Reading by the Ocean

I don’t know how the ocean got in my blood, but it did. Even though we lived hundreds of miles from the ocean my parents talked about it and told me about it: water as far as the eye can see, waves rolling and splashing, soft sand to play in and build castles with, and if you dig a deep hole the ocean seeps into the bottom of it. In my working class home Dad’s vacation was when we painted the house, put in a new sidewalk, weeded and replanted the garden. There was only one occasion when we actually visited the ocean with friends, but there were snapshots of the great event, me as a five year old, my parents as great looking young adults. My mother loved seashells, kept a small bowl of them and a copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea beside her favorite reading chair, and continued to regale me with stories of boardwalks and something called Salt Water Taffy and the best place to get the real thing and the Steel Pier that stretched out into the ocean and where you could see a horse jump from a high diving board.

As soon as I had a real vacation, four weeks no less, we returned to parents’ homes where we were always welcome and room and board were free, but found a way annually to head to the ocean with our young family for a few days. In our married life there has been only one year that we failed to make the pilgrimage to the shore. It was always my dream to find a spot by the ocean without the bright lights and noisy glitz of the seaside resort towns we visited in New Jersey. Finally, I found it. Friends introduced us to a quiet barrier island in North Carolina that consisted of one road end to end, a line of cottages facing the ocean and one general store: no boardwalks, amusement parks, restaurants and night spots. This is the 38th year we have traveled there. There are more cottages now but there is still no boardwalk or bright lights and there is a seafood market where the fish and shrimp are fresh and plentiful. We purchase fish for dinner there every day and over the years have become acquainted with the owners, now the third generation of them. We greet one another like old friends, ask about the children. A week in this place became part of our family’s rhythm. It still is, now for our third generation. We return here every year, all of us biannually for seven days of absolutely wonderful chaos, our grown children and spouses and grandchildren, all of them falling in love with the ocean.

It does restore my soul. I love the high energy and all-out busyness of the city in which I am privileged to live. But beginning the day early in the morning in a rocking chair on the porch with a cup of coffee, simply looking in wonder at the expanse in front of me, seems to put the busy rest of life into perspective. The ocean is conducive to thinking and reading as well as meditating and praying. This year I treated myself to two novels. Cities of the Plain, the third in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, is, quite simply, a masterfully told story with passionate and deep undercurrents. No one writes dialogue as authentically and easily as McCarthy. And out of the most mundane, often violent and tragic circumstances, the author takes the reader into deep theological reflection. Near the end, the surviving main character, now old and homeless meets a stranger during the night. They talk and share packets of restaurant crackers, a kind of holy communion. “Where do we go when we die?”, he asks. The stranger responds, “Where are we now?” McCarthy has never disappointed me.

The second novel, The Orchardist, is by an author new to me, Amanda Coplin. Fascinating, strong characters, another compelling story set in the Northwest at the turn of the last century, I loved this perfect beach book.

I also read Amy-Jill Levine’s soon to be published Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, an excerpt from which appeared in a recent issue of The Christian Century. Professor Levine will be the featured speaker at our annual Christian Century Lecture on November 6, this year co-sponsored by The Christian Century and the Jewish Federation and Chicago Board of Rabbis. Amy-Jill Levine is a distinguished scholar and a lively, witty speaker and this book should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the parables of Jesus in their first century Jewish context.

The Book of Forgiveness, by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu, an Anglican Priest, is not only a helpful reflection on the dynamics of forgiveness, with compelling illustrations from the lives of the authors in South Africa, but also a forgiveness handbook with guides, rituals, meditating and journaling as part of the process of learning to forgive. A critical part of the process which Tutu guided in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in post-apartheid South Africa, is telling the story of the harm one has suffered or inflicted. Stories are powerful, Tutu says. In a fascinating reflection on the topic he cites research by an Emory University psychologist that concluded that the more children know their family’s stories, the more resilient, healthy and happy they will be. It occurred to me, reading that, at the beach, with my family, that it is part of what we do here: tell the stories, and remind ourselves of who we are.


  1. Thelma Biery says:

    Dear John, I so enjoy reading your blog, I hope your family is well and Sue has regained her health.
    Love to you all Thelma

  2. Gary Beckman says:

    John, I so miss your wonderful stories at Fourth Church. Each Sunday awaking to the alarm and so happy it was Sunday and John was preaching this Sunday. Never disappointed, always educated, and bound for a more enjoyable week. It were as if I was sitting a Jesus feet and hearing his stories. We miss you every day and are delighted to see you on the street every now and then. Take care and give our special Love to Sue. We think of you often and strain to hear you in the pulpit.

    Gary and Ruthi Beckman

  3. Very nice post. Oddly, I just used the same McCarthy quote in a post of my own. He really is one of our most thoughtful writers, once one gets past what seems like all the random violence.

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