maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone
for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
I was recently at the coast for work, visiting some new schools in the region. Tough job, I know. As we spent the morning at the beachfront, preparing for that afternoon’s meeting (see accompanying picture), it was this poem by e.e.cummings (published in 1958 in 95 poems) that played like a fugue in my mind.
In essence, the world around us is a mirror. The thoughts and feelings that our surroundings evoke in us are mere reflections of our hearts. When we stare long enough at nature we always see ourselves staring back, even though we do not always recognise ourselves.
So as I found myself mesmerised by the rhythm of the waves breaking and retreating, I found myself meditating on the last two lines of the poem. Cummings seems to suggest that it is inevitable that somewhere along the line we lose the very essence of who we are, and that we never stop searching for what was lost, catching glimpses of it everywhere we look. Our relentless and restless quest to restore wholeness defines our experiences of the world. And in turn, those experiences work to define who we are.
For as long as I can remember, I have felt ambivalent about the ocean. I am entranced by its wildness, humbled by its immensity and awed by the mystery of it. It simultaneously amazes and terrifies me. It always elicits from me a sense of profound loss. Maybe that’s why the cummings poem speaks to me so intimately.
I reflected that if cummings was right – and I think he was – then I needed to ask myself what it was that I had lost. What missing essence of self do I hope to catch sight of when my eyes are drawn to the vast horizon? What inner yearning do I hear expressed in the ceaseless cadences of the waves?
And I realised that I knew the answer all along. I knew what I longed for. I knew what my heart pines for when the sea hypnotises me and draws the truth from me like a painful memory. Innocence.
I mean “innocence” in the Blakean sense of the word, not the moral one (although there may be overlap). I long to be able to look at the world again through the eyes of a child. I want there to be justice. I want to believe that goodness triumphs in the end. I want to be assured that if I just persevere, all things are possible. I long to have faith that all the suffering of the world is not in vain, but serves some incomprehensible higher purpose. I want to believe that love conquers all. I crave the assurance that all of this is just a dream, and I will be awoken with a kiss to my happily ever after. I thirst for hope.
But Blake was right. The bubble of innocence must burst, and reveal a fallen world that, once seen, cannot be unseen. And cummings was right too. That revelation carries a cost: one’s very selfhood.
And I realised that I would never find comfort in the inexorable ebb and flow of the tide. It reminds me too much of what I have lost: my faith in the basic goodness of life, and in the essential worthiness of humanity. And thus in so many of my pursuits, I understood, I tend to seek those things that will – like maggie – help me forget; that – like milly – will allow me to connect; that – like molly – will help me avoid confronting my fears; and – like may – will do something to assuage the terror that comes with the knowledge that however many friends I may have, ultimately – utterly dwarfed by an indifferent universe – I must walk into an unknown future all alone.