Piha rescue: Confronting the agony and ecstasy of isolation

I drove to the beach alone, to photograph the sunset. Alone. And as the sun dipped behind the rocks and its brilliant light squeezed through the gap to illuminate the surf spray like bedroom dust on a moonbeam piercing the tiniest gap in the curtains, it was the aloneness that made the greatest impression. Not just the aloneness — and not even the solitude — but the isolation.

Observing beauty heightens the agony of isolation. What is glorious feels cruel. The thing that offers life brings pain — physical pain, in the stomach, where emotional distress is normally felt. When you witness something majestic alone, the aloneness is acute and absolute, and very quickly becomes a moment not to embrace or prolong but to flee. To turn and run — or at least to occupy your mind with something less majestic, less glorious, not quite so beautiful — is the only respite.

In my case, I lit a cigar. Lighting a cigar well takes time, a little know-how, quite a bit of patience, and a decent flame. I had no time for those things, so my cigar burned crudely, unevenly, and for a second I was glad of the isolation so no one could mock my burn. Still, the cigar is crafted for communal enjoyment, for conversation, time shared and unhurried … not smoking alone in the dunes at Piha like a bum, or — worse — a pretentious wanker.

The setting sun cycled through its colours rapidly. From brilliant white with golden edges, to golden yellow, then orange red, then blood red, then blood orange … and in that state it hung there, posing for photographs, for me and about a dozen other photographers closer to the water’s edge. The moment should have been sweet, but it was bitter. As the scene took on that quality that truthfully can only be described by the over-used word ‘breathtaking’ (and I felt breathless as I stood atop the dunes), I wanted to run from the moment and take shelter in my car, which itself waited alone, in the car park of the surf club. I had no desire to run from the elements, but from the isolation, which felt like heavy, compressed air — air that has had the oxygen squeezed out of it.

The sun fell behind the horizon and the night air cooled rapidly, almost immediately, like the sudden onrush of a storm-front. Except there was no storm, just the disappearing light and the vacating heat. And then more colours, as the sunlight from beyond the line of the horizon, beyond what I could see, hit the underside of the clouds and set them aglow, like dying coals, burning too feebly to give off any warmth.

And I stood there … still smoking, still shooting, still aching. Hitting the delimiter of my isolation, the very edge of what I believe I can cope with in moments like that; the terrible discovery that I cannot, alone, enjoy what is there in those moments to be had — that there is more enjoyment beyond what I have the capacity to experience in my solitude; that, glorious as the scene was, it brought to bear the agonising truth of my own inability to embrace it all, to soak it in, to feel joy in response to it.

C.S. Lewis says such moments contain a message. Paraphrased, that message is: You’re on the outside of this beauty, and you’re not welcome in.

And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

My inconsolable secret. I know about the secret, intellectually. I’ve known it for a long time. But I rarely bump up against it. Not really. I have a large palette of distractions that keep me from confronting it. But that moment caught me out. I’d rushed there too eagerly, keen to squeeze a bit more out of the week before the weekend.

My response was visceral. An ache, something like desperation. Infatuation. Unresolved longing. Unsatisfied desire. Anorgasmia. The stonewalling of any sense of climax, or fulfilment, or release. None of those miracles. Just bottled up frustration. And not even someone to complain to.

Further along the dunes a couple drank champagne. I’d heard the cork being popped. He was my age (upward of late 40s), she was younger, blonde, with a loud, natural laugh. It was a new romance — if it was that at all. They could have been friends, who knows? And perhaps not even they knew. But while I watched the last of the light skimming the tops of the dune grass, they talked and shared whatever was left of the moment, and whatever was available to wring out of the moments they were creating between them. It heightened my desperation. I was tempted to approach them, but thought better of it — the best decision I made that night!

But in that suspended moment — between the desire to distract myself, and the decision to hold back and confront what was going on inside me — I felt something else. I experienced what I believe was the potency of isolation. A mounting sense of increased capacity; the formation of poetic (or prophetic) imagination; the arrival of ideas; a surging desire to create something — not just something that would reflect the moment, but any bloody thing.

But that moment was rapidly gone. Like the sun. Like the light. Like the warmth of the day. What came next was grief. Some form of loss. The very thing I hate confronting alone. It was right there, beside the glory … sorrow.

Why does witnessing majesty alone cause sorrow? Possibly because of what it reveals about my condition, and about the human condition. I suspect the sorrow isn’t just about the solitude of that moment, it’s about the solitude of all my moments; the sense that even moments of togetherness with another human being are temporary distractions from the real solitude that is built into my humanity — solitude that is permanent, atemporal, always lingering at the door.

Was this a God moment then? A divine revelation? A stirring of the Spirit? No. There was no voice in the void. Just me, confronting the visceral response, the welling emotion, the compression in the abdomen that comes with despondence, rejection, disappointment, and the distressing realisation that such feelings aren’t temporary, but permanent; not momentary, but chronic.

I didn’t run from it though, like I almost always do. I navigated it, like Odysseus navigating Scylla and Charybdis, steering a course between my head and my heart in order to discover what only courage in such moments can reveal to me about my monsters.

Even so, I finished my cigar too quickly, and as I drove away from Piha in the darkness my nausea mounted — because of the winding roads, the tobacco, the high beam of the Piha residents’ cars returning home for the weekend. But because of other things too.

And by the time I reached home, I felt terribly ill.