“as wave upon wave rolls in, breaks on the beach, and sinks away in the endless gray water; eternally one and ever another…life is but a moment before the ancient, primal sea. And we are unable to turn our gaze away, for hours on end we stare over the foamy crests, outward – to where? – we hardly know ourselves, but it draws our gaze into the endless distance, out to where the sun sinks into the sea, where the waves rise, and the soul stretches out, wants to know what the eyes cannot sense – wants to know about what is beyond the grey sea – or whether it just continues on eternally like this, without and end, without a beyond, a process of becoming and passing away with neither measure nor goal – and yet as intensively as it searches, it always sees the same drama…no hope…eternal hiddenness.”
Recently, we have spent a week on the island of Kauai, enjoying warm days devoid of schedules, routine, and the seemingly endless hurry of the mainland. Each day, we three spent a good amount of our time simply gazing out at the endless breaking waves on the beachfront; enjoying local surfers plying the waves for hours. It’s remarkable how soothing this can be; how soft and gentle upon the busy and weary urban soul.
In reading and conversation during that week, I learned that the ancient Hawaiians had no form of time keeping before the arrival of European explorers, and historians are unaware of any reference to their use of anything resembling a sundial to keep track of the time of day. Hence, there were no Hawaiian words referring to precise time prior to the arrival of Europeans; before the arrival of our schedules, and meetings, and “efficiency”.
Before we came, there were just these warm and gracious people, and this brilliant blue sky, pure white clouds, palm trees, and the sound of the endless breaking of this deep blue ocean. Before we Europeans arrived came there were only the perpetual nightly sunsets of saffron, leaded grey, and brilliant red gracing the horizon. Nightly gifts of Providence fading toward eternity.
The last time we visited here was nine years ago. Our daughters were just 11 and 14, and we enjoyed a fun vacation on two islands, engaged in all sorts of kid-friendly activities. This time there are three of us, as Older Daughter is starting off a new post college life, away in Chicago with her new job, and tribe of warm friendships. There is a gentle bittersweet to this trip. Earlier this week we three took a trip back in time to a place we visited during our last stop here. It was if we each were being drawn back to relive something deeply good and full of mercy.
Tunnels Beach is on the far north shore of Kauai, north of Waimea Bay, where the road stops and you just cannot drive anymore. After the Big War, there was an attempt to build a road around the north end of the island, but this is one of the wettest spots on the planet, and after months of surveying and planning and then attempting to dig into the jungle, the effort was abandoned; surrendered to nature and given back to the persistent rain and endless time of this island.
Tunnels is also known as one of the easiest and best spots on this island for snorkeling. We headed to the end of the road, across to the beach, and into the blue waters; warm and gentle. We swam out into the surf, suddenly surrounded by an abundance of ocean life right beneath us. Reef fish of every imaginable color and size, eels slithering at arm’s length – a striking gift before our eyes. Coming back up for air, you take a look back at the beach and are rendered nearly speechless at the vista of the deep green mountains that descend down to the beach, of palm trees, and of brilliant blue water around you. I’m not sure if the tears in my eyes were from the salt water, or the brilliance of that view.
Or perhaps it was the sudden and deep understand of Who it was that designed all this rich tropical beauty for us to absorb. After just a few minutes of exploring, we encountered the gentle and constant underwater attendants of the reef – soft green adolescent sea turtles gently swimming through the tide. We spotted at least three; each one wearing on his face what seemed to us like a soft smile as they gazed back at us - we awkward large white creatures wearing what must look like space suit snorkel gear on our faces. I suspect those turtles know something of timelessness, as they drift softly through the immense sea. We are intruders in their world, but they tolerate us with smiles on their faces. They have no schedules, no place to be today.
But I have a schedule. It’s kept in my electronic calendar on my cell phone. And on my PC at work. It’s backed up on The Cloud, don’t you know. I am proud of that schedule there; it gives my life purpose and meaning. It keeps me occupied and feeling like I am making a difference. That schedule affirms the vibration of some protestant work ethic deep within me.
I noticed something each late afternoon from our beachfront vista. Something we dubbed “The Big Event”. Every night, without fail, as twilight approached, the beachfront road would fill with cars and trucks, each containing a local or two just getting off work – coming to the beach for the end of the day. And then from the rooms behind ours came more folk; the obvious tourists, dressed in mainland styles that gave away their point of origin. Some brought beach blankets, others a bottle of wine to share, each quietly coming forth together. Sitting and standing silently or in quiet conversation.
And we were with them there each night to witness something simple, and timeless, and in a way even sacred. It was sunset time. Each night the sky would fill with colors indescribable and gorgeous. For just those few moments at the close of the day, we were all quietly sharing a “moment before the ancient, primal sea.” And, we were unable to turn our gaze away. It was timeless, and beautiful, and fleeting.
And I standing there, thought of Bonhoeffer's words. I wished that my soul could stretch out. I wanted to know what my eyes cannot sense. And yet, I have this strange comfort in knowing that I have seen enough in these years to feel that my life is carefully attended by the Artist of those sunsets, by the Alchemist of these seas, and that time, whatever that means, is held for me in a deep and sacred place.
I think the ancient Hawaiians, with their lack of time keeping, may have a great deal to teach me.