The Terror of the Uncertain Moment

During the day, in the summer, the boardwalk at Pacific Beach in San Diego is full of cyclists, skateboarders, joggers, homeless tramps, and pedestrians.  The beach is full of sunbathers, Frisbee and football throwers, and more joggers.  The water itself, with its constant churning, foaming waves, is full of surfers in wet suits.

But at night everything changes.  The waves are empty of surfers, and the beach is almost deserted as well.  On the boardwalk there is the occasional jogger or cyclist, and there is still a smattering of the homeless, but for the most part people have gone on to the restaurants and bars and nightclubs.

Last night after I finished writing I had to get out for air, so I strolled along the boardwalk slowly as I stretched and flexed my muscles.  After walking several blocks I left the concrete and crossed the wide stretch of sand to the shore, stopping just short of the damp border the waves made as they crashed and then rolled up the beach.

I watched the water, marveling at the immensity of it, at the fact that from its shallow origins at my feet it would deepen and spread out until it encompassed the whole wide Pacific with all its shores, all its various islands and continents:  the South Sea Islands, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, and so on.  I thought of the writers I had admired when I was young and their relationships with the vast Pacific:  Kerouac sitting at the water’s edge, scribbling poems; Jack London, beset with mechanical troubles and sickness and storm, sailing across the vast sea in the Snark.

As I stood there I was overcome with a sense of loneliness and uncertainty and terror – fear of the unknown, of the insecurity of my situation.  You see, I had left everything of my past life in Greece behind to start a new life here.  There I had had a job, a home, a car, furniture, and so on – in other words, a settled, comfortable situation.  So it had been for many years.  Here I had nothing – no home, no car, no job.  I was starting from scratch, and it frightened me.

Then I thought of times in my past when I had been moving from place to place and had found myself in similar situations, and the resemblance was eerie.  True, about thirty-five years had passed since I had wandered by myself on the road, uncertain of what I would be doing or where I would be day by day.  But the fact that so much time had passed only drove home to me so much more forcefully that such emotions have no time limit, no age restrictions, no physical boundaries.  One does not grow out of such things as one ages.  If you make such a profound change in your life as I have just done, these emotions, which I thought I had left so far behind, will surface again.

First of all, I thought of a time when I was traveling in India, searching for a group of people I hoped to meet up with.  I had been hitchhiking for months, usually flat broke, through deep snow in European winter, through barren deserts and volatile tribal lands in the Middle East, through the hospitable but poverty-stricken land of India.  I had just reached Goa, my destination, but I decided I needed to stop and rest and meditate for a time, so I left my bag and even my shoes with a friendly villager and I hiked down to the beach with only the clothes I was wearing.  I found an empty grass hut and slept there, and found a closed-down restaurant whose owners agreed to feed me a rice meal every day.  I remained there three days, walking back and forth along the beach, thinking about my past and my future – suspended, in fact, between my past and my future in a sort of no-man’s-land or limbo.  I would stay just above the line of the waves, just as I was standing there at the beach last night, and I felt exactly the same last night as I had on that beach in India so long ago, and I was struck by the similarity with the force of revelation.

The other time in my life that occurred to me last night actually happened a little earlier than the Goa trip, when I was still wandering along the coast of California, hitchhiking aimlessly.  A hippy who had picked me up offered me the use of his place, a cute A-frame cabin right on the coast at Cape Mendocino overlooking the Pacific.  It was the most western point in California; afterwards there was only the Pacific:  dark blue, vast, and awesome.  I would smoke the hippy’s home-grown pot sitting cross-legged on the grassy hillside and think about my life, and I would be struck by the terror of my loneliness and the uncertainty of the life I had chosen in which I did not know what I would be doing or how I would survive day by day.

It all came back to me so clearly as I stood on the shore in the darkness at Pacific Beach, the waves crashing before me, behind me the garish lights of the bars and restaurants.  Whether you are twenty-five or almost sixty there are some emotions that are so elemental they do not change.  The physical body may weaken and tire and lose strength and stamina, but if you make certain decisions and put yourself in certain situations age matters not at all.  Some things never change.

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