© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2002
PASS-A-GRILLE -- The traffic light adjacent to the Don Cesar Beach Resort and Spa on busy Gulf Boulevard serves as my beacon.
North of the light is real life. Responsibilities, deadlines, blurry activity. South of the light is blissful escape. Peace, quiet, contentment.
First, a drive through Pass-a-Grille, a self-described "sleepy" community of eclectic homes, artsy businesses and popular seafood restaurants. Then, my arrival at the beach itself, usually about 45 minutes before sunset.
Which is why I'm here today. To shuffle through the heavy sand. To set up a beach chair at the edge of the sea. To unwind. Relax. Heal.
Too much stress pressures the mind, causing mental and physical damage that increases with age and duration. Scientific research has shown that relieving stress on a consistent basis reverses the damage, improving your mental outlook and overall health.
One proven way to relieve stress is through the practice of meditation, which exists in many forms throughout the world. But some people might be intimidated by meditation, believing they don't know how to do it and don't have time to learn.
Not to worry. There is at least one form of meditation that all easily can perform, without having to study with gurus or pore over books. And it's right outside our door.
It's 7:30 p.m. on a cloudless day in late spring. The sky is a pure, flat blue. A determined breeze blows off the Gulf of Mexico, directly in my face.
I settle down in my beach chair and take a deep breath. The air is wet, salty and warm, yet it is at least 10 degrees cooler than earlier this afternoon when I left work and walked to the parking lot in downtown St. Petersburg. It's been a hectic day, and my drive to the beach isn't much better, getting cut off at one point and stranded at a drawbridge at another. My heart is thumping, and I'm still gritting my teeth.
I take another deep breath and size up my surroundings. First, I look at the sun. In a highly unscientific manner, I hold up my right index finger in front of my eye and measure the sun's distance from the horizon. It is now about half the length of my finger from the sea.
With my sunglasses off, the sun is a haze of blinding light, impossible to look at directly. With sunglasses on, it becomes a more concentrated, yellow sphere. The gulf is brackish green, full of tumbling waves born far away. The waves crash hard against the beach, foaming white. A pair of kayakers paddles about in the turmoil.
Every sunset at Pass-a-Grille is different. Some days are crowded, some you're almost alone. Some days dolphins feed a thousand yards offshore, or stingrays flap their wings just inches from your feet. On this day, seagulls are the dominant wildlife. There are hundreds of them. Most are attracted to a raucous family tossing potato chips into the air. They must be tourists, I think, because sunset veterans know better. The first time a seagull nails you on the cheek with its droppings is the last time you'll throw potato chips at the beach.
A fat, grizzled gull lands at my feet holding a Ruffle, still in mint condition, in its beak. It struts to the surf to wet the chip and soften it.
A half-dozen sanderlings scoot along the water's edge, feeding on morsels dug out of the sand. Their needle-thin legs whir impossibly fast as they run to and fro, daring the frothy edges of waves to catch up with them.
I realize, even as I am being amused by the antics of the birds, that just beyond my thought is a rhythmic background music. The crashing waves sigh and tumble, as if the ocean itself is breathing. I feel my breath measuring the same pace. I've been here about 10 minutes, and already my body has relaxed and my heart rate has slowed. All this watching and listening has begun to have its desired effect.
It is 7:45 p.m. The sun is about one-third of my index finger from the sea. At this point, I begin to feel the sun move. Or, rather, feel the Earth spin. This tangible sensation fascinates me: the ability to watch time as it marches inexorably forward. From our instinctive beginnings, we are programmed to base our sense of time on the rising and setting of the sun. Twelve hours of day, 12 hours of night. A cosmic constant. For billions of years before us, and billions beyond, this will continue to occur.
I laugh to myself. Watching sunsets makes me philosophical. I drone on about "deep subjects." Get in touch with my spiritual side. Commune with nature. Etcetera, etcetera. Enough to make some people gag. But now, it seems appropriate.
All my senses are heightened. I feel the sea breeze slapping against my skin. I smell the thick salt air, which I have always found comforting. The sun, though lower now and less bright, still feels warm on my face. The waves, of course, continue their song.
For the first time, clouds have begun to form, and a line of them is floating eastward. Every time I look up, more are drifting over my head.
Several couples stroll along the water's edge, holding hands, talking softly. Or just walking silently, enjoying each other's company without speech. A lone pelican spears the surf. How can it do that in such shallow water? It emerges with several small fish wiggling in the pouch of its bill. A feisty seagull lands on top of the pelican's head, searching for small fish that might have been stunned or injured by the pelican's fierce dive. The pelican, perhaps 20 years old, seems unperturbed.
More clouds float by. A tough-guy sanderling chases off several others, more intent on proving it is the boss than in filling its belly. The sun still is yellow and bright, even with sunglasses on. But it now is easy to stare at straight on. I look up at the sky, which is a deeper blue than when I arrived. I am scrunched down in my chair, legs sprawled out, all eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin. The waves sing inside my mind, erasing stress like a mop and soapy water soaking up grime.
It is 8 p.m. The sun is about a fingernail above the horizon. It is now more red than yellow, and the surrounding sky also has a reddish tone. The rest of the sky is deep blue. A thick line of clouds forms between the sun and the horizon, threatening, for the first time, what has appeared to be ideal conditions for an uninterrupted plunge into the sea.
I am entirely relaxed, flesh and bones succumbed to gravity. Even the seagulls have calmed down, forming a protective circle around me, as if standing guard. Several species of birds already have begun their evening flight to their roosting grounds, cruising south toward Shell Key, Egmont Key or Fort De Soto.
During each sunset, there always seems to be at least one natural event that is worth talking about later: a dolphin hurling its gray body clear of the water while chasing prey; a dead fish, bloated and smelly, attracting gawkers; an unusual piece of driftwood. At 8:05, a massive ray leaps about 10 feet into the air about a half a mile out. I see it clearly from start to finish.
At 8:07, the sun touches the line of clouds just above the horizon. It slowly begins to disappear. I'm a little disappointed, because "classic" sunsets are a special treat. When the horizon is clear, the final moments of a sunset go through several stages. First, the bottom edge of the sun appears to be drawn into the water, like sand in an hourglass. Then, the entire shape of the sun distorts, looking like a hot-air balloon that is steadily losing its lift. After that, the sun returns to a more traditional shape, half a perfect circle. From there, it slips away, finally becoming just a dot of light before winking out.
On this day, the sun disappears behind the clouds before reaching the water. At 8:12.36, it is gone. Immediately, the air darkens and turns a grayish-blue.
There is a hush.
The breeze reduces almost to nothing.
The waves do not change.
At 8:20, the sky is streaked with red, blue, yellow and gray. The afterglow of a sunset might be the most beautiful time. So peaceful.
The white clouds have changed to gray-black. A lone pelican continues to feed.
As the sky darkens, the first stars appear. Many of them are suns like our own. Are planets orbiting some of these stars, trillions of miles from Earth? If so, these planets have sunsets, too. And, maybe, someone or something watching.
With one last sigh, I leave Pass-a-Grille.
I drive home slowly, barely approaching the speed limit. The traffic light at the Don Cesar allows me through, unhindered.