Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.
The poem is by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is said to have been inspired by Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine, one of Longfellow's favorite spots. Only selected stanzas are used here. All lighthouse lovers should read it in its entirety, as it is a stirring poem.
The concept for this story came from a book I purchased on my trip to Maine in June, 2001: The Tao of Beach Glass, by Rick McCabe, expressed perfectly many of the lessons I've learned during my own years of beachcombing. A long-time sharks' tooth collector, I acquired a new passion this year in Maine - searching for beach glass - and quickly learned that regardless of the prize, the lessons remain the same.
This story is for Lory, with thanks for the memories we made on the Maine coast this year, and for everyone who walks on the beach with their head down, looking for treasures and finding more than they ever expected.
Sentinels of the Shore
The morning sun was still low in the azure eastern sky above the calm waters of the Maine coast. Strong winds had died during the night, and where waves had crashed with determined fury the day before, there was only a gentle lapping. Two men walked slowly along the rocky shore, both clothed in soft, well-worn jeans and light jackets. Solitary figures, yet clearly, they were far from alone.
The taller man kept his head up, his eyes intently focused on the hypnotic rotation of the lighthouse beacon farther up the beach. Perched high atop a large outcropping of weathered rock, its white tower gleamed in the morning sunlight. With rhythmic precision, the high intensity beam first appeared with a flash, then rotated out of sight only to reappear long seconds later. The steady whisper of waves caressing the shore combined with the haunting clang of a lonely buoy and the calls of the sea birds to create a mesmerizing medley for a sentinel.
After a half hour of walking and allowing himself the luxury of relaxing into the quasi-zone induced by the sights and sounds around him, the taller man asked curiously, "More sharks' teeth, Chief?"
Blair smiled patiently. "Not on the Maine coast, Jim. If they're here, it's too rocky and I've never been able to find them."
"They're not here then," Jim Ellison stated decisively. "You're too good at spotting those tiny fossils. If there were sharks' teeth on this beach - even one - you'd find it."
Blair smiled brilliantly, a flash of light to rival any nova. The breeze teased his long hair, and he brushed it back from his face with his empty hand. "Thanks, man. Just don't think they're here to find, though."
Still curious, Jim pressed, "So, what's in your hand?" He jerked his head at Blair's loosely closed fist.
Slowly, Blair's fingers uncurled to reveal their contents.
A handful of smooth, brightly colored, shimmering objects sparkled in the morning sun.
Automatically, Jim explored them with his sensitive fingertips, adding touch to the sense of sight already at work categorizing the collection in Sandburg's palm. Perfectly smooth...irregularly shaped...minute striations as individual as fingerprints... colors muted to a soft perfection. Jim's sky-blue eyes rose to meet the darker ones of his closest friend and silently asked their question.
"Beach glass," Blair explained. He looked at the small, colorful bits of glass in his hand, none larger than a quarter. "Shards of broken glass worn smooth by the rocks and the motion of the waves."
Jim's first impulse was to blurt out something along the lines of "And this makes finding them worth hours of your time because...?" The Jim Ellison of old would have extinguished the light in those bright eyes with a cold stare, would have killed the joy in Blair's voice with an icy word. But if life...and death...with the young man at his side had taught Jim anything, it was to listen to his guide and never sell him short.
Instead of wounding, Jim smiled encouragingly. "Talk to me, Chief."
Blair gestured down the shore. "Let's walk."
For several minutes they picked their way along the boulder strewn beach toward the beacon high on the cliffs. As they walked, Jim waited, knowing Blair would tell him more when he was ready. In the meantime, he studied the variety of rocks scattered thickly around them. Their hues composed a dark rainbow - browns and tans, grays and ebonys, mixed with whites and even dark greens. All shapes and all sizes, as if some cosmic force had gathered geological samples from throughout the universe to fling them haphazardly along the Maine coast.
Blair asked unexpectedly, "Do you think I make too much of things?"
Taken off guard, Jim regarded his friend carefully. "I'm...not sure what you mean." Blair's head was down, staring at the pebbles, sand, and sea debris at his feet.
