(Ps. 145:9 ESV)
Last night there was a wind off the Atlantic that hummed and whistled through the balcony doors. Then, a gust brought a flapping of the unsecured storm shutters where they had been hastily opened in a driving rain that greeted us midway down the coastal plain and endured well after our coming. I put down the book that I had taken to bed, opened the whistling door, and secured the shutter. Rain-chastened, I returned to bed.
Earlier in the afternoon we had watched a woman come to the ocean edge in a steady downpour, try unsuccessfully to open an umbrella, and finally settle into a chair wrapped in a towel to watch the waves slap the shore. Another couple were doing the same, both presumably drawn by something elemental, nameless, their thoughts ebbing and flowing like the tide, first expansive, then contracting, their eyes searching the frothing waters. Other than these, there were no others. The beach lay fallow.
In the book I lay reading, Draft No. 4, writer John McPhee’s memoir on the writing process, he says that a “lead” for a nonfiction article “should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring.” I had to get over that he did not bother to put “and” after the last comma in that series, something William Strunk would not allow. He is John McPhee, after all. I also had to look up meretricious, an annoyance. (It means “apparently attractive but having no value or integrity.”) He says the lead “should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.” That makes me think of the Psalmist who said ““Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105 ESV). God’s Word, a flashlight to eternity.
The wind whistles eternity. Out in the dark the Gulf Stream swirls. Sand, the broken down and weathered granular fragments of quartz and other rocks and minerals, moves while we sleep, creeping toward the mainland, accreting on the sound side, eroding on the ocean side. Ocean dark meets the dark of sky at an eternally receding horizon. Out on the ocean a light marks a fishing vessel alone at sea.
A flashlight that shines down into the story? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” is about the most promising lead imaginable. Questions form. Who is God? Other than God, what else was there before the beginning? Did God always exist? How did he create? What did he create? To what end did he create? The lead shines down into the great story that follows.
Under the dunes blanketed with cordgrass, there are warrens of rabbits sleeping, emerging just before dawn to nibble at the grass, flopping easily, silently until the sun rises. A mockingbird lets go songs in the night. The rain stops, but the air is sopped with water.
McPhee, on interviewing: “You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit.” To some, I would add, this comes natural; others, it takes practice. One law enforcement agent I once knew presented as Mayberry’s Goober in uniform, yet wasn’t: criminals talked freely with him and were helped on their way to jail. I look around for a handy interviewee, yet all slumber. Slow of wit, I interview the night.
A feral cat plies the moonless night. Mice, wary, retire early. A lone beachcomber meanders in and out of the tide, drunk in thought. The light on the ocean blinks against the night. Where dark meets dark at the horizon, the dim outline of thunderheads lean in. Eternity whistles in the wind.
McPhee again: “Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.” But you’re not a writer, you think, thank God, and yet every person faces block in the often small and yet sometimes incessant demon that says “you can’t do it” can’t get up can’t talk with that person can’t change one more diaper wash one more pile of clothes listen to one more unhappy client. Can’t. His advice? Write your mother.
Dear Mom, I write, scrawling my thoughts into the night, there’s a brawl in the sandy lane of the beach access road, and I can’t sleep due to the beat beat beat of the party next door, and did I mention that I took up surfing for my 60th (catch a wave) birthday and that I’m sitting on top of the world? And that the sand of barrier islands is a great metaphor for the of the temporal ever-shifting circumstances of life and the seagrass-planted dunes a hedge against the feral? I didn’t think so.
“Is it wrong to alter a fact in order to improve the rhythm of your prose ?,” says McPhee. And then, “I know so, and so do you.” Oh mercy. Chastened, I withdraw the light on the sea, feral cat and retiring mice, rabbits in their warren, and beachcomber that I conjured from the night. And the drunken brawl and party next door and surfin’ safari prevarication. I apologize yet add, “they could have been.” Part of me wants to rise out of bed and on a midnight walk fact-check this bit of prose before withdrawing it. Even ring up the local surf shop (hey dude) and reserve a lesson. Because it could have been and maybe is or maybe will all come true. Sigh.
I turn off the light. The other shutter flaps. I leave it. Yet sleep hesitates. I continue my letter to the night. I think about a light on the ocean, tiny in the darkness of sea, about a man on the sand casting great hopes against the flood of night, about the resoluteness of the few perched on the ever-shifting sand, arrayed against the fury of the waves and wind, about the near-silent footfalls of the feral cat and the shushed quiet of the dune mice, about the mockingbird’s operetta, about the great mercy of a God who shines a searchlight into our eternity, who is kind in all His works.
I omit the “and” before the final comma in that series, McPhee-like in my rebellion, before sleep comes.