You would think birds would be the main attraction on Bird Island. But they aren't. The main reason most people hike to Bird Island is to see a mailbox.
I turned right on Highway 17, breached clumps of thick fog, and scooted over the shrouded Cape Fear River. I wanted to get to the beach while the fog still lingered, before the harsh light bleached away the natural colors and textures of the shore. And I wanted to find this Bird Island.
I drove around the Sunset Beach area, which was supposed to be near Bird Island, but couldn’t find a sign to the avian paradise. Google Maps was no help; MapQuest was no help. But I found someone staring at an alligator. He had pulled off the road and was bent over with his hands braced against his knees, glaring at an alligator. This might seem an odd thing to find and even a more ridiculous thing to seek help from, but, really now, with all the weird things that have happened to me, I didn’t think twice about it. If anyone would know where Bird Island was, he would, I though. And if he didn’t know, he could ask his alligator.
“Do you know where Bird Island is?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said in a near whisper without taking his eyes off the alligator. “Get on Sunset Beach and walk south.” Maybe he was trying to hypnotize the alligator, I though. I no more broke his concentration than he inclined himself to engage in conversation. The alligator, for his part, remained motionless in the swampy water. Then the man added, “Go to the mailbox.”
I got back into the car having never seen the man’s face and wondered about his sanity. Maybe the fog turned him into an alligator hypnotist, like a Stephen King slapstick or something. But I put him out of my mind and crossed the bridge, again, found a parking spot, and started hiking south. With all my camera gear strapped to my back and wearing heavy boots, each step sunk a quarter of an inch in the sand. This wasn’t going to be an easy hike. Or a fun hike. And I didn’t even know if I was going the right direction.
“Am I near Bird Island,” I asked an older man setting up his beach camp for the day.
“Oh, you’re not even halfway there,” the man said to me as he pulled off his shirt and threw a towel in the sand. He was a stumpy man with a rounded, suntanned belly. His complexion made his stomach look like a browned, oven-roasted turkey.
“Really?” I said. “But I’m headed in the right direction?”
“You gotta keep going. Keep going,” he said flapping his arm limply in the air. “It’s that way. It’s that way. At least two miles to the jetty.”
“Two miles?” I looked down the beach trying to see a jetty. I couldn’t.
“Oh yeah, a real hike. But it’s before the jetty. Just not by much,” he said squawking around his beach towel, kicking up sand. “You’re going to have to work for it.”
“How will I know I’m there? There’s nothing here.”
“Once you get to the mailbox, you’ll be there.”
“The mailbox? What is this mailbox?”
I walked and walked. Sinking into the sand. Pulling myself out. With each step came a reminder that another equal and opposite step had to go the other way back. This felt like a bad idea.
For it being June the air was crisp, and the light strangely colored. The thick morning fog taper off but low clouds lingered just enough to the northeast that everything seemed pastel splashed and soft-hued. I could never decide if it was bright enough for sunglasses or not, so I kept putting them on and taking them off the way I adjust the windshield wipers when its barely raining.
Pelicans and sandpipers and gulls raced up and down the beach, many gliding a feather’s tip height above the hypnotic, rolling waves. Cordgrass and sea oats and bitter panicum nodded to the morning breeze and anchored the single, long-stretched dune, where ghost crabs scampered across the sand like jittery dogs hearing distant thunder. People dotted the beach in pairs, jogging and walking and biking, either moving closer, and growing larger, or further away, and receding into to small points.
And it was true, finally, there was a mailbox on the beach. But a crowd of tourist had gathered around it. There must have been 30 tourists, all wearing hats and sunglasses, some with white noses and others in bathing suits. I asked a few of them to explain to me the significance of the mailbox. The mailbox, they said, is known to all the residence of Sunset Beach and many folks in North and South Carolina as a shrine of sorts. The idea, they said, is to go to the mailbox and leave a message for a kindred spirit.
I was immediately struck at the simplicity. It was just a mailbox, a mailbox on an empty beach. There’s no house, no address, no postal worker checking for mail or bringing bills. But somehow, sticking a mailbox in the sand invited crowds of people miles down the beach.
I stood and watched the crowd interact with the mailbox. They all took turns writing a message in spiral notebooks, and when they were done, they put the notebooks back inside the mailbox and started the return hike.
I took my camera bag off my shoulders and sat on the bench at the mailbox. I waited a few minutes to allow the group a safe retreat and pulled out one of the notebooks to read. It said, “Love being here. Thank you, Sunset Beach.” And, “What a wonderful beach!” And, “Thank God for vacation!!” Most had signed and dated their message and had written down where they were from. I started flipping through the notebook only to be interrupted by another person coming to the mailbox, and then another, all coming to write something to their kindred spirit.
Some people took their time, measured each word, and wrote page long notes, while others, most people, wrote two or three sentences about how much they loved Sunset Beach. And everyone waited patiently for their turn with a notebook. One person was celebrating her 54th birthday and went on to explain how the year had been a tough one. Her dad had died and she had become a grandmother. Another note talked about a mission trip to Guatemala. Since returning to the United States, she felt as though she were living in a paradox. She couldn’t reconcile the happiness of those in poverty with the general dissatisfaction of those with abundance? Another person wrote that today he was meeting his daughter for the first time.
