Every year my family takes a pilgrimage for a week or two to one of two barrier islands on the North Carolina coast. Topsail Island and Holden Beach are quiet places with mostly just houses. This is not your boardwalk kind of beach. Instead of T-shirt shops and noise, this is a tranquil juncture of sand and water, sky, dune, sun, the sound of waves, gulls and the wind. We go in the off season (bring wetsuits!) so we mostly have the place to ourselves. We can set out surf rods, swim, snorkel, hunt for shells and shark’s teeth, swim, surf and cast spoons all at the same time without worrying about crowding anyone. The houses we rent sit right on the dunes themselves, you walk off the back porch and onto the sand. Paradise. Oftentimes we go with my wife’s extended family, all of us great friends, so it’s also a reunion event.
One of my chief pursuits while there is the surf fishing. Mullet, pompano, flounder, redfish, drum, blues, sea trout, and shark cruise the shorebreak. I could do this from morning til night and never get bored. Sheer delight. And although I love the fish, both on the line and in the skillet, the experience isn’t dependent on the catch.
It’s the zen. The rituals of preparing the rods and tying rigs are done slowly, meditatively. “Like a samurai putting on his armor,” my teenage son intones. He understands it. Standing at the edge of the continent I am totally peaceful, my mind at ease, I am just there. The wet sand underfoot, the sound of the waves, the view out to sea, sunlight on my body, the sound of gulls, terns, kittywakes, there is a quiet that settles in on me. And God is all around. Calm, my mind empties. I am in this place of sun, water and sky, just God and myself. Totally immersed in the natural world that God made. Henry Beston, who wrote The Outermost House in the 1920s after spending a year living in a shack on a remote stretch of Cape Cod, captures better than I can the soothing solitude and natural rhythms of this part of Creation. I cannot summon the words to adequately describe the experience. After years of doing it, it takes only a moment for my mind to unwind once I am standing there with the Daiwa rod in hand, finger on that 17 lb. test Cajun Red.
The things needed for me to do in my regular daily life mean I couldn’t live this way 24-7. However, like Isaac out in the fields meditating (Genesis 24:63), I recommend getting alone on a regular basis, daily if you can, and calming yourself, getting centered in God; praying without hurry. Surf-fishing for a week gives me a long, wonderful, luxurious dose of that. It is an example of the long Christian tradition of ‘retreat’.