I went to Ogunquit last week for an overnight stay with my friend, Zen teacher Cynthia Taberner. Cynthia has written publicly about her illness, so I don’t feel that I am breaking confidence in simply stating that we spent 24 hours together right at Ogunquit Beach, which, as she often told me, was her favorite beach.
Ogunquit is very beautiful, but it was extra special for me to experience it with her, see things through her eyes rather than just my own. Where does empathy come from, if not from seeing things through other people’s eyes?
My vision has never been great, especially now when I can’t wear contact lens till I see the cataract surgeon again, and I notice what I miss, especially in terms of color and the margins. Similarly, I notice how much I miss due to the prism of my conditioning, which, like my eyes, misses a lot at a distance.
Ogunquit is some 15 miles north of the New Hampshire-Maine border and we shared a room with a terrace from which we could see the estuary on one side and the Atlantic waves on the other. It was Cynthia who, holding a finger to her lips as a warning to be quiet, called my attention to the cormorant babies in the estuary walking lightly in a single line, first in one direction, then returning, surrounded by seagulls and a heron or two.
On the other side, the beach side, the humans were showing what fun it is to be human. Young, bikinied couples sat on small beach chairs in the sand, reading summer paperbacks behind shades. We paused to admire the vast network of trenches, moats and castles built by younger kids.
“Wow, can I take a picture of this?” I ask them. “You did this all by yourselves?”
“Our dad helped,” the young boy said proudly.
The dad looked up; he also seemed proud.
The tide was coming in and just then a big wave rushed forward, flooding the big rectangular moat they had built, a turreted castle in the middle.
“Yeah!” the boys and older men yelled excitedly, high-fiving each other. “We’ve been waiting for hours to see what happens when the water comes in, and it finally did. You’ve brought us luck!” Everybody grinned in triumphant unison, as if we were all equal partners to this great engineering feat.
And there were the older couples sitting on tall, wooden chairs under the awning by the hotel, sipping on water or a cup of coffee, murmuring to each other, perhaps remembering other times, other beaches, other tides.
Cindy and I sat on the beach chairs she’d brought with her, I holding a hot dog I’d just bought to eat after the long drive. While we’re talking, I suddenly see a large sea gull flapping its wings wildly and flying straight at me, and before I knew it, it had grabbed the hot dog from my fingers with such precision there wasn’t the faintest nick in the fingers that had held the hot dog.
It flew off, landed a few yards away in the sand, and swallowed the entire thing in three seconds flat. Smaller gulls walked around it, perhaps looking for a few crumbs, squawking in admiration, while Cindy and I couldn’t stop laughing and shaking our heads admiringly as the bird fluttered proudly on the sand.
The sun shone on everyone equally—the cormorant young ones, the hot dog-loving avian F-16, the children digging up more tunnels, the dads buried in wet sand, the surfers out by the rocks, the seashells, the ice cream vendors, the happy, happy world.
I’m thinking of my frequent walks with the dogs these past months, Aussie quickly leaping into a pond and standing there in delight on a hot summer day, Henry busily sniffing the ground looking for a stick for me to throw, the splash of the small waterfall nearby. Aussie comes out, her fur heavy and wet, her eyes shiny.
There are many times when I’m happy and don’t know it. And then there are times when I’m happy and I know it.
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