Sunday, April 24, 2005

Licking the Beach

The ocean has a million eyes, each one shining at me as I sit here on this cool beach day in April during spring break. The beach is infested with children, a veritable sea of diminutive humanity as vast and enormous as the desert of ocean that lies flat before me. The flatness of the water is highlighted by the sparkles of light: here, I think, is where the stars go during the day; here is where they sleep, as if dropped into a great palm spread out wide and petulant.

All around me are a billion worlds too. One mother tries to launch a unicorn kite but does not move from her spot on the beach chair. From her vantage point, she barks instructions to the girls but there is little wind today and the kite remains as earthbound as the children’s spirits when they cannot get it in the air. No matter. There are other forms of distraction. The kite family sits and eats lunch – Mother handing each of them the latest in designer prepackaged lunchables and sippy juice boxes replete with napkins. Then it’s off to the wet sand, where all the real magic happens.

I am reminded that I was born and raised on an island. Our dinners were usually luke warm meatball hero sandwiches wrapped in foil. We usually ate as much sand with the meatball as sandwich. I recall how the hollow monotonous call of the curlicue wave, almost waving for us to come into the water, would lull me to sleep on the beach. It reminded me of our own mythologies we created: how certain flat shells were the fingernails of mermaids, and how dead and defunct horseshoe crabs washed up on to the shore would inspire fear since its prodigious stinger could tear away flesh if one touched it.

The kite sisters now go down to the frigid water where they play a game we used to call “lava” - I’m certain they don’t cal it that. The objective of the game was to get as close to the swelling water as possible then run away as fast as you could never letting the water touch you. In my time, we imagined the water to be lava and we had to avoid it or else risk being burned alive. The kite sisters shriek each time the water nearly touches them. It is a pitch that is so shrill that it is nearly only audible by dogs, if any were around, though I suspect there might be some dolphins in the water who are wondering what all the fuss is about.

On the horizon I watch the ghostly movement of a tanker as it hangs onto the thin line that separates water from sky. It glides by without calling attention to itself. It measures time in the way it slowly crosses my line of sight. I cannot take my eyes off of it but no one else seems to even notice it.

One of the kite sisters – what appears to be a three year old – with olive skin and a face covered with her lunch has the charm of one of those street urchins you see in third world countries. Her name is Isabella. I know this because her Mother – the same woman who moments ago tried to orchestrate the kite raising from her beach chair – repeats the name like some sort of maternal mantra. “Isabella, not so close!” “Isabella, not so far!” “Isabella, put that down!” “Isabella, pick that up!” Isabella was wild; this much could be seen in her wild hair and dark, rabid, penetrating eyes. All three year olds are wild. She wanders the beach like a drunk, carrying pale and shovel in tow, alternating between pulling her lime green bathing suit off and then vainly trying to put it back on. “Oh, Izzy!” the sitting Mother says. She barks out more instructions her voice being stuffed right back into her mouth by the roar of the ocean. Suddenly, I hear the sitting Mother’s voice ring out right through husky ocean voice like a razor. “Izzy! NO!” It’s too late. Izzy has licked the beach. The look on her face is one of utmost calm. I can’t even imagine what she thought the sand would taste like – clearly she does not like it – because she mindfully walks over to sitting Mother whose nose by now is all wrinkled up in disgust. Sounds emanate from her as though she was going to cough up a hairball. Isabella, meanwhile, just waits, with her tongue covered in sand, for sitting Mother to find a clean towel with which to wipe off the sand. I startle at how long I notice her tongue is and how she just waits, looking around at the other kids playing and just sighs. Soon the saliva just runs down her tongue and she is drooling like a panting dog.

What made her think this was a good idea? I learn later that this is actually a behavior of hyperactive or autistic kids who have mineral deficiencies. I read later that about 25% to 30% of kids have this condition known as pica. But I don’t imagine Isabella to be one of these. She is wild I tell you.

I begin to think of this action in a larger scope. Maybe she thinks the sand looks like cookie dough or maybe she thinks the sand is sugar. Maybe it’s her way of exploring.

What beach have I licked lately? What spontaneous act of nonsense have I engaged in recently that didn’t involve that part of my brain that said “no” to everything? That part of Isabella’s brain clearly is not developed. Was there ever a time when I would let the curious things of the world rule me this way? Surely, I know better now. I know that licking sand will taste like… like what? I don’t know that I have ever licked a beach or if I had, it was so long ago as to be a repressed memory by now.
I know this sounds crazy but we all do things that we know we hate out of some sense of duty or responsibility. How can licking a beach to see how it tastes be any more crazy? Watching Isabella lick that beach and then simply deal with the consequences with no crying, no fuss – just a look of mini-enlightenment, at least in the area of how beaches taste.

So here I am well into my middle life with my own children and yes, I have traveled the world a bit and have gone to college. I’ve worked at numerous places learned many things. But here before me this three year old, this Isabella, this tabla rosa knows what a beach tastes like while I do not. I do not believe it is fear that keeps me from licking the beach – well, maybe not the fear of what it might taste like – but rather the fear of how I would look. Soon the thought dawns on me that the real reason this distresses me is that I would never in a million years ever have the idea to lick the beach.

Suddenly I feel sad. I know what it is like to have all the doors of perception closed tight, locked and the key tossed away for good measure. Isabella’s doors are wide open. I wonder about Isabella. I wonder if as she grows she will keep some of those portals to the imagination open. Maybe she will be a great painter some day, painting landscapes of beaches. Maybe the colors she uses in her palette are a direct though unseen reflection of her licking the beach today. What will happen in her life that will start to close these doors in her life? What has happened in my life that has caused these pathways to creativity to close down to me? How many other ideas whiz past my head at dizzying speeds daily, hourly, even by the minute, that I am so willfully blind to?

It’s a special thing when I learn from those who seem to know less than I. I learn for one thing, how little I really do know. Today is a special classroom, a special schooling for which there are no diplomas or life credits to be earned. Maybe next time I find myself at the shore, I will try to lick the beach though really, I know this is Isabella’s thing now and not mine. Thoughts don’t always come with copyrights. Maybe they should. Who knows where they come from and who know where they go? Maybe I will top off my beach with some M&M’s though to be sure.

Creativity is a great thing, but chocolate- well, that is quite another.

M C Biegner


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