"Yeah, you know..." Blair shrugged helplessly. "Sometimes I... " He stopped, then tried again. "I see things in ways nobody else seems to see them. I find...connections...that are...let's face it...kinda 'out there,' I guess. I know you think I'm totally crazy sometimes when I start rambling, Jim. And if you think that way, how must the rest of the world see me?" Worried blue eyes lifted to Ellison's face. Blue eyes touched with a shadow of shame.
Jim felt off balance, caught up in a moment of disequilibrium by his friend's doubts about himself. From the very instant they met, Blair Sandburg had been the epitome of self-assurance. Of course, there had been flashes of doubt, but only when faced with a monumental, life threatening challenge. In his mind's eye, Jim visualized the terror in Blair's face as Incacha's death grip held his arm, and the shaman's words filled his heart with doubt about his role in Jim's life. He recalled Blair's stunned look of disbelief and fear at the news that Galileo held his life, and the lives of all aboard that elevator car, in his cruel hands. Jim remembered how Blair's heart had beat wildly as he followed behind Jim across that mine laden bridge in the clutches of the rogue CIA agent, Brackett.
Yes, there had been moments of self-doubt, but each and every time Blair Sandburg had reached deep into his vast reserves of courage and faith in himself and had survived, never letting Jim down. But this was different.
Blair had just questioned an intrinsic aspect of his personality, a large component of his very essence. His inbred curiosity and insights into life were the foundation of what made Blair Sandburg the unique person Jim had come to trust and value above all others. That had made him the very firmament of Jim's existence as both man and sentinel.
Taking a deep breath, Jim proceeded cautiously. "No, Chief, I don't think you make too much of things. Yeah, sometimes it's irritating as hell, but your ability to make connections has been the key to many a difficult case. It sure has saved this sentinel's skin - and sanity - more times than I can count. As for the rest of the world..." The sentinel shrugged his broad shoulders. "Who cares what they think? We're in this thing together, remember. Just you and me. As long as we're okay, does anything - or anybody - else really matter?"
Jim paused, studying the young man walking beside him. He was relieved to see the shadows of doubt retreat, driven away by the returning light flickering in those indigo eyes. Blair shook his head. "No, not really. You're right, Jim."
Relieved, Jim steered the discussion back to those curious pieces of glass. "Now, tell me what it was about beach glass that brought all this on, okay?"
Looking up at Jim, Blair nodded and rewarded him with a quick, broad grin. "Thanks, man. Okay, here's the thing. I've developed a philosophy of life built around the simple act of searching for beach glass." He waited for Jim's reaction.
Playfully, Ellison bumped his shoulder against Blair's. "And...?"
The relief he felt at Jim's lack of judgment shone in Blair's eyes. "You really want to hear this, Jim?"
"Sure, Chief," Jim reassured him, once more gently pressing his shoulder into Blair's.
They walked on toward the lighthouse, still alone on the deserted beach. Jim remained quiet, waiting for Blair to feel comfortable enough to begin.
"First of all," the younger man said at last, "if you aren't looking for beach glass, you'll never find it. Simple, right? But just think, Jim, how many people float through their lives totally clueless. They never stop to figure out what it is they're looking for...what it is they need to complete them...and because they don't know what they're seeking, they never find it."
Blair chuckled softly, kicking at a small stone. "Then again, some people find beach glass - their life's purpose- too easily. You can stroll the beach and find a piece of glass here and there, but you're not experiencing really looking for beach glass. Without time, concentration, focus, and commitment, you miss out on what the experience itself has to teach." Blair's dark blue eyes rose to lock with Jim's own lighter ones. "It's easy to taste an experience. Much more is required to own it. To be taught by it. To be born into it."
Ellison looked thoughtful for a moment. "Kind of like being a sentinel?" he asked softly, staring intently down at his friend. "It wasn't until I accepted the experience completely, even the parts of it I wasn't crazy about, that I really became a sentinel. Fully."
