After lunch yesterday my friends and I went for a walk. We needed somewhere flat so as not to aggravate my quietly mending knee, and so we choose our closest stretch of sandy beach. Driving along the sea front it was tempting to get annoyed. Everyone in East Devon, it seemed, had stolen our brilliant idea of marking the first day of the brand new year by taking their dogs out for a walk along Exmouth sands.
Everyone. All right, a few people might have gone to Sidmouth instead.
It is curious to see a mass of people out and about and looking relaxed. Often when we encounter people in swathes like this, we close down, hunch into ourselves and try to avoid any form of contact that might tax our reserves of tolerance for those who are not us. Rare are the times when we simply enjoy watching each other.
Shortly after we arrived, a group of young people stripped off their clothes and dived into the cold sea. They held up their arms and laughed as the cold tongue of foamy pink sea licked their white bodies. A few people commented that the swimmers were off their heads, but despite the scoffing there was grudging respect for these human seals. The swimmers and the dogs together did look as if they were having the best time.
There is not an adequate English equivalent for the French word élan. Impetuosity, dash or style doesn’t quite convey the feeling of lightness in spirit, of having fun in a playful way that lifts those who watch. Élan is very different to merely mucking about or showing off. It’s a generous impulse.
Watching others let down their guard is entertaining. I can’t have been the only person on the beach who was having her icy New Year’s Swim snug in the warm changing room of the imagination. Thanks to the swimmers, we didn’t have to strip off and get in. We shivered vicariously.
It strikes me now, though, that too much watching others from the shore could become a habit. Not dipping our toes in the water because others have already done it for the rest of us is the very opposite of living with élan.
In this coming year, I want to live with more impulsion, more – I love this word – ardour. A lot less holding back.
Happy New Year.