Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fleeting Glimpses

On a rare Saturday off from work, I stood on a short stretch of sandy beach in Rockport, Massachusetts, and gazed eastward through a light mist and an intermittent rain at the great Atlantic Ocean. The horizon was only faintly visible; mostly it just blended with the overcast sky. It was neither a good day for a navigator taking celestial sightings and plotting sun lines nor for a summer tourist tanning in the sun or frolicking in the surf. Weatherwise, it was a bland day, no doubt a disappointment to many. I saw it differently, however. For any day that one can stand at the water’s edge and enjoy the privilege of looking upon the sea is very good day.

Normally, I work every weekend. It came as a very pleasant surprise, therefore, to unexpectedly be given a Saturday off. Wanting to make the most of this fortuitous opportunity, Miss Patty and I left the house early and drove away to the waterfront. We gazed upon the sea in Salem, Gloucester, and Rockport, and we visited the famous Fishermen’s Monument in Gloucester. It was a lovely day, far from the madding crowds of weekend shoppers, but it passed by much too quickly. Even though we spent hours at the seaside, this time was but a fleeting glimpse.

Life contains many such fleeting glimpses. Some of my favorites involving the sea take place aboard trains. Several times each year I ride Amtrak between Boston and New York in order to visit my parents. Aptly named the Shore Line, this stretch of railroad follows the coastline through Rhode Island and Connecticut into New York. It affords magnificent views of Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound from a succession of vantage points. From East Greenwich, Mystic, New London, Niantic Beach, Rocky Neck, and Old Saybrook, I savor the sight of salt water, albeit briefly, as the trains hurry along toward their destinations. Rarely do they stop between stations. On one journey, though, I enjoyed a bonus as the train halted for several minutes at Niantic Beach because of track work. As the engineer awaited the signal to proceed, I watched the ferry John H sail placidly across the sound from Long Island to New London.

On Long Island, there are many waterfront sites where one can gaze upon either the open ocean or its estuaries. Family favorites include Captree, Fire Island, Point Lookout, Oyster Bay, and Port Jefferson. All beautiful locations, the times spent there are always much too short—mere fleeting glimpses. Once per summer we sail aboard the excursion boat Moon Chaser between Captree and the Fire Island Light, a round trip of an hour and a half. This also passes too quickly—another fleeting glimpse. Even a prolonged duration spent in the company of the sea is, in the end, too short. The week that the family spent aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam in February illustrates this perfectly. Everyone agreed that the voyage ended too quickly. Furthermore, accustomed as I had been to spending several months at a time aboard ship, seven days felt like nothing. It seemed that I had barely unpacked and settled in when it was time to disembark! Another fleeting glimpse.

All my life I have had an affinity for the sea. For me it is a creation of unsurpassable natural beauty, a place of peace and tranquility, and a source of inspiration. The sea possesses an intangible but unmistakable other-worldly quality that sets it apart from the secularized land masses. It seems more a part of the divine realm than the human one. When I gaze out to sea, whether from the deck of a ship or the edge of a continent, I feel that I am in a sense looking into eternity. But eternity is very large, and my time is very small and tightly scheduled. Sooner or later some compelling need calls me away from the sea. All I can achieve, then, are fleeting glimpses.

Most of my life I have had an affinity for family history and genealogy. Like the sea, these intimately interrelated subjects possess intangible but unmistakable other-worldly qualities that set them apart from our secularized society. Whether in a library, a municipal archive, a church office, a cemetery, or at home, genealogical and family-historical research opens windows into both the human past and the divine eternity. As the sea has a compelling quality that draws one in, so does this research. It is commonplace to completely forget the present while becoming engrossed in the events and personalities of the past and discovering new things that happened and new friends who lived many decades or even more than a century ago. But then, just as at the seashore, some urgent human need calls us rudely back to the present, and our fleeting glimpse into the higher realm is suddenly over.

Hunger, for example, is a compelling intruder. On one occasion Miss Patty and I were visiting the public library in Babylon, Long Island, and printing copies of microfilmed newspaper articles concerning my grandparents’ youth. Having gotten an early start, we spent all morning and part of the afternoon on this project, completely losing track of the time in the process. Suddenly feeling incredibly hungry, we looked at the clock and were astonished when we saw how late it had become! Still, for all those hours spent examining my grandparents’ formative years in an era now gone, we felt as though we had just scratched the surface, just glimpsed their youth wherein there must have been so much more that had gone unrecorded.

As wonderful as it has been to discover our ancestors and learn of their life experiences, there is an inherent frustration in the process, too: whatever we find in our research, it is never enough. While our grandparents’ lives are quite well documented, some gaps do remain. Of their parents, however, we know precious little. Going back in time, we have less and less information about each successive generation. The glimpses into the past become smaller and smaller until finally there are no more. In each case, though, whether we have full biographies or just names and dates of death, these views of past lives remain only glimpses. We always wish that we had more information and more photographs, as well as more time to do the research. Just like the view of the great Atlantic Ocean, the view of our ancestry is but a fleeting glimpse.

For that matter, life itself is a fleeting glimpse. In our family, the longest known lifespan is 97 years. In the history of the world, however, this is miniscule. It may sound like a long time, but it is still a finite window of opportunity. Just as the hours spent visiting the seashore and the hours spent researching family history are short and precious, so is life itself. Hence the need to use the time that we have wisely, for once used up it remains forever irretrievably gone.

Carpe diem, asserted the ancient Romans. Seize the day. Every day may be our last, and we would be wise to not waste the tremendous but limited opportunity of life on things of no value. Contemplating eternity and searching for eternal truth, whether at the oceanfront or the family history center, lead us to the things of ultimate value: to truth, light, knowledge, family, everlasting life—in short, the things of God. And when we have achieved this goal, it will not be just a fleeting glimpse but a permanent state.

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