Warm pride glowed on Blair's face, and he nodded without comment. They walked on, each with his own thoughts, for a few minutes, then Blair explained, "The best time to look for beach glass is in the early morning, you know, at dawn, when the sun's first rays make the glass sparkle like diamonds. But if I come to the beach all stressed out, like really feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, I never find any beach glass, no matter what time of day it is. That's when I have to remember to find my balance. I just stand in the middle of the rocks and quiet myself, center my soul. Before long, beach glass I couldn't see before dances like jewels in the light, just waiting for me."
"Waiting for you, Chief?" Jim stared out to sea, letting the weight of his guide's words soak in.
"Waiting for me to be ready to receive, Jim," Blair quietly explained. "Another lesson. For us to receive the gifts of life, we have to be open to them. Calm...centered...ready to receive."
Jim's voice was barely audible over the sound of the waves lapping at the rocks. "I know. If you're not ready to receive...not open...you could miss what might turn out to be the most important thing in your life." Jim turned to stare at Blair for a long moment, his expression so very serious, as he remembered.
"That's none of your business. And who the hell are you, anyway?...Why are you in my face?...Neo-hippie witch doctor punk..." the feel of Blair's shoulders in his hands as he slammed him against the wall...
Puzzled by Jim's words and his sudden serious turn, Blair smiled hesitantly. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. Important lesson, huh?" He held up a dark brown piece of glass to catch the sun's rays. "Especially for such an ordinary little bit of glass."
They continued their walk toward the lighthouse. "So far your beach glass life lessons are that we have to know what it is we're looking for, we have to be open to the experiences life gives us along the way, and it's important to be balanced... centered." Reaching over, Jim slipped a rather large, smooth piece of amber glass from his friend's hand and studied it thoughtfully. "What else have you learned looking for this stuff, Chief?"
A gull swooped to meet the sea, searching for its morning meal, and Blair followed it with his eyes as they walked. "I've searched for beach glass on five different continents, and that alone taught me something important. Beach glass isn't found on every beach, just as truth isn't found everywhere or in everyone. Like truth, it's a rare thing - a beautiful thing - but sometimes, it can be elusive."
When Jim nodded, seeing the wisdom in the analogy, Blair reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew an old, clear glass bottle with a cork stopper, the kind pharmacists used in centuries past. In it was a cornucopia of colorful, smooth pieces of glass in a variety of shapes. "I've gathered these all over the world - some as a child, others as an adult. This day's collection, when added to the whole, is kinda like our own place in the universe, man. Very large and seemingly important when you focus on it..."
He held out his palm full of glass for Jim's inspection, and Jim dropped the amber piece of glass he'd been holding back into his guide's hand. Removing the cork, Blair cupped his hand and carefully poured his day's treasures into the antique bottle, then gently shook it, blending the newly discovered beach glass with the old.
"...but virtually unseen when you look at the entirety," he finished. Blair studied the colorful fragments. "Like us, man. The center of our own universe, yet so small compared to the whole. Still, each one of us is a vital part of the whole complex system." Looking back up at Jim, he smiled brilliantly, "Mystifying, isn't it?"
Jim's heart warmed at his friend's enthusiasm. Before him was the Blair Sandburg who had intrigued him for nearly five years. Raised by a practical, business-like father, Jim Ellison had never been encouraged to see very far beneath the surface of how things appeared. Black was black, and white was white. A broken piece of glass was a broken piece of glass. Period. End of story. While poetry and literature had interested him in college and beyond, Jim had never felt comfortable sharing his enjoyment of such esoteric endeavors with others. A small voice in the back of his head, sounding suspiciously like his father, always whispered that such things were, at the very least, a waste of time, and at their worst, unmanly.
In contrast, Blair thrived on probing beyond the facade of ordinariness masking almost everything around him. He had opened Jim's eyes to a world the older man had disciplined himself not to see. A world of color and light, sound and music, scents and textures. Blair had given him a new world filled with possibilities to be relished with nearly child-like wonder. Jim knew in his heart that he would never view the world in the same way again. In his mind, it was one of the most valuable gifts Blair could have bestowed upon him. Blair's unique vision had changed Jim's own world view forever.
