Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Twelve-mile Stare

Last week my family took its annual beach trip down to Destin, FL. Actually, it’s just a semi-annual trip for me. My wife and daughter go every year, but the beach isn't really my thing (I'm much more of a mountain kinda guy) so I usually work in a trip with them every other summer.

When I go to the beach I settle into a general routine. I rise early, make coffee, have my first cup down near the beach at the gazebo of the condo complex, watch the tan, shiny muscular dudes get out all the umbrellas and beach chairs. I watch the waves and eye the colors of the vast ocean.

By the second cup Jennifer is up and we share coffee on the beach. After that I usually change clothes at the condo, take a dip in the ocean, and walk about a mile on the beach before things get too crowded. Then I refresh myself with a in condo complex's pool. I swim 2 or 3 laps, nothing major.

By now everyone else is up, the beach is becoming more crowded. I retreat to the condo to read and have lunch. I usually read several hours in the afternoon, this time whilst drinking Grolsch beers.

Reading is a big part of my beach vacation. It seems many others feel likewise. Most of them seem to like to read on the beach. At first glance anyway. During my routine late afternoon stroll on the beach, before the big crowd really starts to disperse, I observe how many of my temporary, fellow beach-dwellers are reading. Or appearing to read.

Some actually are reading. Others sit with their chin in their chest asleep, the book or magazine unconsciously held in place. But, many times, the readers, and particularly the vast number of non-readers, are simply staring out into the surf, toward the distant horizon.

Next time you're at the beach, notice how many people, including possibly yourself, have the twelve-mile stare.

The curvature of the earth is such that at sea level your vision is limited to about twelve miles. Beyond that the surface of the ocean angles downward all the way around, following the circle of the globe. Throughout life, people stare at lots of things in lots of places but at the beach the approximate twelve-mile stare rules.

I guess it is a way of emptying yourself of thought and worry. Time passes without you realizing it. Like mowing, or working or a project you are particularly captivated by, or meditation, the twelve-mile stare gradually becomes less conscious, less thoughtful, reflecting more of nothing the more time you have on the beach.

Jennifer often measures the enjoyment of her beach vacation by how much staring time she actually gets in. Just sitting there, watching the waves, feeling the heat and the breeze, listening to the lap of the ocean and the random mixture of sounds from her hundreds of temporary fellow beach-dwellers. The more the stare takes hold of her the more she forgets who she is, the more relaxed she becomes, the more contented she is with time spent on the beach.

My reading choice two years ago was Swann's Way and the beach trip turned out to be the start point for my present fascination with Proust. I've posted on that before. This year my reading choice was a bit more modest and, perhaps, inappropriate for most summertime beach-type reading.

Gunter Grass wrote Crabwalk in 2002. As such, it is the first novel I have read that was written in the 21st century. (The english translation of Milan Kundera's Ignorance dates from 2002 but that novel was originally written in French in 2000 which means Kundera technically wrote it in the last century.) I don't read a lot of fiction and what I do read tends toward a "classic" nature. But, the subject of Crabwalk has fascinated me for several years. So, I took advantage of Grass's noble prize caliber writing style, to experience his personal investigation of this actual historical moment in the trappings of a novel.

Crabwalk deals with the worst maritime disaster in world history, yet almost no one knows of this disaster. It occurred in January 1945 to a bunch of Germans and Nazi's. So, by the fickle ways of whatever might be deemed historically relevant, that makes it unworthy of remembrance I suppose.

The disaster was the sinking of the one-time luxury cruise ship Whilhelm Gustloff by a Soviet submarine off the coast of Poland. No one knows how many passengers actually died in the tragic event because no one knows exactly how many people were on board. The Germans were fleeing the Soviet armies as they poured into the Third Reich, literally raping and pillaging as they came, intent upon exacting revenge on the Nazi's for the horrors inflicted upon Soviet Russia during almost four years of Nazi occupation.

Various former "Strength through Joy" cruising ships and other assorted vessels transferred about 2 million panicking Germans from the Baltic ports to safer ports inside Germany as the front collapsed and revenge raged. The Whilhelm Gustloff carried between 8,000 and 11,000 passengers. It was designed to accommodate about 2,000 passengers but these were desperate times. There were some wounded soldiers on board, maybe 1,500, plus another 1,000 trainees for the Nazi U-Boat program. The rest were mostly refugees.

Only a few hundred survived.

Grass weaves the history of his story with fictional characters, mostly involved with a chat room of a web site on the internet run by a neo-Nazi desiring to commemorate the tragic loss of civilian life to the hands of a Soviet submarine. The primary character is the narrator, whose pregnant mother was on the ship at the time of its sinking, and who survived the tragedy, was rescued, giving birth to the narrator exactly as the ship sank to the death cries of so many thousands in the frigid waters. The narrator's son is prominent, along with his grandmother, the narrator’s mother. It’s typical stuff in some ways.

But the historical threads are very strong throughout the novel. Grass spends a great deal of time "crabwalking" through history; that is, moving sideways in order to move forward, expressing how history so often requires a non-linear approach to be fully told. The historical aspects of the novel deal with the Jew who assassinated the man, a rather mundane Nazi Party member, for whom the ship was named, the Soviet submarine captain and his constant bouts with heavy drinking when not at sea, and, finally, the ship itself from construction through pleasure cruises and into war uses, mostly as a four-month facility for the basic training of the German U-boat cadre.

To no small extent, the novel by Grass is an attempt by someone who fought in the Wehrmacht, specifically as an SS soldier, to deal with the collective guilt of the German nation that Albert Speer so vividly embraced in order to save himself. To this day Germans grapple with their guilt for the Holocaust and Nazism, much like the prideful Japanese grapple with their defeat in the Pacific War, or the descendents of the Southern Confederacy grapple with their sense of guilt still. I do at least, but my sense of honor overweighs (but in no way weakens) guilt where this is concerned. I am an unabashed, contradictory Southern Man.

The tragic night is expressed in exacting detail. I will cover how Grass presents history in a later post. Suffice it to say estimates are that somewhere between 7,000 - 9,000 human beings, perhaps a majority of them children, perished in this one disaster.

So, like I said, perhaps this ain't the stuff that most people would care to read at the beach. For me it was good enough, engaging, well-written, and certainly wasn't the light-weight drivel most people seem to prefer if they can manage to escape the clutches of the twelve-mile stare.

I read this stuff because truth is always stranger, and even more metaphysical, than any fiction. You cannot create the circumstances for the suspension of disbelief sufficient enough to give the meaning to your life that the open belief in historical fact can bring.

And those Grolsch’s weren’t too bad either.

As a back-up I usually take a second book, a second source of reading entertainment, and this beach trip was no exception. My back-up after I tore through the Grass novel, which in fact I had halfway finished before we ever left for the beach to begin with, was Shunryu Suzuki's Not Always So, transcriptions of talks by a Zen master.

I have followed Suzuki's excellent insights since Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In that book he tells us that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the master’s mind there are few. Still, it is a celebration of what beginner’s mind offers the spiritual experience.

At the beach I read the following: “So it is not a matter of what you study, but a matter of seeing things as it is, and accepting things as it is.” (page 73, editor's emphasis) The book’s American editor, one of Suzuki’s closest disciples, was at first not certain whether Suzuki was speaking profoundly or just using bad English. But Suzuki meant what he said.

Things as it is. That’s the secret, the backdoor into the twelve-mile stare. In that moment, you are completely yourself, and the beach and the wind and the sun and the curve the oceanic horizon are just the space that you empty into. This year, into the most brilliant colors and clarity. Marvelous to behold.



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