“Baron’s the name,” he said, extending his hand. We shook. His hand was chubby, his fingers cold. The distance between us was just a couple feet of sand, but I felt he had been proffering this shake from half a mile away. In fact, that’s how far away he was when I first noticed him.
I had been watching him for a time as he slowly materialize out of the pre-dawn mist. He did not walk directly toward me at first, or at all really, but it did seem inevitable that we would exchange pleasantries once he was near enough. He, like I, had taken detours to inspect sea shells, seaweed, and crushed crustaceans.
Paper coffee cup in hand, I stood just within reach of the water. Having stowed my sandals under a log some ways back, my feet were bare and wet. The legs of my blue jeans were rolled up to the knee, but a couple unexpected surges of sea had soaked them anyway. I was scouting waves, looking for a break I could surf. My board and wetsuit were still in my car, this being a preliminary, pre-dawn survey. The night was steadily slipping out to sea, but a couple pocket of darkness still hung in the branches. Beyond the sand dunes and sea logs loomed an old growth forest rich with green life. It was still a little before 6am.
Baron looked like a captain who had just disembarked from a Portuguese carack. Still hundreds of feet down the coast, he inadvertently became the focal point of my early morning survey. Though I kept my face toward the breaking waves, my eyes were now fully flanked to one side. Such was the tension, turning my eyes but not my head, that the nerves connected to the back of my eye balls burned with strain. For some strange reason, his gait fascinated me: the way his pregnant stomach worked its way out of his red captain’s coat, proudly leading the way. As he neared I noticed ivory buttons bordering his belly. The worn folds of his collar and lapel were a pale blue. He leaned back on his heels to balance the weight of his extruding gut. This had the effect of causing his neck and chest to tilt skyward with, what appeared to be, overly exaggerated bravado. Nearer still, I took in his white beard, white mustache, white eyebrows, and finally his short white hair that was hardly contained by his cream colored captain’s cap. A length of golden twine above the brim hung slack from a black anchor that was stitched above the short grey bill. It may have been black at one time, but years of sun and salt had long since bleached it to dirty seagull grey.
During his approach, the ocean and I were playing a game. It would try to rest a strand of seaweed on the top of my foot or around my ankle without me knowing. When I did finally notice, I would gently slip it off with my toes and drop it to the side. With my focus fully consumed by Baron, the ocean was winning. I glanced down to find it had fitted me with a pair of brown seaweed sandals.
Blue sweat pants with draw strings untied were the first evidence that Baron was not a sea captain. At least not one currently on the clock. They terminated abruptly just below the knee, exposing two powerful calves. His feet were housed in a pair of purple floral print slippers, each complete with a wet red bow. It was then I noticed he and the ocean were playing the same game. Wrapped around one of the sulking bows was a translucent green wisp of seaweed.
“The Indians probably thought this was a sacred place,” he said, hitching up his pants after we shook hands.
“I’d believe that. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever seen,” I remarked, nodding to the island one hundred yards distant. We both watched it for a moment. The tiny island stood high above the waves, masted by a dozen pine tree sails. The low fog giving it the appearance of a 16th century cutter sailing on a sea of clouds.
“You religious?” he asked.
“Not particularly.” I took a final sip of coffee. The cup was now empty.
I wasn’t in the mood to wax philosophic, but I could sense the fight coming. A pointless battle of intellect. A hurling of words.
“I believe there is nothing more important than a man’s religion. Do you have a relationship with Jesus?” He took in a deep gulp of air, and awaited my response.
“I have great respect for the man, but I don’t worship him.” I said. He exhaled his disapproval. Suddenly, a gust blew in off the the ocean, as though a window had been thrown open, letting in an unseen storm. It snatched his hat from his head and stole my cup. We both turned up the beach to retrieve our belongings. Returning to the water, I continued, “I believe the most important thing a man can do is know himself. And that can only be done in the present moment.”
