On Beauty
The Beachside Resident - October 2008

A friend once told me that his goal in life was to “maximize his moments of beauty.” “I do this,” he explained, “by living in the now, and by seeking out those things around me which please me most.”

His idea seemed naïve at the time, but over the next few years, I found myself seeking out beauty at the most unexpected moments. Sometimes, even under the glow of the fluorescent lights, my office would transform into a painting… my co-worker’s red tie would shimmer like a ribbon, my computer keys would blur together and glisten like pebbles in a river. More and more my thoughts veered off the course of the workaday life. My hands relaxed at my sides and my eyes drifted upwards, seeking out some hidden, mysterious beauty. When the cubist world became too confined for me, I quit my job.

Yes, I would change my course in life. I would work outside as much as possible. I would allow my beauty-seeking eyes the natural light of the sun. And I would move to Cocoa Beach.

On my very first day in this seaside village, I set off on a “truth journey,” crossing over the dunes at 15th Street and venturing south along the beach. It was a bright day, early spring, and the air was still cool with the last of the winter winds. The beach was empty, surreal, infinitely long and white. When I came to the Driftwood House, I saw an old man sitting cross-legged on the sand, some sort of a white-bearded shaman, his face angled to the sun, his hands held over his head, palms open to the sea. The wind died, and the sun seemed to expand, to take over the whole of the sky, or else time momentarily stopped. I looked out over the water, and saw two silhouettes of dolphins playing on the waves, their fins rising and falling as if in slow-motion.

When I turned back, the old man was gone.

In recent years I’ve gained new insight into my friend’s theory. As the beauty of a moment grows, the moment itself is allowed to grow. The now becomes greater, and so the process of time slows down. In fact, I believe that you can actually live longer by maximizing your moments of beauty.

I have lived in Cocoa Beach six years now (although these six seem to stretch out longer than the whole of the other twenty-five), and I've become familiar with the faces, the secret pockets of sun and shadow, the palms, rivers, canals and homes. In this time, I've discovered that the most beautiful way to seek out beauty here is by bicycle.

If you cruise at just the right speed, there are paper-thin yellow butterflies that will appear from out of nowhere and dance about your head. If the wind is at your back, you can stop pedaling and these fairies will flicker like music against the whispering backdrop of the poinciana –– with the leaves like green butterflies themselves. Every day, without fail, at least one pelican will soar across the sky. If you’re lucky, one will dip a wing to you, as if to acknowledge you as a kindred spirit. On the bicycle, you can hear the sighs of the ocean even over the rush of the cars. And at low tide, as you pedal just along the water’s edge, with a swell coming in, the ocean begins to sing.

In terms of sheer magnitude, there is no greater moment of beauty than surfing a wave. It is an ephemeral beauty, wispy but heavy somehow, the essence of liquid, ever-changing. The beauty of surfing a Cocoa Beach wave is a different beauty than you might find at the rivermouth near Playa Grande, or at Little Dume, California, where you can ride with your mouth hanging open as you gaze at vistas of emerald mountains, waterfalls, rainbows, or sunsets lighting up the jagged cliffs so that they literally glow with fire. No, the beauty of surfing Cocoa Beach is less visual. It is the beauty of infinity, a beach stretching from left to right forever, fish-eyeing so that the horizon seems to bend around you like the curved landscape of a Rick Piper painting, with no mountains or cliffs breaking up the skyline in any direction.

The beauty of surfing Cocoa Beach is something you can appreciate even with your eyes closed. It is the hot flow of blood to your heart when the wind blows from the west, or the crisp, crashing sound of those long, angled lines as they break clean over the outer sandbar. It is knowing that you are alone at this break, that the whole world is somewhere else at this very moment, and for now it is just the sun, the pelicans, the dolphins, the waves, your soul.

Only yesterday, while walking home from the beach, an unexpected blow of beauty stopped me as if I had walked into a wall. The sunset was exploding the sky in a giant, three-dimensional filigree of pink light, as if a lattice of flame were billowing up from the river. I found myself standing in the middle of the road, enraptured, oblivious, still breathing heavily from my last wave, dripping wet and awestruck.

More and more, I am drawn to artists and madmen, those strange souls whose quest for beauty skews their sense of time and isolates them from this TV society. I find myself pulled away even from my current job (a fine, stimulating job, where I can work outside in the sun and be productive with my hands) as the search for beauty calls me off track once again… I feel another change coming (is it a sign of the times?) and decide I will write these moments as best as I can. I will do my best to put them down in such a way so that others can, if only for a moment, see the beauty in them.

The latest swell is fading away. Who knows how many days of flatness lie ahead? I paddle out again. I drift away on a rolling sea and wait for the last set to come in. To the south, high thunderclouds rumble over a blue-charcoal dusk. A lilac haze rises from the eastern ocean, like smoke. I am part of this painting, part of this dance, me, sitting on my board with my legs in the water. Two seagulls shoot across the low strip of blue. A single white cloud reaches forward with wispy fingers, gently touching the surface of the sea. The water is molten, shining in a million shades, a sea of gemstones.

You realize something, sitting on the outside at 13th Street, studying the colors, floating in the music of the waves. It is so simple. The beauty is something that is always there; has always been there. It is you who chooses to see it or not. It is you who controls this moment.