Life Story

I’ve been told that I should write a book about the people I meet on the beach. I’m not going to, but their stories could certainly fill a few blogs; this morning I met Tom (not his real name), he’s about my age, maybe a bit older, and lives just 100 yards from the beach in a small wooden house that his mother bought for £300 many years ago. He’s had an adventurous life, travelled the world as a sailor, spent years in the far West of Canada, still owns a huge old (very old) wooden cabin cruiser, and he now has leukaemia. He ricochets around the countryside in a battered old pick-up, his garden is full of boats and engines and paraphernalia, and he’s a cheerful and busy bloke, rueful about his disease but undefeated. If you’re reading this in the UK I can best describe him as a slimmed down version of the old Captain Birdseye. Most days he ambles slowly across the small beach to the water’s edge, where he stands for a few moments before returning home, leaning on a rather nifty, highly polished cane. This morning he told me that when he was walking in Canada, many years ago, on a mountain path, he spotted a slender piece of wood in a tangle of saplings and undergrowth. The length of it, about a metre, was absolutely straight and unblemished, as if it had been planed or turned, and at the top there was a graceful curved handle, with a stubby thumb continuing the straight run for maybe an inch. Something about this simple piece of wood spoke to Tom, as if it was asking him to take it home, so he did. It was crying out to be used as a walking stick but, of course, young and fit and strong as he was, he had no need of one. Why then did he take it? For some reason he did and for years it stood in the corner of the room, and occasionally he would sit and polish it, not knowing why, just enjoying the warmth of the wood, the straight lines, the grain. When he returned to the UK it slipped easily into a corner of his packing case and so it made the journey across the ocean. Now, about fifty years later, that simple piece of wood has come into its own, and when he wanders down to the sea each day he carries it almost jauntily, putting it down at each step with a tiny defiant swagger, as if to say ” Here I am – not finished yet”. This morning he showed me the curve of the handle, and gave me the story he’s woven around it;

“In its first winter, when it was no more than a sapling, the weight of the Canadian snow made it bow down, just at the tip, where the growth was newest, so that it curved over and became this handle. See? But then, in the spring, a shoot grew out of it, on the angle…. this little nub of wood, see?” and his old hands smoothed the glowing wood and his eyes sparkled, meeting mine “And then I came along that mountain path. And now here we are. “

I like that story. I like that it shrinks the world and the years, that a mountain walk has lasted a lifetime, that the vital young heart of so many years ago still beats in the frail old man lost in memories, and that today, under a billowing Welsh sky, I held a tiny piece of Canada in my hands and thought of friends who are there right now.

I like that a tiny moment can bridge half a century, conjure up a man’s history, bring two strangers together, vividly bringing those we love to mind, and so become a fleeting prayer. Sometimes a tiny moment is so weighted with wonder that there are no words.

In the dunes, a few feet from where we stood, there are rare orchids, so rare that people travel miles just to see them. They’re hard to find, lost in the ever changing pattern of sand dunes, under grasses and gorse, it takes time and patience and a readiness to fail to search them out, but they are beautiful. The world doesn’t rave about them, there is no price on them, if they’re taken from their hiding place they die, and when their season is over no one mourns them. But when they are here, they are enough. Do you know the poem ‘She dwelt among untrodden ways” by William Wordsworth? It’s worth reading, and I’ll tag it on to this blog (ignore the ‘Lucy’ bit!). I’m adding it for friends who are going through grief at the moment, two have lost their mothers, another has lost her husband, and a mother has lost her son – the last verse of that poem is for them, surely.

Sometimes the days seem full of meaning, too full for this writer to find the words. Among all the shrapnel and mayhem of this broken world, there are perfect jewels, sometimes so small we might pass by, not seeing them. Sometimes as small as a walking cane, or a hidden flower. Sometimes as small as a long life, lived well, a small life that leaves so much love in its wake. It’s good to pause and remember with gratitude and wonder.

She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways
William Wordsworth

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

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