The Beachcomber: Backstory
One day, when I was 11 or 12, I was down in the basement giving attention to one of my guns. Perhaps I was cleaning one of the shot-guns, or oiling one of the pistols. It occurred to me that I could easily and immediately kill myself.
I don't think I was, as they say, clinically depressed. A more psychologically minded family than mine might have noticed that I was not and had not been just a "happy" child. I did have lots of interests and I did well in school especially after 2nd grade. I had some friends and was often in positions of leadership such as they were at a young age. I also ran away from home when I was in first grade, with elaborate planning and preparation that went on for weeks. I overate, craved and binged on sweets, sometimes sneakily, and was overweight.
My parents didn't notice my packing to run away. When it started to get dark in Audubon Park I got scared and lonely and decided I didn't really want to cook and eat the very small sunfish I had caught. I called my parents from a pay phone and told them I wanted to come home. Their relief quickly turned to anger and I was berated and punished. Two days later, at school I was interrogated and given a threatening lecture by a large scary truant officer.
My parents did notice that I was overweight and first tried to fix that by sending me to a preschool where I got hit by the headmaster with a large wooden paddle because I always came in last in every race. (My only happy day there was the one when our teacher began to teaching counting up to ten and I counted to a hundred and kept going.) Later when I was in 4th grade they sent me to an adult gym on Canal Street to work out. I was sent on the St. Charles Avenue Street car with my African-American Nanny, Ethyl, and I was humiliated by the entire experience (even though I loved Ethyl). I have almost never remembered this story when I have struggled for years with hating to go to work out at gyms.
So I had been unhappy as well as happy as a child (my parents loved me a great deal and did some wonderful things for me, some involving a lot of sacrifice on their parts. As the early hormonal stirrings of adolescence began, I started to feel emotions even more strongly than when I was younger. I also developed the ability to formulate more clearly what was problematic in the world and in my world and to experience a much larger domain of concerns. I knew that people were not all good, that there was hypocrisy and pretense in values not lived out, and cheating and lying and neglect. I began to be aware of death and that I too was going to die someday, and I had some deep sense of fear that I would not be able to have a successful life. I became all too fully aware that there was a future and that it was uncertain and that it would certainly involve some powerful negatives, including dying?other people?s and my own.
In that moment, in my basement, with my guns, I realized that I had the power to give myself certainty, to take away fear related to the future, to end all present unhappiness.
In the following moments, what came to me as I stood holding my gun?still unloaded-- not having decided to kill myself, but entertaining the notion that I could-- what came to me was the image of the Beachcomber.
I have no memory of where the image or the concept came from?I know that I had never been to the ocean, although I had been to Grand Isle, Louisiana, which had a long sandy beach lying along the Gulf of Mexico. And I was widely read for a not yet teen ager
What I thought is that I could be a wanderer, with no possessions, with simple clothes, and that I could spend my days, spend my life, walking along the shore, picking up things and somehow finding enough to live on. And that such a life, lived in nature, and near the ocean, and in the sunshine (and even rain), would be preferable to death. Not only would it be better than killing myself because I had failed, but also perhaps living that way would be better, freer, realer than most of the lives that I saw adults living.
This weather worn man, in his simple work shirt and jeans, who owns almost nothing and belongs to no place in particular, is honest and unafraid and appreciative of the basics of life. Not greedy, not corrupt, not hypocritical. He does not live in fear and is free ("Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose"-- J. Joplin). He has no reason to be afraid to die. He has skill and intelligence enough to make his way in the world by his instincts and his wits. He owes none of his existence to others; he gets to decide for himself. A life stripped bare and clean.
I left the basement that day with a sense of having discovered something powerful and sustaining. More than once, during the far greater turmoil of my true adolescence, I called up this image to remind myself that there was a position of safety and refuge in which to exist if I could not solve the problems I faced or fully meet the challenges which confronted me.
A few weeks ago I went alone on a vacation to Paris as a way of gifting myself on the occasion of my 70th birthday. I went to Paris to complete an intention set 52 years earlier, when I dropped out of college after one semester and two weeks, got close to full refunds for my parents? room and board and tuition payments and was intending to buy an airline ticket to Paris.