“So you haven’t accepted him as your lord and savior!” he asked. Raising his voice to compete with the wind.
“You know, I was like you once. Stubborn. Thought the world owed me something,” he said as he repositioned his hat.
“I accept he had an important teaching.” I raised the empty cup to my lips, giving myself something to do, but feeling fake, like I was holding a prop. Like this was all fake. I still wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. Or why.
“In my book, anyone who knows Jesus but isn’t accepting him is being stubborn. Worship is an integral part of a relationship with Christ,” he said.
“Look, I find what he he said to be very enlightening–”
“Do you believe he is God’s son?” he said, cutting me off.
“Do you believe you are god’s son?” I shot back.
“I do. Do you?”
“Sure, what is God anyway? I definitely don’t know.” I admitted.
“God takes away the sins of the world through Jesus,” Baron said. We were now walking side by side, down the beach. I’m not sure who began the walk, but it helped to alleviate the mind energy.
“Sin used to mean something entirely different. Sin was simply an archery term. If you loosed an arrow and missed the mark, you sinned. So you would sin left, sin right. No big deal, you simply readjust.” He was ready with a rebuttal as soon as I finished.
“Yes, but Jesus is the only one who can allow you to readjust,” he said.
“Look. I think first and foremost, he was a man, not a god. He was just like you, just like me. Otherwise, what good is his teaching? I think he was trying to tell people that to carry the mind made idea of guilt is a choice that need not be made. If I walk around lamenting about all the wrongs I feel I have committed, all the sins, I will never be present. I will be forever lost in thoughts of the past. Forever lost in guilt. Great for the industry of organized religion, lucrative for the church collection basket, but toxic for me. More and more, I find myself living very presently, very grounded in this present moment. A great peace comes with being present,” I explained, feeling like I was spouting forgery.
“So all your sins just vanish then? What do you do about your past? Or are you perfect?” He inspected my furrowed brow out of the corner of his eye. A low wave rushed between our ankles, soaking our hairy shins.
“The past, in reality, does not exist,” I shot.
“Of course the pasts exists!” he shot back.
“Yeah?” I stopped walking, “Show it to me!”
He stopped a couple steps after me, and spun to respond. Throwing his hands out, he began to yell something to the effect of, it exists in the Bible, but he was cut off by the roar of the frustrated ocean.
It grew, standing, rising on its hind legs. Showing itself, flexing its aqua-green chest, then releasing its weight, belly flopping onto its own mess of white sea foam. We continued yelling our words through the wind, but it was useless. As our argument surged, so did the waves. The ocean smashed every sentence. We were forced into obedient silence. We both smiled, insincerely.
After a time, we both relaxed. As did the waves.
“It exists in the bible,” he said, pointing to his palm. “And it exists in the word of God.” He pointed to the sky.
“So god is in the sky?” I asked. “Is god not in you? In me?”
He massaged the back of his neck, searching his memory. Then he spoke. “If you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.” Then he followed with, “Romans ten nine.”
“Saved from what?” I asked. And our squabbling continued. But as it did, I felt an incredible pain radiating throughout my entire body. All this talk of religion was throwing me into a weird intellectual agony. Even as I spoke, and he spoke, I felt the ache. In my knees, my spine, the side of my skull, behind my eyes.
He rattled off things he knew as fact. I spat out religious lines I had memorized, wisdom I’d read, poems by Rumi. None of it came out right. We were both lost in words. Oblivious to the beauty all around us. The forest, the beach, the ocean, the fog. All laid out before us. For us.
As I spoke, his eyes looked past me, over my shoulder. I watched his upper lip twitch in thought. He was formulating his rebuttal before I had finished mine. Then as he spoke, I did the same. Shutting down my ability to listen. Lost in my thinking. Lost in past lessons I had learned, phrases I had read. I was constantly preparing for where the conversation would go next, never listening to where it was now. We might as well have been talking to a wall. At least the wall wouldn’t get caught in the trap of words and yell back.
