Friday, July 31, 2009

Peace Like an Ocean : Eyes Like the Sea

Scribner & Sons

I have never really been a beach kind of girl. Given the choice between seaside and poolside, I inevitably went for the concrete confines of domesticated aquamarine over the untamed cresting of rogue waves. Of late, however, that great wide azure expanse has meant something more appealing: peace. Peace in the beauty she graciously emits via sunshine, clouds or fog; peace in her deceptive stillness when gulped in from afar; peace in the scent of her sea spray exhalation and the gentle sweetness of her breezes; peace in the smallness she inspires in her beholders and their everyday trivialities. There is also a connection to the sea’s essence that I suspect is buried deep in the waterlogged genetic makeup of all human beings.

Though embarrassingly late to the altar of awe, I hope the frequency of my appointments to breathe in the ocean at the end of a long day convey the appropriate reverence.

Perhaps auspiciously, I happened upon an aging copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” on a recent visit to my parents’ home. I’d forgotten the force of Hemingway’s spare style and the timelessness of the old man’s plight – the magnitude of his struggle for survival rising like the crescendo of a wave on the very sea that could redeem or destroy him. His respect for the sea and its creatures is simple and finite – the reverence of his optimism culled from years of seamanship fundamental to his life's account.

The novella documents the old man’s showdown with an epic fish. Hemingway could easily have titled it “The Old Man and the Fish” or “The Old Man and the Water Beast”. But he did not. The sea was symbolic of so much more in this old man’s life – it was the only place he came alive despite his struggle to skirt his own fatality; the place he indulged in “that which he was born for.” The wholeness imparted by the paradoxical sea exists at varying levels in our lives, to be sure. But the essentialness of the paradox is never more beautiful – more poignant – that in Hemingway’s first few simply drawn graphs.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unluck, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled it looked like the flag of permanent defeat. The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. 

The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
- The Old Man and the Sea, (1951) 

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