The old man sat out on his beach house porch
And watched the white waves roll on to the shore.
He looked out to the sea and seemed to do
Nothing as he sat rocking day by day.
The house was salt and sun and weather-worn,
And saw-grass grew beside the porch’s sides,
And small palmettos made the only shade,
Useless under the golden August sun.
The company he kept remained the gulls
Until the summer that the twelve-year-old
Boy began to play on the old man’s beach,
Making castles and playing in the surf.
For three days the boy played without a word
Or glance up to the old man on the porch –
Even the day the boy screamed when a snail
Had slid across his cold submerged bare foot.
But then the boy found a large old conch snail
And became excited to tell someone.
He looked up and around to find someone
And for his first time saw the quiet man
Who had watched him play on the beach for days,
Who had been for him absent and estranged.
He carried his prize to proudly show off
The sea’s strange wonders to this strange old man,
Unwary and naive and unaware
That anyone could feel unlike himself.
“Look at this wonderful shell I have found,”
The boy said to the man as he approached,
And held the shell high up over his head.
“Doesn’t the sea make most wonderful things?”
The man looked at the boy’s young face and looked
Out past the boy to watch the waves wash in,
As though the boy was not a part of life
The man was interested to know about.
The boy dropped his shoulders and dropped his arms
To hold the conch in front of him, and frowned.
He dropped the shell in front of him and stepped
Over it and walked up to the old man.
“Why don’t you want to see my shell?” he asked,
“Don’t you want to see the ocean’s wonders,
And notice more from it than the mere waves
You can see from this old and distant porch?”
The man looked down into the boy’s wide eyes,
And narrowed his own and began to speak:
“You wade in the shallows and think you know
Of everything in the depths of the sea.
I can tell you, my boy, the only thing
You know is the surface of this deep sea.
You see the blue sky and the golden sand,
The green palms and the grass and think that this
Is all the world there is to know. But you
Have not seen this world until all around
Is midnight black – so black the slightest hint
Of a single star brings infinite hope
And joy in living that can never be
Described, or even understood if I
Could ever describe all that I have seen,
Unless you’d been through the same kinds of storms.
For you see, my boy, I’ve been in such storms
That bring that sea to life that I cried out,
Desperate for any island, place of calm.
I have fought against such strong hurricanes,
It was impossible to see my hands
That gripped the ropes of the ship, and we prayed
To reach the hurricane’s eye so that we
Could reach some relief, no matter how short.
I have seen the monsters of this deep sea,
And all you bring me is an empty shell.
You had three days to come to talk to me,
But you only came when you wanted me
To bathe you in attention. Before then
You never once even looked up at me,
And you come here up on my porch to say
To me that I’m the one who fails to care?
Look beyond the waves that come up on shore –
They reflect much more that lies out at sea.
Life is better than playing in the sand,
But only if you know the sea’s terrors.”
The old man stopped and looked down at the boy
Looking down at his bare and sandy feet.
“My boy, you’re young and have a lot to learn,
So let me share with you this one last thing:
True wisdom comes with great pain, not with ease –
Great ease brings you to pessimistic thoughts,
And you lose sight of joy, miss out on love,
And you never learn to affirm your life.”
The boy, confused, a bit ashamed, looked down
And turned to step off of the old man’s porch.
“One day you’ll understand all that I’ve said,”
The old man said; the young boy walked away.
The conch shined pink and silver in the sun.