Its irritation growing, the ocean pounded the beach with bruised blue fists. Wave after wave. Silence! Both of you! See how the mind has ensnared you both!
Again we refrained from speech and submitted, allowing the ocean to chorus.
Again it relaxed. Us.
Ignorance was not total. At times I realized my folly and I paused to breathe. To simply be. To watch a diving albatross, its span of wing collapsing just before it split the sea. At times, he did the same. We are very much alike, I thought. Though pride prevented the vocal admission.
After a time, we both gave up. We both resumed our place as two tiny men on an endless stretch of beach. Silent consciousness in the midst of a storming ocean.
Baron’s tense eyebrows softened. His gaze relaxed. I felt my shoulders loosen down my back. My fists opened, fingers hanging heavy as my arms swayed above the sand. I felt the rain hitting my face. I let a couple drops hit my tongue.
He released a gale of laughter. “Has it been raining this whole time?!” He asked, shooting me a huge, grandfather teeth smile.
“I think so! I didn’t even notice!” I answered, my face turning to the sky in gratitude.
“It’s beautiful.” We both spoke the words at the same time. This made us both laugh.
A thought came to me but I did not speak it then. I simply observed it: Soon we will be the same. Cremated dust. White ash on the undulating surface of the ocean, then a noiseless white rain through fathoms of blue. Past a whale’s body. Down to the blackest depths, lightless black, and finally to the soundless floor. A mysterious landscape quieter than snow. We will be exactly the same. Still. The perfect peace of non-movement. Awoken maybe once in a decade by the passing specter of a deep-sea spirit. Unknown. Undiscovered. And before long we will be pushed deeper, intercalated. Pressed into microscopic fissures between the grains of sand we once walked on. Packed beneath fresh sediment. And then we will be the same thin thread of life. Diatomaceous earth.
We breathed in the salty air. The hint of pine. The humidity. The rain. We listened to the waves, the gulls. We stood in silence, two lovers of the moment. Not lost in it, but part of it. We had abandoned words. We were walking the razor’s edge of now.
He took a step back and opened his arms for a hug. “Can I pray with you?” he asked.
I smiled. “Sure.”
He shuffled his floral feet toward me, and threw his grizzly bear arm over my shoulder. I stuffed the coffee cup into the pocket of my hoodie, and he removed his cap. We were now facing a pile of ancient driftwood logs the size of sewers. This was unsatisfactory. We both felt it. This prayer needed to face the ocean. He manhandled me until we faced the surf. I tried to throw my hand up over his shoulder, but his back was too large. Splitting the difference, I rested my palm between his meaty shoulder blades.
“Dear lord, thank you for bringing me and my friend Zach together this fine morning, on this fine beach.” He paused, searching for the proper words, “In front of this fine ocean.”
I gave him a little pat, you’re doing fine.
“Lord, please protect him on his journey, and help him to share what he has shared with me this day. Help him to help your children Lord. He is a man with a message, and I know it will be heard.” He gave my shoulder a squeeze.
A sudden mammoth wave exploded in the distance. We watched as wave after wave barreled and broke on black rocks half hidden in the fog. His warm words churned into the frigid, sonorous surf and I couldn’t make them out anymore. This time the waves worked with us. An oceanic applause. A slamming liquid chorus. I turned my attention to my breath and body. The moment embraced us. Through my palm, I could feel the warm rumble of Baron’s benediction.
“Thank you, Zach.”
“Thank you, Baron.”
I implore you to stand toe to toe with the ocean and make your case. Take as much time as you need. Tell it how you know for a fact that Buddha said this, and Jesus did that, and Islam is this, and angels, and prophets, and hell, and heaven, and god, and time! Use those magic words our parents flung from books. With the spray of spit, tell it all. With the conviction we’ve spent lives constructing, tell it all. You must. Once in this life, try. If only once. So you too can feel what it’s like when the sea effortlessly rips apart every syllable before it even has a chance to gain shape in your own two feet.