"I learned a new lesson today," Blair said softly, breaking in on Jim's reverie.
"What's that, Chief?"
Blair held up the old bottle once more. "Which color do you think is most rare?"
Jim focused on the rainbow captured within the thick glass walls. So many colors, so many shades...each piece of glass holding within it uncounted variations of the same hue. "Blue," he concluded after a moment, forcing himself back from the edge of a zone. "Definitely fewer blues in there."
"Right," Blair agreed. "Today, before you were up, I came out here focused on finding a blue piece of glass, the 'Moby Dick', you might say, of beach glass."
"Did you?" Jim regarded the bottle curiously, trying to determine with his sentinel sight if any of the blue pieces seemed 'newer' in any way. "Find one, I mean."
"Yep," Blair said happily. "I spotted what I knew immediately was a huge blue piece way on down the beach. It was just lying there, shining in the sun, waiting for me to find it. I focused entirely on that big blue chunk of glass until I reached it and picked it up. Then, I looked back up the beach, back the way I'd just come."
When Blair didn't continue his story, a knowing smile teasing the corners of his lips, Jim prodded, "And...?"
A mischievous glint shone in the teacher's blue eyes. "You tell me, Jim. What did I see?"
Ellison looked back at their own footsteps, considering. He remained silent as he thought, and Blair didn't push for an answer, content to wait patiently for his friend to find the answer for himself.
At last, Jim turned back to Blair. "You saw other pieces of glass - greens, browns, maybe some reds - on the path you'd just walked on your way to the piece of blue. "
Blair slowly nodded his approval. "And the lesson is...?"
"That when we become too focused on one single thing, we miss the...abundance...that's all around us."
"Yeah. Right, Jim. At least, that was my lesson, too." Blair became unexpectedly pensive. "But I sure did, didn't I?"
Jim was confused. Just when he thought he'd really caught on to this beach glass lesson stuff, Blair threw him another curve. "Did what, Chief?"
Blair stopped walking and stared out to sea. "I didn't make the connection until this very minute. There was a time, at the beginning of our relationship, when all I thought about was completing my dissertation and getting my degree. Having those three letters after my name. I was so focused on that goal, I almost missed out on everything else that was happening. The friendship...the partnership...that we were developing. The dissertation had become my 'Moby Dick', my great white whale...my huge piece of blue beach glass. It took the offer of Borneo to open my eyes to what really mattered in my life." Blair looked up at Jim with a brilliant smile. "Isn't searching for beach glass a wonderful thing?"
Jim tugged on one long, windblown curl. "Sure is, Chief. I know more than once I've been too focused on that blue glass and almost missed the important things myself." Jim kicked at a rock beside his foot. "Sandburg...Blair..." He lifted his head to look his friend directly in the eyes. "For those times when I focused too much on chasing the 'great white whale' and hurt you..." Jim stared back out to sea for a moment, then back at Blair's face. "I'm sorry."
Blair blinked in surprise, and for once, his gift of language failed him. "It's okay, man," he said at last. "Really. It's okay." He tried to think of more to say, then realized with unexpected insight that sometimes, words only get in the way. Instead, he smiled. "C'mon, Jim." As they turned back on their path, Blair settled his palm in its accustomed spot in the small of Jim's back, knowing the familiar gesture of support and comfort would be understood.
And it was.
They walked along for a time in silence, each man occupied by his own musings as they wandered closer to the lighthouse and its constant beacon. Blair's eyes surveyed the rocky shore. "You know, sometimes there are places on a beach where I never find any beach glass at all. Of course, I always look there anyway, and guess what? Once in a blue moon, a single piece of glass reveals itself to me, right where I least expect it." He cocked his head and grinned challengingly. "What's the lesson, big guy?"
