It was while walking by the sea that the idea came. I have often found that having water rippling quietly beside me helps in the formation of ideas, or maybe it’s just coincidental. A friend suggested that it has to do with our being made of over 97% water – and he might just have something there! A stroll along the beach, with the bubbling water a constant companion, has always been a place of reflection and solitude. And, of course, a place for the mind to wander and let the creative juices flow.
Some time ago, on a beautiful spring morning, I was walking on Sandymount Strand when an idea floated into my mind, like a wave coming to the shore. It is one of my favourite places in Dublin to go ‘and be alone’ with my thoughts, such is the openness and calm of the wide beach, especially in the early morning. As I walked along the sandy beach towards Ringsend, I gazed over to Howth across the mirror-like water and beyond to the horizon. How often had other people looked out at this same scene, I thought, and let their ideas slip away like the spray from a breaking wave?
And then it came.
People had been coming here for years, since time immemorial no doubt, and gazed out over the very scene that was now mine to behold. For just in front of me was a line of footsteps in the sand, an image that had not changed since the first person left similar marks so very long ago. The French have a saying ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’, which translates as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ That seemed about right to me as I watched the waves rush in and cover the footsteps in their gurgling embrace, removing them so completely as to leave no sign of their short existence.
As the water receded, smoothing the sand to leave a blank canvas awaiting its next mark, I remembered that James Joyce had a fondness for this place and included it in his most famous book, Ulysses. In chapter three, the young hero, Stephen Dedalus, walks along the strand and ponders the difficult and complex topics of imagination, sensation and thought itself. The feel of the words is meant, in Joyce’s hand, to be fluid, hence the setting by the sea, portraying the move from birth to death, and finally, renewal. Transience leads to something permanent and new, and it is this cycle of renewal that held me as I stepped tentatively into the cold waters, making my own mark that was just as quickly erased.
The thought that there are things that cannot be changed had a strange but comforting feeling. Joyce understood this better than most and through Stephen asks the question, ‘Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand?’ This is not something that I can answer, but I like the idea that he and all of us who walk on the strand have ‘our moment.’ We left a mark – and as to whether it will last until eternity – that will be for others to say. In the meantime, I keep walking on the strand, not so much in the hope of seeing Stephen Dedalus, but in anticipation and comfort of its soothing power and timeless, dreamy rhythm.