The beach!  It’s a superb symbol of relaxation…sunbathing, margaritas, the smell of suntan lotion (well, sunscreen these days)…etc, etc..  But the beach is something else as well:  as the meeting point of land and water, it’s a strange and fascinating borderland.

I grew up by water (lakefront and then oceanfront) and my mother always told me we were “water-people”, which made it sound like its own ethnicity.  I’m not sure whether this predisposed me to like water more than the next person, but it certainly did give me license to be particularly geekily fascinated by the lakes, oceans and seas.  And – to confess – it’s a fascination that just doesn’t get old, and which, re-experienced makes me think about the role of fascination in feeling alive and having a great life.

We’ve just been in Florida, on the wide and turquoise Gulf Coast.  We had pitch-perfect weather and spent every morning at the beach.  The water was warm enough for swimming, and varied between surf just right for bodysurfing en famille, to easy, sparkly tranquility.  The water was teeming with life:  sandpipers zipped up and down with the surf, their long bills poised to dig up clams;  pelicans cruised over the water, hunting fish;  millions of little clams washed up with each roll of the waves, then hastily tried to bury themselves out of site;  muscular dolphins even disported themselves further out.  It was hard to tell whether they were fishing or playing, but they sure seemed to be having a good time.  And all the life we did see conjured the feeling of all the life that was out of sight, deeper in the Gulf.  It was an awesome feeling.  I’ve always loved swimming out into deep water just for that feeling of being one more creature among many in the water.  It’s a dizzy sort of a sensation, to have the bottom of the ocean far beneath one, and unseen life all around one.

In Florida, all that life, all that strange life, was captivating.  My own sense of engagement with the world quickened, and I loved watching my children get absorbed by everything that was going on around them.  I couldn’t keep up with their questions:  Why does the surf keep coming like that?  Are all these different looking shells different species? Do sand dollars have different “pictures” on them or are they always flowers?

Besides making us all want to move to the Gulf (notwithstanding the small issue of hurricane season), the whole experience made me reflect on the nature of fascination itself.  To be fascinated is a distinct form of pleasure.  Usually we’re fascinated by things that are new to us.  We want to explore them, learn about them, see different aspects of them.  We can feel fascinated by people (especially when we’re falling in love!), by circumstances (how did that happen?) and by things (how does that work?).  The natural world is endlessly fascinating because there’s always more to experience and learn.  Whether or not you’re a “water-person”, there’s a lot out there to enchant….  For example, there’s a reason that the heavens have inspired some of the greatest minds in the world, from philosophers to poets to scientists.

The marvelous thing about fascination is that it leads us to be open.  It’s the opposite of cynicism or constraining self-awareness.  When we’re fascinated, we tend to forget ourselves. We turn outwards to the world instead of inward to our own thoughts and feelings.  Fascination connects us to things, because it makes us reach out to learn.  And fascination can make us lose our sense of time…the whole world boils down to the subject that holds our attention.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that I necessarily spend a lot of time being fascinated in day to day life.  Most of the time, I’m too busy doing what I need to do in the world that I know.  And culturally, we sneer a bit at fascination, probably because it implies a willingness to expose a deep interest in something, and to reveal a not-knowing, when we’re somehow always supposed to be clever and to know things.

But I vote for embracing fascination, because it’s fun and it opens one up to the world.  And if I feel too mired in the workaday world to be fascinated, well, maybe it’s something I can cultivate. That sounds a little strange, a bit like tryingto fall in love.  But why not?  Maybe it’s just a question of fanning the fires of an interest, whether it’s the Dark Ages in Europe, the discovery of new planets, or life in Iceland.  Come to think of it, Sarah Moss’s new account of her year in Iceland is coming out soon, and it’s bound to be brilliant….