Elbowing his friend gently in the ribs, Jim smiled easily. "Piece of cake, Darwin. Never say never. We never know what is and isn't possible. "
A soft chuckle from Sandburg brought a puzzled look from his partner. "What, Chief? Wrong lesson?"
Patiently, Blair explained, "There are never any 'wrong' lessons, man. Just different ones for different people, depending on what each one needs to learn. No, that's exactly what I thought, too. It's just that what you said made me think." He looked up at Jim. "I mean, just look at us, Jim. Who would ever have thought it possible that we would become friends, much less partners and roommates? I'll bet that if you'd asked people who knew us if they thought we'd ever have each other as a best friend, they'd have laughed in your face. Right? Yet..." Blair shrugged. "Here we are."
Wrapping one long arm around Blair, Jim pulled him close to his side and smiled when Blair's head relaxed against his shoulder. "Yeah, Chief. Here we are." There was a distinct note of satisfaction in the sentinel's voice. They stood that way for a time, watching the motion of the waves and the sea before moving on.
A flash of green among the gray of the sand and rocks caught Jim's eye, and he bent to retrieve it. "Beach glass!" he announced with a proud smile, turning the smoothed glass in his sensitive fingers. "Here," he offered, holding out his find. "Add it to your collection, Chief."
Blair shook his head. "It's not mine. If it had been meant for me, you wouldn't have seen it. Maybe it's yours for a lifetime, or maybe you're meant to become the pathway for it to find another. If that's true, you'll know when the right time arrives to pass it along. Until then, it's yours."
Jim considered his friend's observation, then he silently slipped the small, irregular shaped glass into his pocket. He wasn't sure he'd ever find the right circumstance to present anyone but Blair with a small piece of smooth glass, but he accepted his guide's advice without question.
As if the thought just occurred to him, Blair added, "You know, I think this is where I learned patience. Never to give up my dreams. I mean, I spent hours and hours walking slowly on beaches all over the world, searching for beach glass and thinking about life and what the search itself was teaching me. Even if I came home empty, without a single chard, I learned something. I knew that with perseverance and patience, I would eventually be given what I was searching for." Blair's dark blue eyes gazed meaningfully into Jim's own. "And I was," he added softly. "Every single time."
Jim Ellison read the message behind the words clearly, and his heart tightened in gratitude. "I'm glad you learned to search for beach glass, Sandburg, if it taught you to persevere. When you think about it, this glass probably saved my life. " Jim reached into his own pocket and studied his own piece of bright green glass. "You never gave up, did you?" he asked thoughtfully. "Not until you found me. Not until you wore down my resistance. Not until you became a part of my life...a part of me."
Blair pointed out softly, "I couldn't, Jim. See, we're like beach glass, man. Have you figured out that lesson yet? Nothing reaches its full potential alone." He tapped the piece of green glass in Jim's palm. "This stuff's basically a by-product of pollution, right? No beauty in and of itself when it enters the sea. It's rough...jagged...aesthetically unpleasing. It's the interaction of the sea and the glass that creates the beauty...the purpose. Together, they make something beautiful. Without each other..." He shrugged. "It's only broken glass."
Tilting his face upward, Blair's expression was serious. "The glass needs the sea. The sentinel needs the guide. I...need you," he finished simply. "Make sense?"
"It makes perfect sense." Ellison rested his hands lightly on Sandburg's shoulders and smiled as he gazed into the familiar face of his best friend, his guide and partner, and said softly, "A simple truth, maybe, but very profound, Darwin, and definitely true. I do need you. Very much."
By the time they strolled the remaining distance to the lighthouse, Blair had spotted three more substantial pieces of beach glass, each beautiful in its unique way, but none the elusive and rare cobalt blue. When they reached the cliff where the lighthouse stood, the beach ended, cut off by the huge outcropping of weathered gray rocks. Sentinel and guide paused beneath the bright white tower perched high above. Even in the brightness of morning, its signal shone over the ocean for all to see.
Gazing upward, Blair's expression grew more distant, as though hearing a whisper from far away. Without ever looking at Jim, he began to recite quietly:
"The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
and on its outer point, some miles away,
the lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.
