Do We Gain Anything from Regrets?

With the Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man providing the soundtrack, my annual summertime fantasy begins with me herding the family into a Winnebago and taking off—strollers, bikes, boogie boards, kayaks precariously bungeed to the roof, the big driving wheel in my hands, elbow out the window, my sweetheart riding shotgun, the whole lot of us riding up over a hill on a clear blue morning, laughing, free as the wind.

We drive straight through town, past the schools, past the corporate headquarters, past the banks, and onto the endless interstates and narrow lanes crisscrossing the country. No bosses. No deadlines. No editors. No watches. No cocktail parties. No more time-consuming empty gestures. Back to nature.

Strike that: back to my nature—a boy, then a man, who has never felt quite himself sitting on a wooden classroom chair, or in a suit, or punching a time clock. A writer who daily channels Sal Paradise, driving headlong into the narrative future.

And so, yes, I have indulged myself in this cross-country fantasy on maybe one or two (thousand) occasions over the last four decades. However, while the dream survives in those odd quiet moments between the odorless, tasteless, wireless intrusions of modern life—a barred owl hooting somewhere out beyond the tree line—that window was hand-cranked shut some time back in the last century.

With seven kids spanning a generation-wide 19 years, the logistics of any July–August escape from civilization proved to be as complicated and unrealistic as my preadolescent hallucinations about playing shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers. And, thus, each summer for the last 32 years, rather than commandeering some behemoth of a time ship across the Plains and over the Rockies, we have found ourselves marooned—happily marooned, I should add—on a narrow barrier island in North Carolina, sardined into a small beach cottage a mere hundred yards from the biomass called the Atlantic Ocean.

Please know that there is no place on earth where I feel as much at home as on this raw Hatteras Island beach, where I sense the ceaseless wind in my breath, where I know in the hollow of my bones the joy brown pelicans must know, soaring above the break. I even have an image of the island tattooed on my forearm.

And yet that lost road trip keeps haunting me.

I have tried very hard—shoulder-to-the-wheel hard—to avoid regret of any kind in a life swimming with undeserved grace, but this interstate dream has continued to tailgate me through the decades, sometimes passing me on the beach road with a wink and a snooty little wave.

So today I am not anywhere near the road to that cute town of Tongue-in-Cheek when I say that, despite the supposed wisdom that comes with age, whenever I overhear someone talking about driving cross-country, my heart rises like the high Sierras…and then plummets like the Grand Canyon as I reflect on the cold reality that my odyssey never happened. 

• • • 

Okay, so here is the traditional point in the essay where the worldly-wise wilderness guide offers the younger and more restless trailblazers some sage advice about not getting in the way of one’s dreams. You know, the yadda yadda yadda about living in the moment.

But after all those kids and all those summers on the same island with the same expanding family—not behind the wheel of a Winnebago—I have finally learned that while Carpe diem makes the kind of good inspirational copy that sells magazines, and the Serenity Prayer probably offers a fine antidote for sour grapes, both are dead ends on the road from regret. Pointless advice, old ruses perpetuated by dead poets and living self-help writers who play upon one’s feelings of unrequited entitlement.

I arrived at that rueful truth a few summers ago, when, standing on the deck of that small cottage early one morning, I saw the thick dark stalactite of a water spout reaching down from the threatening heavens, a mushroom cloud of roiling ocean below. It was a magnificent and malevolent sight.

There was no time to run and, with the cottage eight feet above the sand on stilts, no basement in which to hide. The waterborne tornado was going to blow us to kingdom come—or it wasn’t.

In that elemental, humbling moment, instantly full of regrets far more profound than a missed cross-country romp, it was as clear as the sky was mottled that none of us—not a single living organism on this beach—had any special dispensations with the heavens—or the oceans. No karma to save us. No absurd notion of transcendent self-actualization. No wishful reincarnation.

In fact, there was nothing to do but stand right where I was on the deck, barefoot and alone, hands on the wooden rail and facing the oncoming storms, inside and out.

Having no answer to the disturbance out over the ocean, I could only try to resist the riptides of remorse in my belly. But, as I soon found out, regret has a potent current, one that dragged me farther and farther into my grief, until I was exhausted. Then I felt an immeasurable calm flow over me, the riptides reversing and carrying me home, as tranquil as if I were floating on my back, distant terns skittering along the surf line.

I understood then that regret brings its own counter-intuitive pathways to salvation. Regret chastens. Regret offers that rare opportunity to try to be a better human being, a humbled cousin to the skimmers soaring just above the swells, sand sharks below, the prehistoric sand fleas burrowing into the wet sand with each crashing wave.

And a few minutes—or millennia—later, when the waterspout passed without incident, I raced over the dune howling my barbaric yawp and dove into the glistening Atlantic, towing behind me regrets as large as the mythical Winnebago, a bumper sticker just below the ladder: Carpe desiderium.

Seize the regret.

Since then, I count my regrets every morning like a call to prayer. I feel the deep sorrow of not being a better father for my children; I rue not being a more adoring husband; I grumble about the great, misunderstood American novel still sitting in my hard drive; I howl and hiss into the maw of the universe about my daily failures, real and imagined; and, yes, I carp about that lost mythical cross-country romp.

And so I promise to do better. Then, like any creature that roams the earth or sea, I get back to the real work, to the keyboard, noting the wind, the currents, the scent, hunting and pecking, staving off hunger for one more day.

My work as a writer is to get myself back to the primitive wordless understanding of what it means to walk upon this earth.
— A Nature Writer Lets the Outside In