I heard a story once about a mechanic. Calloused and worn, his tired hands were stained deep with grease and grime that told the story of his hard work. Though the water would run black when he rinsed his hands, the gritty industrial cleaner in his shop bathroom removed just the surface dirt and made little difference to their appearance.
He took vacation once per year and it was always the same. His parents had left him and his sister a small cottage by the sea – it was a single room, the kitchen not more than a lone burner and the bedroom a small cot next to the door. Each day would start and end with a long soak in the ocean. Sometimes he would swim against the waves with all his might, turning back only when the shore grew small in the distance and his strength began to wane; sometimes he would lay still as the sea ebbed and flowed, the buoyant salt water carrying him far down the shoreline for a slow walk home.
When the two weeks were finished, he would get in his car for the drive back to his daily life. He felt calm, refreshed, reborn. He would grip the steering wheel and, with some surprise, notice a pair of hands that did not seem his own – there was no trace of the grease or grime, the creases of his hands were clean and the beds of his nails shone white. Only the thick callouses remained, and he was grateful for that; they were hard earned, his protection against the sharp, rusty pitfalls of his work.
I always liked this story; it has stuck with me over the 14 years since I heard it, partly because I, too, feel regenerated by the ocean. Standing on the beach and looking out over the waves, any worry melts away as I breathe deeply and let the thick ocean air fill my lungs. I stare at the magnificent vastness, I think of the power of nature, I see the ships and think of the greatness of man. The ocean doesn’t quiet my mind; it drowns out the noise and floods me with possibility.
But the story has other meaning for me as well. I think of the mechanic – a man who, to some extent, lives in anticipation of his two week reprieve. How his work builds up on his hands, how he cannot seem to wash himself of its mark save this deep cleanse, how quickly the dark stains must accumulate upon his return. Continue reading