“Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could not physically re-enter the ocean as the seals and whales had done. But over the centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively … Moving in fascination over the deep sea he could not enter, he found ways to probe its depths, he let down nets to capture its life, he invented mechanical eyes and ears that could re-create for his sense a world long lost, but a world that, in the deepest part of his subconscious mind, he had never wholly forgotten”.
– Rachel L. Carson, The Sea Around Us (1951, Oxford University Press)
Water and sunsets – are there any two other things that are so consistently awe-inspiring? In the past year since moving house, I have seen many beautiful sunsets from my front lawn. However, we don’t live close to water, and I don’t think that there is anything better than a sunset experienced on the beach. A few weeks ago we decided to be spontaneous and drive down to the beach for a relaxed dinner. It seems counterintuitive to me to write that we “decided” to be spontaneous. I’m reminded of Maude Flanders (from The Simpsons) going away to Bible Camp to learn to be more judgemental. Certainly, ours wasn’t entirely a spontaneous decision. We had agreed that we would leave Saturday open and see what we’d like to do, but the beach had been thrown around along with my suggestion that I lie on the couch for the evening and bemoan the fact that the wine bar Bin 273 on Rundle Street would be a perfect place to go; had it not closed years ago and become a Thai restaurant and then an upscale boutique. Every so often I like to let a night take you where it will, but I also derive comfort from at least having a rough skeleton or starting point. That’s why, on the way there, I kept debating internally – and much to Bob’s mild annoyance, externally – whether or not I should ring the Largs Pier Hotel for a booking. I didn’t, and we were lucky to get a table. This put me on edge. However, after dinner when we could walk on the beach, the ball of nerves that is a considerable part of my day-to-day experience receded from the shore.
There is a lot to be said for spontaneity and trusting one’s decisions. In a five-part series (see, I told you) of articles for Psychology Today, Leon F. Seltzer writes that spontaneity is likely linked to the psychological concepts as mindfulness (being in the present moment) and the immersion that comes from the mental state known as flow, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life”. Marine biologist and researcher Wallace J. Nichols would suggest that one of the best places to facilitate a mindful state is by water. Dr. Nichols came up with the concept of Blue Mind, which he sees as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment”. He believes that “it is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion. It takes advantage of neurological connections formed over millennia, many such brain patterns and preferences being discovered only now, thanks to innovative scientists and cutting-edge technology”. So, perhaps without realising it, my decision to be spontaneous at the beach wasn’t a bad choice after all. Plus, we got to see whales swimming not ten metres from where we walked on the sand; and cute puppies walking the beach with their companions.
Of course, spontaneity need not be only achieved at the beach. From what I’ve read, spontaneity is a bit like a muscle that should be exercised. That isn’t always easy. Funnily enough when I started to draft this post, my friend Madeleine texted me to ask us to lunch the following day. We already had plans. She understood, and told me that she was just trying to be spontaneous. I appreciated her effort because I increasingly find that by the time I’ve come up with a list of people I’d like to catch up with because it’s been to long, or things I’d like – or feel I have – to do, there isn’t really much room for spontaneity. However, last Sunday, after successfully mounting an internal case (Perry Mason would have been proud) for not going to the gym to face the dreaded rowing machine, we were at a loose end when an afternoon birthday party was cancelled. I suggested that we see a movie, and so we looked up the listings and decided on Hail, Caesar! The film wasn’t on until seven o’clock, which left us with a few hours. On a whim, we texted our friend, Beth, and asked her out for a drinks at a nearby pub. Good conversation over beers followed: now that can be flow, as Professor Csikszentmihalyi would agree.
I’m glad we acted on a whim to catch up with Beth, and then to see the film. Hail, Caesar! was a delightful wink to the studio system and a Hollywood of time’s passed with the inimitable touch of the Coen brothers. Film aficionados will enjoy spotting the inspiration for various characters, subplots, and flicks made by the fictional Capitol Pictures. I thought Alden Ehrenreich, an actor I was not familiar with, was excellent as the studio’s oater star, Hobie Doyle; and that Channing Tatum as a song-and-dance man was a revelation, at least to me. There are treatments of faith, Communism, and moral ambiguity, but I’ll avoid spoilers for the recently-released film. Also, there would be a lot of ground to cover, and while I’d like to explain to you the many intertwined stories, to take the words of Hobie, “Would that it twere so simple”. The Palace Nova Eastend cinemas also offer wine in three pouring sizes: standard, feature length, and epic. The actual film runs a little over 1 hour 40 minutes, but the film within the film is an epic, so, you know…I don’t think anyone will judge you for getting the epic-size option.
In preparing to write this article, I started to wonder if spontaneity or doing something on a whim is related to the personality dimension openness to experience. Robert R. McCrae and Paul T. Costa, Jr. are very well-known for their work on the Five-Factor Model of Personality, with openness to experience one of the five traits, along with conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Two acronyms that I wish I had learnt years ago to aid remembering these traits are OCEAN and CANOE. Aren’t they really too perfect for the point I’m trying to make here? Interestingly, I came across the notion of aesthetic chills, defined by Professor McCrae as “transient emotional responses to music or other experiences of beauty”, and which are strongly associated to openness to experience. Avram Goldstein published some early work on chills in 1980. He called them “thrills”, perhaps because this was the ‘80s and in the era of Reagan everyone was looking for a few. In that work, commonly reported stimuli that caused thrills were great beauty in nature or art, as well as musical passages (the most frequently endorsed); scenes from movies, plays, ballets, or books; physical contact with another person; climatic moments in opera, sexual activity; and nostalgic moments. One of the stimuli that endorsed less frequently by participants was parades. I understand – unless the parade is being preceded by “raining on someone’s”, I’m not usually that moved. I’ve probably had more than my share of chills from sunsets and water. Perhaps they come from that feeling of anticipation and that anything is possible, which I have found comes from looking at an infinite ocean, listening to a great piece of music (in fact, that anticipation and possibility is how I described Teddy Geiger’s album The Last Fears almost three years ago), good conversation over moreish food and drink, or a spontaneous day of activities. Where better to get the chills than at the beach? Perhaps avoid recreating that roll in the waves by Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. I imagine you’d end up with sand everywhere.
The pictures in this post are from my night at the beach. If you do decide to use them elsewhere, you may attribute the sunsets and water to God and/or science, but please credit the capturing of those moments to me.