08/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Sea as Sanatorium

I will probably alienate myself from most of humanity by saying that the beach has never really been my thing. On my first visit to one, I am told, my ten-month-old toes recoiled from the sand at first touch, as if in shock at this unnatural substance.

Though we spent time in later summers on Block Island and Cape Cod, my activities tended toward the inland: bicycling, tennis, some sailing--but this was done on an enclosed salt pond. The thought of sitting on the sand, or, stranger still, swimming in seawater, hardly occurred to me.

This lack of interest probably disheartened my mother, as coastally-inclined a person as I have met, but she must have accepted it as a residue of my father's gene pool. For his people, summers meant tennis, golf, and club sandwiches on the porch, followed by more tennis and more golf, with a week taken out for hiking in the woods. For my mother, my willingness to spend the summer in Block Island was enough; I didn't have to love and breathe the sea as she did.

So I have been surprised in recent years to find myself actually enjoying the beach, quite spontaneously and unreservedly. I had occasion to reflect on this change last week, thanks to a few days on the Cape and an unexpected work assignment in the Hamptons, which, tough job that it was, allowed for a few spare hours on an uncrowded Southampton beach.

As I sat watching the very regular waves, feeling the din of New York recede slightly with each one, a passage from Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks came to mind. It is near the end of the novel, when the spirits and finances of the once-prosperous Buddenbrook family are looking decidedly dismal. Thomas Buddenbrook, the ailing patriarch, is spending a few days at a North Sea resort--the scene of happier, youthful summers--in the off-season. He says to his sister, Antonie, as they stand on a pier and gaze at the waves:

I've learned to love the sea more and more--perhaps I preferred the mountains at one time only because they were so much farther away. I wouldn't want to go there now...What sort of people prefer the monotony of the sea, do you suppose? It seems to me it's those who have gazed too long and too deeply into the complexity at the heart of things and so have no choice but to demand one thing from external reality: simplicity...A man climbs jauntily up into the wonderful variety of jagged, towering, fissured forms to test his vital energies, because he has never had to spend them. But a man chooses to rest beside the wide simplicity of external things, because he is weary from the chaos within.

Without subscribing to quite as gloomy an outlook as Thomas Buddenbrooks's, or Thomas Mann's for that matter, I recognized something familiar in this thought. What once bored me about the beach--its uneventfulness--is now the source of its appeal. For a child used to the easy rhythms of suburbia, early nights and abundant vacation time, summers were a time for activity and exertion. But for an adult feeling even the mildest version of Buddenbrook syndrome, wearied by city life, work, lack of sleep, the internet, or some other modern affliction undreamed-of by Thomas Mann, the beach can be a powerful antidote.

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