Whenever we go on vacation, I realize too late that there are dozens of things to do before leaving. I don’t mean the logistics: buy sunscreen, arrange food for cats and dogs so they don’t eat each other, ensure that all children have footwear and swim-suits, fix pinging/roaring/exploding sound in car. I expect those things. They’re part of the frantic joy of going away.

I’m referring to the things I think I have to do. While I pack my bags and pick my beach reading, I’m thinking over articles and stories I want to write, hospital paperwork I need to finish, e-mails I ‘have to’ answer, appointments I should make, weeds I should cut and all the rest. Before I go on vacation, I’m overwhelmed by what I should do, by what I need to do. In the days leading up to our departure, I’m torn between cleaning my office and writing a story; between paperwork and mowing.

It doesn’t help that I’m a hopeless procrastinator, or that I have unrealistic expectations for my own accomplishments. And it doesn’t help that I usually have to work a night-shift before leaving town, so that when I should be getting ready to leave, I’m actually wandering about the house, confused and sleep-deprived, trying to figure out what I was planning to do with the large piece of PVC pipe I’m holding.

It does help that my wife understands the way I function, or don’t, as the case may be. She sits in the car reading and soothing the children as I finally run out of the house. ‘Leave the PVC behind,’ she says without looking up from her book.

Fortunately, I realize that work doesn’t travel very well. It’s almost impossible (despite i-Phones, laptops and Blackberries) to go to the beach and work when your children look at you, buckets in hand, and say ‘do you want to build a sand-castle?’

Still, I went to the beach last week hoping to accomplish some writing I ‘needed’ to finish. However, little was accomplished. And I’m a better man for it. I finished reading one book. I only wrote a few things that touched me as I sat by the Atlantic. I played in the sand. I held my wife’s hand and flirted with her. The children and I built assorted castles, drew pictures on the sand, constructed a larger-than-life ‘sand monkey’, and looked for shells. We floated on the green, salty swells, and road the breakers until at each bedtime, we fell into deep, oceanic, moon-driven sleeps. We were hypnotized by the seashore.

I love that the beach does this to us. I love that we often arrive in the evening, and walk along the sand in the dark. I love that somehow, the salty, wet wind blows away our normal lives, driving them inland (somewhere near Orangeburg) and leaving something elemental behind. I love that my children become tanned, and their hair lighter; that the waves can make them laugh, even when they are turned upside down and sideways in their grasp, as if the ocean were a playful uncle.

I can’t deny the allure of the ocean. I realize that it isn’t exactly the water, for pools have clear, fresh water and fewer living creatures to brush against, but less appeal. It isn’t exactly the sand, which inhabits every crevice of our bodies (and there are quite a few) for weeks after we leave. And it isn’t just the seafood, which is curiously more expensive as one gets closer to the food’s point of origin.

The ocean and the beach draw us for many reasons, but mainly because they seem to purify us. They leave us looking at an infinity of ocean, in an infinity of sand grains, and recognizing our place. The beach puts us in perspective, and reminds us of how little our projects, our accomplishments, our ‘should’ and ‘musts’ actually matter.

We’ll always try to do too much. It’s the tendency of modern men and women, who are driven to do; who feel compelled to accomplish and prove themselves. It’s how modern life tells us we are defined and validated. By our jobs and our money, our cars and our clothes, our educations, homes and retirement accounts.

But for a while, if we let the beach have us, we can learn how to do something so very rare. We can learn how to simply be. And despite sand-fleas and sunburns, that’s a little taste of heaven on earth.

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