My intention was to go to live in Paris and to be an artist. As I think about it now, the narrative I was telling myself about being an artist in Paris was closely related to the image of the Beachcomber and the impulses that led to that narrative.? ?6 or 7 years after my exploration of the suicide option in my basement, I was re-confronting existential and personal challenges. I was struggling with the issue of meaninglessness, what was to be the purpose of my life. I also had strong feelings of inferiority, fear of failure, lack of faith in myself and my abilities. What I wanted was freedom from fear and from anxiety.
The fear of failure and confusion about the meaning of my life led to the impulse to drop out of college (where I had done very well the first semester, but had signed up for very hard courses including a lot of science, for the second semester). The image of being an artist in Paris included a narrative that said that artists? are motivated by their inner life and ideals and not by striving for outer success (and the risk of failure entailed in that striving). I imagined that I could be free from fear and ambition, and live in survival mode, without hypocrisy or confusion. The Artist, according to my narrative as a 17 year old, is like the Beachcomber, only with more visible creativity, and not quite so isolated because of living in the company of other artists.
I did not get to Paris when I was 17. I collapsed. I was afraid. My parents were afraid and outraged that I would take the money they had provided for me to go away to college with and spend it on going to a foreign destination with no plan, no protection, no clear goals or outcomes. I wasn?t ready?
I wrote the story of the Beachcomber and all of the above background not to document or brag about how much I have changed between the years of 17 and 70. I have changed a lot and I am pleased about and proud of it. The processes involved in that are important for me and since they inform my work as a psychotherapist, even in that indirect way I believe that they are sometimes of use to others.
However, my writing the story of the Beachcomber and its background is more strongly motivated by the desire to support my own ongoing work on my life issues and also to provide these descriptions as a potential inspirational and informational example that others might use in support of their own efforts to change.
Embedded in the above statements is the admission that even with all of the change, growth, maturing, and increased joy in my life, I still struggle in some form with the same issues I have always faced. I hope that both the amazing changes and the ongoing struggles will be evident in the pages that follow this one. The work of growth and change has no definite end ("I am hoping that my analysis will end soon after my death" Woody Allen)
I went to Paris on my 70th birthday both to celebrate my changes--I am now a painter and a writer, I live a current life that is full of meaning and purpose and I look back over many years of accomplishment and fulfillment. I am often joyful and at peace. I am also often not joyful and not at peace. Both the existential and individual challenges and conflicts which I carry today, are still related to the ones I faced as a pre-adolescent (and child and toddler and infant) and I write now in the belief that some of the narratives that have guided my life are part of the resolution to those problems as well as part of their continued presence in my existence.
I went to Paris to enjoy myself. I went to Paris to have leisure, and freedom and "flow". I went to Paris with fear that I would be filled with fear and regret and compulsivity and extravagance. I went to Paris facing the likelihood that I would be facing what it means to be old and to be alone. I went to Paris facing the possibility that I would have regret for all that I haven't done and all that I haven't accomplished. I went to Paris fearful that I might not find the trip meaningful and regret that I had chosen to come.
I went to Paris for my 70th Birthday to be an Artist. I couldn't take my paints and canvases, but I could take my lap top and write. I could see if I could be free enough to flow and be spontaneous and relax and be related to others even though I was to travel alone. As Melanie wrote and sang, "I am not a poet; Living is the poem"
I sat at a table in the sun at Les Deux Magots and I read?3 books I had brought with me?East of Eden; Shambala: The sacred Path of the Warrior; and Constructing Realities: Meaning-Making Perspectives for Psychotherapists. I wrote on my lap top. I drank delicious espresso caf?-au-lait and ate croque monsiers, and chocolate cake.
Much of the time I was able to let those creative and pleasure filled activities be at the center of my trip, with everything else as background. The list of things I didn't do (actually go into the Louvre, visit the Pompidou Center, see the Folies Bergerie, see Versailles............) was much longer than what I did do and see (go the Musee Orsay, go up in the Eifel Tower, visit the Grande Isle de Jette, go shopping Bon Marche.....). Someone who is living as an Artist in a city, isn't a tourist. ?His or her existence and art are at the center of attention. She or he sometimes takes a break for entertainment or stimulation and goes to a museum or for a walk.
When the old conflicts appeared, the image of the Beachcomber arose in me and his presence became a way of managing those internal forces that have always limited my freedom and joy. The process of writing his narrative and the background for it became part of my artistic work, as well as my living as an artist in Paris.