The majority of notes were religious or near religious or felt religious. They made vague references to God or slipped into conversational language using the second person. “I could feel you with me,” and “I know you are here, on this beach,” and “Thank you for making this a special place.”
Just who is the you? Surely, they didn’t mean me, the interloper scanning through a spiral notebook. And it would be just as presumptuous to suppose they were writing to the God I worship – which is to say, how do I know it wasn’t Santa Claus they were writing? Or the magic god of beach vacations? Or maybe they were writing to a loved one who had died. But all that seemed beside the point. Whether they were writing to the god of beach balls or the Triune God of my faith, they were writing prayers.
At first this seemed just another sad commentary on current times. People so disconnected from each other that they offer prayers to a mailbox on a beach. The mailbox was a sign of loneliness: an analog of social media, where desperate prayers are deposited in a wishful-thinking tin can. I thought about arbitrarily writing “Like” underneath several comments.
And that says a good deal more about me and my spirituality than it does the folks who wrote to the mailbox. I’m a cynical crab who has never felt any sort of kinship with prayer. I was taught to pray before meals, to pray before bed, to fold my hands and close my eyes. Prayer, I was taught, was a pious activity requiring a formal inflection and a King James vocabulary properly dotted with “Thou” and “Thy.” When Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny turned out to be a con job, the god of Sunday clothes and bowed heads strained credibility. Why would God, who knew everything, even my thoughts, need to hear from me? Wouldn’t God know what I was going to say before I said it?
Even now, as I continue to try to put away childish things, I have to remind myself that what I was taught about prayer was not prayer at all; prayer is not posture or cadence, prayer isn’t piety or popular devotion or magical words or a laundry list of things for God to do for me. If prayer is a real thing at all, prayer is an activity that draws participants into God. To pray is to have the possibility of God, to experience God at comprehension’s limits. Prayer is fluent in mystery and danger and imagination.
And it dawned on me. The brief notes in the spiral notebook best exemplified prayer. Not because they were dressed up in appropriate devotional fashion, but because they were hard won prayers, prayers that walked two miles down an empty beach to sit at an unremarkable bench. These prayers jolted God with unpolished honesty and yank God down or up or over or into this world as a kindred spirit. And, oh how I hate hearing about how God is a personal God, a personal Lord and Savior, as if God were property or a faithful pet, a BFF or a kindred spirit. But maybe here, the laughable spot where a mailbox eyes infinite’s reach of sky and water and unending tides, where people desperate with burdening and hallowing souls gather to write, maybe here, God mysteriously amends God’s own self to become our kindred spirit.
The two-mile hike to the mailbox became a metaphor for the prayer life, whatever that may be. As much as it is about sitting down and having something to say, the prayer life is always walking through wet, heavy sand. Prayer is stumbling upon the cryptic oracle glaring at alligators and wondering just what this could mean. Prayer is suffering the heat of the day and walking away from mediation without feeling inspired or heard, while maintaining the conviction that faith means something. In prayer, you go alone or you go with a friend or a partner or spouse, or you go with your community, your church, and you discover there is no method, there is no proper pattern to prayer. Prayer has little room for self-confidence and doesn’t tolerate self-complacency. Prayer is that stiff voice in your head that allows for healthy self-investigation. The novice chalks prayer full of vocabulary and knowledge about how to talk to God. The mystic experiences prayer as emptiness, a void of thought and expression, the end of language and the admission of ignorance. Prayer is that gap between thoughts, the silence between words. It is unceasing because prayer cannot tell that it started and is helpless to bring itself to an end. A good prayer happens when the eyes are left open, when the world is seen and moved in. A bad prayer close eyes, shutting off the external world foolishly believing that the interior world is somehow more spiritual than what is other. A bad prayer folds hands and locks fingers, but a good prayer frees the hands to move and serve, to do something.
Romano Guardini, the author of “The Art of Praying,” ripped his first chapter straight from a cook book: Preparation and Form. “To regain inner stability,” he writes, “it is not sufficient to spend weekends and holidays in the country. A holiday by the sea or in the mountains, no doubt, affords a measure of physical and mental recreation, but it is not true compensation and its effects are soon spent…Poetry, music, and the arts are in themselves not sufficient.” He goes on explaining how prayer is like breathing or how prayer is like a seed. Prayer for Guardini is the end of restlessness, the beginning of concentration, the overcoming of distractions.
Well, whatever. I say, prayer starts in restlessness, a feeling of incompletion and immaturity. Prayer begins with knowing you don’t know. It isn’t well-mannered concentration, splicing together errant thoughts into a cohesive narrative. Prayer is inviting God into your chaos; God receives the chaos of your mind, your environment. If God can sweep over the formless void and shape it up, God can handle your noisy brain.
And as much as Guardini says prayer is about being present, which I think is right, I say prayer is also about going over there. About leaving. Stepping from this moment to the next moment without leaving the place called now.
A good prayer hangs out around a mailbox on a beach, where there is no address. No stamp is capable of reaching a good prayer’s mailbox. You have to bring the prayer yourself. The goodness of God suffers no intermediate, no go between, there is no postal worker waiting to deliver your prayer to God. You have to get out of your air-conditioned car on a hot summer day, strap on a heavy pack, and hike and drip with sweat to an inexplicable mailbox on a beach. That’s prayer.