Years ago my dad told me a story from his days on an aircraft carrier in the navy. He and another sailor were looking over the water one day as they were steaming through some ocean of the world.
Dad said, “That sure is a lot of water.”
The other sailor replied, “Yeah and that’s just what’s on top.”
I don’t believe people who grow up on the coast fully appreciate how enormous the ocean feels to those of us who grew up surrounded by land. Our seafaring ancestors long ago gave up the rolling of the ocean for the rolling of the hills and the tillers of ships for the handles of plows. Most of my life has been lived in the rural mountains and valleys of western Arkansas where roads don’t disappear over the horizon, they just bend around curves. In these places, the sun sets sooner and rises later than on the great plains or oceans of the world. There’s always a ridge to block the horizon line and the number of hollows, to disappear into among the trees, seem endless.
It’s easy to forget how big the world is. To see that endless expanse of water, and consider all that live beyond it and within it can be terrifying. For in the world I have known, smallness is celebrated as it can provide the warmth and security that make the madness of the world outside our hills seem manageable. Communities are small and people, for the most part, look and act like us. We lose interest of foreign lands and their problems when there are ripe tomatoes in our gardens to be picked and our thoughts are focused on chopping down late summer okra plants that just won’t stop producing.
To stand on the shoreline and watch ships vanish over the horizon, as the curvature of the earth swallows them whole, is hard for us to process. There is so much smallness to preoccupy our minds that to consider a larger world can be unbearable. To sail alone into that ocean is insanity.
In this world, it is far more calming to look inward for refuge from all that would harm us. The refuge from our sins within the churches of our childhood. The refuge from the scorching summer heat beneath the shade of an ancient oak tree. The refuge of a front porch during a spring storm. The refuge of embracing all that doesn’t change.
To be small also leaves the space to go deep. I embrace that world when life seems too chaotic I and need to find order. Instead of distant horizons, small allows for looking deep into the infinite detail in the world in which you stand. Days may be spent studying the shape of trees and the detail within the veins of their leaves. Children play outside in the fields, contemplating the soil and watching the progress microscopic civilizations that live among the grass and beneath the decaying mulch on the forest floor.
In the small world, you may walk among the mountain valleys and learn how to smell the rain and notice the gradual shift of the deer’s back from red to grey as summer days turn to autumn’s falling leaves.
Within this world of the deep, I can paddle my kayak down a river, where no houses or tourist occupies its banks, and cast my line, undisturbed on clear water until the sun sets orange somewhere beyond the blue hills of the horizon.
At night, I build my campfire on a mountain overlook and listen as coyotes wail somewhere deep in the valley at a harvest moon. And as the flames fade to embers, my mind is quiet and turns inward and I sip coffee and consider my life as I study the constellations.
The deep world is a place I love. But, not a place I can stay too long. It is a place to recharge. To regain my footing. To start over. To come home to. But, I am forever wondering what is over the distant ridge and that call does not relent. I must answer it.
And so, I have learned that to reach after both the wide and the deep is to find wholeness.
To do neither is to remain in the shadows.