It's that rare hour when the evening crowd melts into chilly solitude, the rest of the world not quite ready to greet the day.
The beach is mine.
The green surf greets me abruptly, a nip on my toes promising violent returns should I choose to continue.
I wade in deep enough to risk wetting my clothes, soon icily realized. I roll the bottom of my shorts out of the danger zone.
I notice a cliff face strangely highlighted in the grey morning glow. It's eerie. It's perfect. It's as good a destination as any in a morning when that sort of thing is irrelevant. I kick up water in an awkward shuffle toward less awkward sand.
The stroll is longer than I anticipate. My feet slap wet sand, the slight suction in each step creating enough friction to force me to enjoy my surroundings.
My thoughts go where they often do when solitude increases their volume.
They go towards God.
Ideas and conclusions gained after years of deep consideration reintroduce themselves as a starting point.
No one achieves Zen without a good bit of turbulence, I begin. No one finds enlightenment without fully investigating the ramifications of being wrong.
I could be wrong. I could always be wrong.
I probably am wrong.
I quietly accept the last, allowing the last dregs of 'self' to dissipate. It's not hard -- I have no one to impress but myself. Which, when you get down to it, really is the definition of ego.
Nothing matters. And if nothing matters, everything matters.
I pause, tasting the salty tang of the quickening breeze. This last thought is new.
I matter because everything matters. If everything matters equally, I am included in that number.
I gaze out into infinity obscured by morning haze as I consider things larger than myself.
But to whom do I matter?
The clouds darken and chill the air. My shirt flaps wetly behind me. My foot meets an object soft and wet and very much alive.
The starfish is unlike any I've ever encountered while rummaging through powdery boardwalk bins of dried beach corpses. Hedged evenly in white, the center and arms are painted a bruised violet dusted with bumps of gentle goldenrod.
I pick it up to test its awareness. What does a living starfish even look like? I wonder. How does it move?
Does it move?
"Are you going to throw it back in?"
I glance back over my right shoulder at the source of the distraction. Curly haired and plump, her features are plain but pleasant. The type accustomed to talking to strangers with easy familiarity.
I look down at the maybe dead creature in my hand. "I...
She jumps in. "I'm asking because I..."
"Well I just..."
"Sorry, I didn't meant to..."
"No, it's ok, what were you..."
We grin sheepishly at one another, each waiting for the other to speak. "Let's try this again," I offer. "You were saying?"
"It's just something stupid I heard when I was still the type to go to church." Her eyes flinch hesitantly, open just enough to carefully read my reaction. Some asshole had thought it worth his while to make her embarrassed in her faith.
I soothe her with a warm grin.
"Oh, please, go on," I nudge. "I've probably already heard it in my own church." Which was possible, though even as an altar boy I found the homily endlessly dull and not worth absorbing, the rest of the mass as formulaic as it's meant to be.
"Ok," she breathes, smiles. Her clear relief makes this entire interaction worth pausing.
"Well, anyway, this guy, right?" She waits for my encouraging nod before she continues. "So this guy, he goes around a beach throwing every starfish he sees back into the ocean. This is something he does every day, every second he has a chance.
"Someone stops by and asks why he spends his days throwing starfish all day.
"'Why not?' he asks.
"'Because you can't ever save them all,' the stranger responds. 'Most will die. Why do you waste your time?'
"The guy nods and keeps throwing starfish. 'You're right,' he agrees. 'I can't save them all.'
"'Then why do you do it?' asks the stranger.
"'I do it because I can at least save these.'" The girl smiles expectantly.
I suspect I know where she's going with this. I play along anyway. "So you're saying I should..."
"I'm saying... I don't know what I'm saying. Maybe... maybe... yeah, ok, I know now."
She nods. "Maybe throwing that starfish back in doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of everything. And maybe it's dead, I don't know. But if it is alive, and you do throw it back in, well. It matters."
I freeze and stare at the echo of my own introspection. How...
She misreads my reaction.
"Listen," she soothes. "I don't really care what you do with the starfish. Throw it back in, keep it, drop it. I just..."
She pauses, considers. Continues.
"I just thought you needed to hear that story."
Alone again, I continue my investigation of the starfish.
First I should wash it off and see what happens, I decide.
I throw the starfish just far enough to clean it off, not far enough to make it irretrievable. After a minute I wade a few feet and bend down to retrieve it.
No movement. No change. It's dead.
The sand washed off, the starfish is even more vibrant, colorful - incredible - than before. I'm definitely keeping this. Using my left shoe as a vessel, I carry the starfish with me as I continue my introspection.
If everything matters - if I matter - does that demand a purpose? If something is important, it must be designed that way.
There must be a reason.
I check to make sure the starfish is still in my shoe. It is. Though it looks like it has shifted lower into the shoe, the tips of the arms curled just barely.
Ok, so there's reason. There's reason and relevance. But what are they?
I check my shoe again. The starfish is definitely deeper -- it's shifted. On its own?
I remove the starfish from its carrier. Two of the arms have spread a bit, changing the shape from a perfect star to more of a perverse split. The tips have definitely curled. Underneath it's bristles seem wet and not at all dead.
I consider for a moment what to do next, though the decision really was already set.
I admire the starfish one last time. I hurl it back into the ocean.
Because it matters.
I'm almost at the cliff face, the threatening storm beginning its entrance. My thoughts dominate any inclination towards shelter.
Unknown reason, unknown relevance.
That's the crux, isn't it? The basis for that conflict that drives me towards doing something -- anything -- that affects... things. That changes things. That shows I'm worthy of the relevance bestowed upon me.
But do I need to know the reason?
Why do I need to know?
How would knowledge affect how I live my life?
... well, it wouldn't.
Drops of rain increase in frequency and weight. The sand is covered in spots and indentations more wet than the rest. My efforts to keep my clothes dry will soon prove fruitless.
One doesn't need to know the writer to know a book is good. One doesn't have to watch the painting process to see balance and beauty in the final product.
For the first time in decades, the world -- my life -- makes sense. Wonderful, incredible, sense. I matter, everything matters, and everything matters beautifully. And I don't need to know why.
I come down from my inner dialogue to clothing and a body that are thoroughly soaked.
The rain. It cleanses.