rockefeller or Gates or Musk.) But there’s a part of us that wants to get away from it, escape from it, that longs for the peaceful, calm sea.
Even if it only exists in our minds, we need that place to escape to, I think. That place where the wind is calm and the sun is beautiful when it sets like it did over the weekend for us in that little Georgia country town.
If you’re old enough to remember it, there’s a lovely, brief scene in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, in which Robin Williams’s John Keating is talking over lunch with one of his fellow teachers (named McAllister) about his teaching methods. The back-and-forth between the characters is something I’ve never forgotten:
McAllister: You take a big risk by encouraging them to be artists, John. When they realize they're not Rembrandts, Shakespeares or Mozarts, they'll hate you for it.
Keating: We're not talking artists, George, we're talking freethinkers.
McAllister: Freethinkers at seventeen?
Keating: Funny — I never pegged you as a cynic.
McAllister: Not a cynic, a realist. "Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I'll show you a happy man."
Keating: "But only in their dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be."
Keating: No, Keating.
Thank you for indulging my stream-of-consciousness above today! I hope this makes sense (it does in my mind). If you’ve already gotten out for your run today, I hope it was a great one — and if not, it’s go time, right?
As always, keep in touch and let me know how things are with you.
Races you might love running (or walking)
Rehoboth Beach, Del. | Saturday, December 4, 2021
This race along the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk is a favorite of our writer Carissa Liebowitz, as she’s made the trip up to Delaware a few times to run its 26.2 miler. Both the full and the half marathon start together and stay together for the first 9 miles of the route, starting on the boardwalk and running through residential neighborhoods along the oceanfront before heading onto the Junction & Breakwater Trail, which decades ago was a railroad and today is a biking, walking and running trail. You’ll finish back at the boardwalk, where the crowds make up in enthusiasm and friendliness what they don’t have in size, compared to big-city races.
$80 and up | Sign up here
Queens, N.Y. | Saturday, January 1, 2022
Run through one of New York City’s iconic parks at this (probably cold!) race, which will unfold inside Flushing Meadows Corona Park, perhaps best-known as the home of the U.S. Open tennis tournament and the site of two World’s Fairs back in the early and mid-20th century. You’ll run a fast, flat route past several of the park’s best-known monuments, like its Unisphere — commissioned for the New York City World’s Fair back in 1964 — as well as baseball’s Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
$40 and up | Sign up here
Carolina Beach, N.C. | Saturday, January 2, 2022
“You get to run along the shore with a breathtaking view, and then into the forest through amazing pine trees and right through a well maintained camp ground,” say the organizers of this New Year’s race, which follows a winding series of trails through this 761-acre park nestled on a triangle of land known as Pleasure Island, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. You’ll run both along the shoreline and through the woods, where you might catch a glimpse of Venus flytraps along the trails, as this park is home to the rare carnivorous plant.
$75 and up | Sign up here
San Rafael, Calif. | Saturday, January 29, 2022
A run that takes you up and down some monster hills along the single-track trails that wind through this gorgeous park overlooking San Pablo Bay, roughly a half-hour’s drive from San Francisco. The 1,514-acre park offers beautifully scenic views of the bay, whose tidal marshes look up onto hills and mountains filled with wide-open meadows and forests, and plentiful hiking and mountain biking trails. The park’s history dates back before the 1700s, when the indigenous coastal Miwok people lived here, hunting its woods and fishing along the bay. Later in the late 1880s, a shrimp-fishing village of more than 500 people, originally from Canton, China, lived here, giving the park its name today.
$55 and up | Sign up here
Waddell, Ariz. | Saturday, March 5, 2022
A tough, challenging run along the trails of White Tank Mountain Regional Park, whose mountainous 29,000 acres look out onto a panoramic view of the city of Phoenix below. This race too offers several distances — 50 miles, 50K and 30K in addition the half, plus an 8K and a fun run for kids — all of which unfold on single-track trails, on which organizers say you should expect “typical desert trail conditions including rocks, sand, cactus and gravel.” You’ll make some steep ascents as you run through Mesquite Canyon, Willow Canyon and Slick Rock Canyon, and finish with a descent in the final couple of miles — overall, the 13.1-mile course offers up more than 1,700 feet of elevation gain.
$65 and up | Sign up here
London, U.K. | Sunday, April 3, 2022
Now this is the way to see a city, especially a city with as much to see everywhere all around as London. From the starting line at Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster, you’ll make your way through London’s Central City on a closed course, with long stretches along the River Thames, past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, and a stretch up to the Tower of London and back, as well as a stretch past the London Eye. Following the pandemic, the organizers plan to focus the race also on what they say are the “grand, the quirky and the hidden” monuments around London. One for your bucket list, for sure.
Words to run by
“You venture into the unknown land because that is where your heart will take you. In the end, it is not what you want to do, it is something you have to do.”
— Laura Ingalls Wilder