Me and Michel Chapter Twelve

be the dawn and dusk

of a world in constant flux –

embrace becoming!


I said my goodbyes to Landes almost as soon as I set off this morning, and though only a dotted line on the map, a new département makes it feel like I’m making progress.

I’ve been riding parallel with the D218, though for most of it, the cycle path runs well away from the traffic so the ride is leisurely and peaceful. I’m heading due north between the sea and the Étang de Cazaux, one of the largest freshwater lakes in this part of France, fifty-five square kilometres in area, straddling the border between the Landes and the Gironde. The tarmac of the path is new – no bulging tree roots or water holes to look out for – and there are even white lines, like a mini-road. Before I know it, the short 20K hop brings me to the gates of my campsite, close to the dune.

This is a big tourist area and the majority of the sites have expensive wooden cabins to rent in advance, but very few pitches for the lone traveller with a tent. I’ve got used to checking in to meet that very Gallic shrug with the pursed lips indicating I don’t conform, but this time, I’ve chosen right. The majority of my fellow campers are like me, on bikes, motorcycles, or in overloaded suburban cars, with tents of all shapes and sizes, together with an atmosphere of heady anarchy. One reason, I’m sure, apart from the sheer joy of being on holiday, is that through the spindly pine trees the Yelloh! Village Panorama du Pyla campsite borders both the sea and the dune.

It’s just two o’clock in the afternoon so many of the campers – mostly French to judge by the number plates on the cars and vans – are still finishing their lunches inside or outside their tents. The rough track to and from the beach is mine to enjoy bar a few children playing with pinecones or riding bikes around and around in circles. As I stroll, I have a sense of satisfaction; I’m here, I’m coping, and I’m even making progress in my quest to explore new lands and find my way home again. I may not be a hero, but I am becoming the outsider I set out to be, with a quieter mind, less connected and yet more present to the immediate world around me. This is why I made this trip, for moments like this, when I can hardly remember my former self, a carer, a father, a middle aged man with questions about himself and his place in the world. I just am.

With the promise of the cool ocean, I find my place on the longest beach I’ve ever seen, arcing south to the horizon in an endless sweep of sand and trees, whilst to the north, the great dune looks like the smooth back of a sleeping giant, featureless and immense. Today the Atlantic breakers, normally so impressive on this coast are sleeping. Only lazy swells are visible on the horizon where the water’s surface has the gentle rhythm of a slow dance. Wavelets reluctantly expire on the beach to seep into the wet sand leaving thin lines of foam.

I put my things in a pile and head for the sea. I’m ginger treading the hot sand above the waterline and I can feel the burn on the soles of my feet. My moon steps leave no print until I reach the cool flat of the sea-washed sand. The first cool rush of a shallow wave rises up my shins and almost to my knees with the torque of an ocean three thousand kilometres wide, stretching all the way from Newfoundland to where I am wading deeper into French waters. When it reaches my waist, I dive, and the salt-cold soup boils around my ears and nose. I reach out with both arms, pulling against the water, eyes closed, blind and weightless, until I come up for air and roll onto my back to wallow like an upturned turtle. I blink away the seawater and squint up at the washed out sky, white in the glare of the sun. Now I can feel the swell, lifting and lowering me in slow motion, pushing me sideways as if I were boat or a ship with no rudder and no sail, beam on, drifting without moving a muscle. Just flotsam suspended.

When the senses and the body are so immersed in the elements, and the self so present and alive in the moment, if we’re lucky, a gap opens up. One that allows us to wander in our minds; or more accurately, to wander away from minds. With experiences like floating in the sea, we lose our adult identity and we can just about remember how to be children again. We might recall losing ourselves in the miniature worlds we created when building sandcastles, making camps, arranging soldiers in battle lines or dolls around tea sets, gluing models or carefully making nests out of shoeboxes and dried grass to nurse baby birds. As grown ups, our conscious minds are stretched to breaking point, required to deal with our own lives and our loved ones, but also to soak up reams of information about the world around us, via the news, entertainment, the phone and the computer.

But why go there when I could be here? When I am here. I start to swim further away from the beach, daring myself to see how far I’ll go out of my depth. I reach out and begin to crawl, relearning an old skill forgotten until now, face under the surface, a breath every third stroke, my legs kicking me on, hands cupped to pull me forward, the rhythm steady and smooth. To do something with minimum effort, as the Buddhists teach, is right thinking and right thinking leads to right action. I’d forgotten all that in the rush of life.

