Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

It’s Going to Be All Right: Rest In Peace, Grandpa

My grandfather, Albert Russell, passed away yesterday morning at age 83. Grandpa was a protector. He would come to the defense of anyone, not only those whom he knew and loved, but also complete strangers. He didn’t merely understand other people’s pain; he felt it. If you were lonely and lost in life, unsure of where to go or what to do with yourself; if you found yourself in the depths of an existential funk and could see no way out of it; when Grandpa furrowed his brow, grimaced at your words, and let out a quiet sigh, you knew that he suffered with you. And when he squinted his eyes, laid his hand gently on yours, and said, “You know, I think. . .,” you knew that he wanted to help you and that wise words would follow.

Grandpa’s empathy gave him an intimate understanding of the suffering that pervades this world, yet somehow, instead of subtracting from his hope for a better future, where fewer people suffered and more found contentment, his unique insight into the human condition impelled him to make the world better and to believe in the feasibility of the endeavor. 

He once told me that he wished the young understood that things improve, that there’s time for things to get better. So often youth feels like this binary experience of joy or sorrow, love or hate, hope or pessimism, and when we’re young we seem to leap back and forth from state to state. Grandpa was telling me that there were shades in between these states, that usually we would find ourselves in these grey, kinda/sorta regions of emotion and well-being, and that fluctuations were inevitable and natural. He told me that when you’re young, if you can figure out how to be patient, most of what ails you will melt away in time, and that while you have to do your part to press onward, you also have to learn to let the healing process play out on its own, to allow time a chance to flow, for its current to wash away your troubles or lay down new layers of experience on top of old ones. You have to live and have faith in life itself.

Grandpa, everything about you said, “It’s going to be OK.” And you were always right. I say that all the time to my students: “It’s going to be OK. You’re going to be all right.” But I don’t convey the reassurance half as well as you did. My students may be flipping out over losing a pencil, and even in this mild sort of circumstance I sometimes fail to calm them down and convince them that everything is all right; pens work just as well. You didn’t need to say anything at all to make everything seem right with the world. You embodied the message. Everything was all right because you were you.

You knew how to soothe. You knew how to see into a person’s soul and ease her worries, alleviate her fears with the calm tone of your voice and the melodic cadence of your speech, with its thoughtful pauses pregnant with quiet wisdom. You evoked patience in every expression, every gesture; in the way you punctuated sentences with your hands and in the way you raised them and lowered them as if you were synching your words to some beautiful rhythm that pervaded the world and that only you could hear. Maybe that’s why you told such gripping stories. Maybe the world was your metronome, and you set your words to its perfect beat.

We’re told often that we live in an age of decline, in which morals are eroding, families are fracturing, and life is losing meaning and purpose. But how can that be so when people like my grandfather lived, when people like him loved their children, who in turn loved their own children? Can we really credit ourselves now with short-circuiting the transfer of wisdom and love from one generation to the next that has seen us through thousands of years of catastrophes and challenges to our existence? How can we be as lost as we think we are when we descend from people like my grandfather (or your grandfather, your grandmother, your mother or your father), who saw a world war that killed tens of millions, lived through the threat of nuclear annihilation, and fought for racial and gender equality?

I love you, Grandpa.  I miss you.  Thank you for showing me how to be a good, compassionate man, and for raising my wonderful mother with Grandma.  You inherited from your parents and the community that brought you into this world strength, compassion, and kindness.  You carried these gifts with you through life, and with them you brightened the lives of everyone who knew you.  You passed these gifts on to your children, and they to their children, and we, your grandchildren, will strive to do the same.  The world isn’t broken; it’s going to be all right.  You were right, Grandpa.  You would know.