When negative self-judgments arose-- the narrative that says "if I had been a better person I would be in Paris with a lot more money, doing a lot more interesting things, with lots of interesting and important people"-- I let the Beachcomber become my identity and I imagined myself as that free spirit, walking the Paris sidewalk beaches, collecting impressions and perceptions and memories. All treasures that pack flat and weigh very little. And at least as precious as anything I might be buying in a store if I were rich. Contentment and peace filled his/my being.
When the realization of my age came into my consciousness (as when I saw myself in a 10 foot high mirror in the Gallerie Layfaette's men's store) and I felt fearful about how much closer I am to dying than I used to be, I called up the image of the Beachcomber who said to me, "life isn't a struggle and death isn't either. You walk along the shore at whatever pace suits you and when you get tired you rest. When you get really tired you die and rest forever."
When my acquisitive, greedy story began to tell itself ("Paris is the home of Baccarat, you can probably find lots of glasses here that you've never seen at home. Hurry, Hurry, you may never get this chance again."), suddenly, the Beachcomber was there. He said, "you only drink orange juice and Iced tea in the few glasses you've kept. Life is so much freer when it isn't cluttered up with all that stuff you just have to take care of and find some place to put. Give away the ones you've got, don't buy more. Being free to move and experience and relate is what really matters. You have enough"). I joined him in gently and peacefully walking on the sidewalk dunes.
A waiter was offended because I asked that he bring back the unfinished pate which he had swooped down and made off with unheeding of my efforts to get his attention. He expressed his displeasure (hurt?) by banging down all of my subsequent meal, creating long gaps between courses and bringing them cold, and ignoring me entirely when I tried to get his attention to ask for something additional to drink.
I began to experience powerlessness and feel anger, and heard the voice inside that said, "if you had more money you'd be eating at a better restaurant and you wouldn't be treated like this" and "now your whole dinner is ruined", and even "you never are able to get what you want" and "No one will ever love you." Suddenly the Beachcomber was with me and he said, "good thing we don't have to be anywhere special at any special time. This place sure has comfortable chairs, one of the few things I miss out on the shore. I like eating tuna fish and French-fries, but getting to really linger over snails-- wow! And they're not too hot to eat either." I got out my book, and read peacefully while waiting for the next course, and I was actually hungry by the time it came.
My Paris beachcomber isn't rushing or narrowly focused on getting to this store or that museum. My Beachcomber finds a button on the street and picks it up as a possible souvenir. He sees a sewer cover as a mandala and notices how it is alike and different from the sewer covers in Philadelphia. My Beachcomber takes a picture of one sewer cover and imagines he might put it on his blog or website.
My Beachcomber looks for treasures that wash up on the tables of a flea market and he collects tiny, inexpensive objects that will travel easily and make at least whimsical gifts for people back home. My Beachcomber reminds me that going through stores is not really different than strolling in a museum or along the shore. The Gallerie Lafayette is filled with cultural artifacts to be looked at and appreciated but not personally attached to and claimed as property. My Beachcomber, waiting for another long delayed dinner course at a restaurant, notices the beauty of the lingering oyster shells and arranges them as a mandala on the plate.
The intent to live as an artist is related to the basic principles of a Wholistic Existential Psychology (see the list of these principles on this website and theoretical background for them see the essay ?If You Don?t Mind, I Will?? (which is also available to purchase to read as a Kindle book from Amazon). It represents a yearning for wholeness and balance within a differentiated and well-functioning life. It envisions a freedom from fear and anxiety, and a capacity to flow with time and within space. It envisions a way of meeting the existential challenges of death, aloneness, powerlessness and meaninglessness. This Wholistic Existential Psychology also recognizes that our existence is largely defined by the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives. As such, images and narratives like those of the beachcomber offer evidence of how we seek narratives that are intended to solve various problems in our personal worlds. Each narrative is useful as well as limited and limiting. A story can be retold to offer a healthier outcome and other narratives can be created to compensate for what is left out or out of balance in the current tale. Who we are can't be contained in one story. One narrative is never fully in balance or fully encompassing. And the stories themselves, being words, may help and always hinder our experience of the unity of being (see references to Taoism and Lao Tzu). The Beachcomber represents only some aspects of the being known as Harris.