Twenty more strokes, and I’m beginning to tire. I stop, wipe the seawater from my eyes, and turn to look back at the beach. Thirty metres away maybe, and I check my line with other swimmers. There are rip tides on this coast. I want to go further. I want to keep swimming until the world is quiet and empty, and until it’s just me and the sea. I want to, but I know I’m at the limits of my strength to easily return, and I want to return. Oblivion is not for me. It’s time to head back.

I’m sitting on the sand facing the ocean. My skin is deliciously dry and tight with the salt and the sun. I feel raw, but also like I am coated, protected, part of it all. I reach for the bottle of water and drink in gulps that keep coming until I can take no more, and I pour what’s left over my head and face. I sit cross-legged and just look. There are many other people on the beach, but none nearby and none with any interest in me. My breathing slows, my heart too, and the feeling is like the gently rocking seesaw of a leaf falling from a tree.

I reach for the crisps and tear at the packet to grab an unruly handful, too many for a mouthful, but I don’t care. I crush them in with the flat of my hand and push them into my mouth as if I haven’t eaten in a week. And all at once, I’m grinning from ear to ear; at my childish delight to see the crumbs all over my chest and legs, at the shivers that transport me to my childhood beaches, and the girls and our picnics, and at the sound of distant voices, and laughter.

I’d forgotten to laugh these past months, just as I’d forgotten to sing. Now, I’m humming as I munch, which is not as easy as it sounds. To be so alive is something good. To think nothing is good, and as my conscious mind begins to wander and ask questions about the people around me, about what I want next, about the calls I should make and the shopping I should do later, I scold myself. How quickly we lose the pure state of being to the noise of desire and duty. I make myself a promise to swim more often, to sit more often, to let the world be, and try not take it all quite so personally – or seriously.

My sense of humour went AWOL at some point along the way, and only now it’s coming back can I breathe more deeply and begin to enjoy life once again. Humour is the great consolation that speaks directly to our essential humanity and may well be the only indicator that we are human, still, despite the machines and the algorithms.

And let me add music to the essential list of human qualities, alongside humour. Music acts as an antidote to what is an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in a so-called ‘connected’ world. We think, and feel, therefore we are human, and music offers us something rare these days, the chance to share our feelings with others who feel the same way. We are social creatures, and with so many shared beliefs and rituals falling away, music tells us stories of ourselves, the happy and the sad, the good and the bad, stories that end well and stories that don’t, the bittersweet of being alive.

From the Portuguese and Brazilian Fado notion of ‘saudade’, a longing or melancholy for what cannot be, to Mozart’s joyous overture to Figaro, from Sinatra’s ‘old ennui’ to Flamenco’s heart-cry, from the lament of Mahler’s Symphony No 5 to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, music is my other confidant, companion, and consolation.

‘Pardonne-moi, eh Michel? I say out loud, another handful of crisps heading for my mouth, ‘Tu veux du chips?’

Ps. I wrote another haiku. I don’t know what this one is about and nor do I know why mine all have exclamation marks. I don’t believe it’s essential to the tradition. Too long alone and I’m shouting, perhaps. But the swim, or the days and now weeks cycling, must be working because this one may very well be about hope, and that’s something of a surprise to me.


be the dawn and dusk

of a world in constant flux –

embrace becoming!


Music and sound credits:

Gymnopedie No. 3 – Wahneta Meixsell

Clouds – Huma-Huma

Lifting Dreams – Aakash Gandhi.

No.2 Remembering Her – Esther Abrami

No.1 A Minor Waltz – Esther Abrami

Eze_Beach1.wav by hadders — — License: Attribution 4.0

Beach, birds, distant neutral conversations (some discernible French) , Dieppe, France 2.wav by thorvandahl — — License: Attribution 4.0

061013_felix_waves_10m_ecm957_tr003.mp3 by ermine — — License: Attribution NonCommercial 3.0

Waves at Shetland Islands 2b.wav by straget — — License: Attribution 4.0

Ocean waves Smygehuk 2.wav by Owl — — License: Attribution 4.0

Golden Sands of Morar.WAV by inchadney — — License: Attribution NonCommercial 4.0