Lessons From the Sea


I raise my hand to my face to brush aside a tendril of hair that had come loose from my hat in the sea breeze. The fragrance of the sea – salt, fish, sea water – escapes from every pore in my ten fingers and two palms, a pungent reminder of the lobster I had just devoured on the harbor wharf. It doesn’t matter that I had washed these hands several times already. The scent insists on lingering, a potent reminder to this island visitor that life here is inexorably connected to the sea.


We walk the little sandy path, dunes to our right, harbor to our left, pressing ever forward until we reach the beach. The sand stands sentry, guarding our approach to the sea as it rolls back and forth, back and forth, preparing to catch the great ball of fire as it descends. We are travelers on a pilgrimage, seeking a greater glory, a transcendent experience that will at once show us more about ourselves and more about the Divine.


Sunsets at Menemsha are serious business, where spectators evaluate, rate, and compare the colors illuminating the evening sky like they do fireworks displays on the Fourth of July. And we too have come to see. And to measure and compare the beauty of this sun as it sets, yielding the night sky to its lesser orb, the moon.


They arrive in pairs, as families, and as small gatherings of friends until the entire beach is littered with beach chairs and blankets. With goblets of wine, tall glasses of lemonade, bags of pretzels, and tins of biscuits, the spectators settle in, facing the skyline screen before them as movie goers in an expansive theatre. There is no need to read the storyline; the plot is the same every night. The Great Star that warms our earth and gives us light will bid us farewell and leave for us a parting gift of the most magnificent spectacle of iridescent color.



The gulls are there in abundance as well. But they are not here for the light show. Their proliferation signals the presence of something my eye cannot see. We humans rely far too much on our eyes for knowledge when we were given five senses and the possibility of faith to help us experience and know. The natural world teems with proof of the existence of things our eyes cannot behold. My dog smells things I will never know are really there, and these gulls swoop and dive for the school of small fish I cannot see, yet believe is there.


Just below the surface of what I can see.


Those truly in tune with nature and the sea rush to get their fishing poles. They know a greater reality – where there is an abundance of small fish, there will be an abundance of bigger, more desirable fish, even if you can’t see them. Within moments the fishermen are on the jetty, throwing in their lines where no fish can be seen, but the birds have signaled to them to trust and know, not with their eyes, but with their full senses.


The sun descends a little closer to its sea foam bed. One of the teenage fishermen reels in his line. Wriggling at the end of the line is a 15” flounder. He has caught and brought into the light what could not be seen in the dark of the sea.



The soundtrack to our evening at the seaside is of course the lapping of the surf on the shore. Can one ever really grow tired of this sound?


Breaking in over the steady rhythm of the sea is the percussion beat of the buoy bell. It rings out like church bells inviting us to come and worship. The buoys that are moored at the entrances to the harbors of Martha’s Vineyard are surmounted with a bell that is sounded by the motion of the waves. The bell buoys are essential to sailors and boaters trying to safely navigate their way back through the harbor.


But where the coastal lighthouses require navigators to depend on their vision to guide them safely home in the dark of night, bell buoys require the navigator to listen. And to trust.


The tones that ring out from these floating bells carry for a great distance over water, and most have their own distinctive mix of tones for easy identification even before the navigator actually reaches them or is able to see them. Bell buoys are essential in the dark of night and when the coastal fog rolls in.


In our own journeys through life, fog is sure to roll in. The dark of night will take its turn with us, settling in, and during the winter seasons of life, envelope us for longer, deeper stretches of time than we feel we can survive. These are the times that we cry out for the light of day. For clear skies and warm, bright sunshine to light our way.


Oh how happy we are during the long sunny days of summer when we can navigate life with our eyes, through the light of the bright hot sun. But just as night belongs to day and the two form one perfect whole, fog and darkness are a part of life.


These are the times when we need to know that we have a bell buoy to guide our way. These are the times when we need to listen to the sound of the Master’s voice guiding us through our dark, uncharted waters. These are the times when we need to trust what we have experienced of Him and what we know to be true, even if we can’t quite see the way forward just now.



The moment arrives. Like clockwork, just as the tide charts said it would. The Great Star makes its final bow, and like the finale of a Broadway play or a live music concert, the audience erupts with applause. Yes Lord, I say to him quietly. Yes Lord, this applause is all for you, maker of heaven and earth, the dry land and the sea and all that is in them.


I came seeking a greater glory, a transcendent experience that would show me more about myself and more about the Divine. And the evening did not disappoint. All of my senses were awakened – the taste of the exquisite lobster, the jewel of the sea; the scent of the sea permeating every layer of my skin; the feel of the sand beneath my feet; the sight of the gulls beckoning me to trust what I could not see; and the buoy bells reminding me that there is One I can trust to guide me in the dark, stormy seasons of life.


I came seeking a sunset. I left having encountered God.



  1. Katie Cronin Connors

    Such a beautiful reflection, Bonnie. Thanks for sharing. xo Kath Cronin

  2. Betsy

    I read this and felt I had spent the evening sunset with you!
    Your writing is remarkably good, and your message perfectly timed and captured!???

    • Bonnie O'Neil

      Thanks Bets. Wishing you were there with me like the old days by the sea…


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