And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
with strange, unearthly splendor in the glare.
Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same
year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!
The startled waves leap over it; the storm
Smites it with all the scourges of rain,
And steadily against its solid form
press the great shoulders of the hurricane.
A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
Still grasping in his hand the fire of love,
it does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
but hails the mariner with words of love.
'Sail on!' it says, 'sail on, ye stately ships!
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.
Be yours to bring man nearer unto man!' "
When he'd finished, Jim smiled approvingly. "Nice, Chief. Very appropriate."
Blair's gaze remained focused on the lighthouse, as if he was reluctant to meet Jim's eyes. "Yeah, I thought it was." He was silent for a moment, then added, "They call lighthouses the 'sentinels of the sea', you know."
The sentinel's eyes widened a bit in surprise as he studied his guide's profile. "Is that how you see me, Chief? As a lighthouse?"
Shading his eyes against the sun, Sandburg studied the tower above them. "Yeah. Maybe, " he said, almost shyly. "For me, at least." Once more he quietly repeated one of the stanzas:
"Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!"
He grinned and looked at Jim, the slight tension between them broken at once by the brilliance of his smile. "You've kept me from crashing on the rocks often enough, Prometheus."
"A Greek god. I can deal with that. Thanks, Chief." Smiling broadly, a full-blown Jim Ellison smile, he cuffed the back of Blair's head gently, letting his fingers linger for a moment in the warmth of the thick curls. His sunny grin faded to an affectionate glow. "You're a pretty bright light yourself, you know."
From behind them came the sound of children's voices, and they turned to see two boys, at most eight or nine years old, playing in the sand at the water's edge. One of the children turned and met Jim's eyes. Leaving his friend, he ran up to the tall detective, holding out a handful of shells. "I found these this morning," the boy proclaimed proudly, completely at ease. "What have you discovered on the beach today?" he asked, with brown eyes that were wide and curious.
'From the mouths of babes', Jim thought.
Jim reached into his pocket. "I've discovered a lot today," he answered. Kneeling in the sand, he took the boy's small hand and placed in it the piece of perfectly smooth green glass. "Let me show you. This is beach glass. It starts life as ordinary old broken glass. The ocean waves flow over it for years and years until it changes - becomes smoother. If you look carefully and are very, very patient, maybe you can find your own. For now, take this piece with you. Maybe you'll want to give it to someone else one day."
The boy's face brightened with a huge smile. "How'd you learn all that, mister?" he asked, staring down at the beach glass in awe.
Jim ruffled the soft brown hair. "I have a very wise teacher. I learn a lot from him."
Nodding sagely, the boy agreed, "My teacher's smart, too." Glancing back to the water, he added, "I've gotta show my friend."
He walked very slowly toward the sea, head lowered, his eyes already searching the beach for his own treasures.
Still kneeling, Jim watched him go. A warm hand covered his shoulder and squeezed firmly. Gracefully, Jim stood up and met Blair's proud gaze. Reaching out, he laid his palm against Blair's chest, over his heart, and nodded. A moment later, Jim turned without a word and began climbing up the rock strewn hillside to the lighthouse above.
Blair stood alone watching him. His gaze strayed downward, and he smiled when he saw the large cobalt orb lying at his feet, waiting. Bending down, he reverently closed his fingers around the smooth glass and slipped it into the old bottle. Holding the bottle up to the sun, Blair stared at the new piece of glistening beach glass inside and laughed softly.
"Hey, Chief!" Jim called, already halfway up the slope. "You with me?"
Slipping the treasured bottle into his jacket pocket, Blair looked at his partner, already far up the cliff. It was a long way to the top, but the height failed to stir the slightest rumble of fear in his heart. "I'm with you, Jim," he called back. Breaking into a jog, he added in a voice so soft only a sentinel's sensitive ears could hear, "Always."
Blair confidently began climbing the smooth gray boulders, his eyes trained on the light waiting for him above.
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