The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Monday, May 7, 2012

Seeing Miracles

The other day was one of those rare rare almost-summer days when the sun actually shone, the constant sea wind calmed down, and it was warm enough to not be in long pants and a sweater. So, of course, we went to the beach. While there the quintessential family, mom-dad-little boy-little girl, arrived. It was obvious by the careful way the boy placed his feet and the squeals of delight the little girl breathlessly released when sand filled the holes in her crocs that these children had never been to the beach before.

They took their shoes off and wriggled their hips to work their feet into the warm sand while Mom discussed with Dad where exactly they should lay their blanket (the beach was fairly deserted). "Should we moved closer to the water or is this fine?" She asked; it was clear this decision was important to her. She weighted the pros and cons of being closer to the water that seemed as if she were talking to him but were really her talking to herself. Eventually, Dad shrugged his hoodie-covered shoulders and dropped the motley of brightly-painted buckets with the CVS tags still on them. That seemed to settle it, and Mom turned to the kids. "Now we're going to make a sand castle," She chirped in that high-pitched kid voice that some parents use. "First, we need to put sunscreen on." Mom pulled out a newly-purchased bottle of spray-on sunscreen and attempted to take the label off. She picked at it with her fingers, pulling, until, frustrated with the impossible packaging, began gnawing on it with her teeth, impatiently brushing the strands of brown hair that had escaped from her ponytail away from her mouth. A few bites into it to no avail, she examined the packaging again, "Oh, you just twist this. There's no plastic seal." She declared triumphantly as she eased each of her sensible sneakers off, her white legs flashing in the sun. First she sprayed her legs and wrists (she too was wearing a hoodie) and then sprayed a bit in her hand to wipe over her face. The whole time, the kids hadn't stopped marveling at the shifting capability of the sand and were still moving their feet back and forth and back and forth, making excited high-pitched huffing sounds.

Mom applied sunscreen to the kids while Dad took pictures (he didn't take his sensible sneakers off). Then, "To make a sand castle, we need to get the sand wet," chirp chirp chirp, unmindful of the ten or so other wild, sand-covered, half-naked children nearby who were happily digging a hole and exposing the water table only six inches below the dry sand. Mom's excitement bordered on the frantic. You could tell she really really wanted this to be THE beach experience. The one that they would put in the photo album and show all the people back home, "Yes, we did this. Here we are at the beach. That is the Pacific. We build a castle." She pulled the kids from marveling at the miracle of sand and gave them each a bucket. "Follow me," she gaily called and crab-ran over the loose terrain towards the water. The kids followed for a bit, each wallowing in the unfamiliar shifting ground. As a larger wave crashed on the beach, the little girl gave up and turned back to Dad who was still happily photographing away.

Mom and son fought the wash, so intent on their getting non-silty water in their buckets that they missed the thousand upon thousands sand crabs that scuttle just in the break and the dolphin pod that was moving in and out of the breaking waves. They struggled back across the sand with their buckets, dumping them so close to the towels and shoes that a few got wet. "Here, here," Mom called, pulling even smaller buckets and cups out of a bag, "Let's make a tower." She packed sand in one cup, turning it over quickly. Her release was too slow or the sand wasn't wet enough, so the tower collapsed as soon as she pulled the cup away. The kids didn't mind. They were engrossed in the contrast between the damp sand and the dry. "I'll get more water," Mom cried, desperately shaping this experience into what she thought a beach day should look like as Dad continued snapping and twenty pelicans flew overhead.

This family made me remember that I need to be intentional about seeing. That times I can get so focused on what I think an experience or place should be like that I completely miss the point.

I miss the actual miracle of that place. I can miss things because I am so familiar with them. I find that being from California, I take the beach completely for granted. Both my parents are from SoCal beach towns and made going to the beach a priority since I was very young even though we lived in the Sierras, and since I was 16-years-old, I've never lived in a town that didn't have a coast. While there is an elemental part of me that responds to and knows I need to be near that magic cusp of sand and surf--of silence and susurrate sounds--still I don't really think too much about what a miracle it is to be here. To have the blessing of living on the edge of a continent.

I can also miss out on the new experiences because I already have the photo album laid out in my head and know exactly what pictures I need to take to record this experience. I am so focused on what I think something should be that I miss the miracle of what is.

I forget to bury my feet in the warm sand and instead am rushing, pail in hand, to the wash oblivious to the dolphins surfing through the waves.

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