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.

Is Age the Enemy of Ideas? Age vs. Youth, Wisdom vs. Naiveté

I wrote the following about seven years ago, when I was twenty-three.  I was kind of obsessed then with growing older and what that would mean for how I saw and thought about the world.  I remember coming across an essay by Alan Lightman, a physicist turned novelist and essayist who most famously wrote a beautiful little book called Einstein’s Dreams.  In his essay Lightman explored the relationship between youth and the productivity of physicists.  He lamented that most physicists do their best work while they’re in their twenties and thirties, after which their ideas peter out and, as Lightman suggests, they become largely irrelevant to the advancement of science.  Below is an excerpt of Lightman’s essay, followed by my naive thoughts on it:

 The limber years of scientists, as for athletes, generally come at a young age.  Isaac Newton was in his early twenties when he discovered the law of gravity, Albert Einstein was twenty-six when he formulated special relativity, and James Clerk Maxwell had polished off electromagnetic theory and retired to the country by thirty-five.  When I hit thirty-five myself, I went through the unpleasant but irresistible exercise of summing up my career in physics.  By this age, or another few years, the most creative achievements are finished and visible.  You’ve either got the stuff and used it or you haven’t. . .

Why do scientists peak sooner than most other professionals?  No one knows for sure.  I suspect it has something to do with the single focus and detachment of the subject.  A handiness for visualizing in six dimensions or for abstracting the motion of a pendulum favors a nimble mind but apparently has little to do with anything else.  In contrast, the arts and humanities require experience with life, experience that accumulates and deepens with age.  In science, you’re ultimately trying to connect with the clean logic of mathematics and the physical world; in the humanities, with people.  Even within science itself, a telling trend is evident.  Progressing from the more pure and self-contained of sciences to the less tidy, the seminal contributions spring forth later and later in life.  The average age of election to England’s Royal Society is lowest in mathematics.  In physics, the average age at which Nobel Prize winners do their prize-winning [usually for work that began in their twenties] is thirty-six; in chemistry it is thirty-nine, and so on. . .

. . . I hold no illusions about my own achievements in science, but I’ve had my moments, and I know what it feels like to unravel a mystery no one has understood before, sitting alone at my desk with only pencil and paper and wondering how it happened.  That magic cannot be replaced. . .

– Alan Lightman, Dance for Two

The short span of a physicist’s productive career has always fascinated me. What is the reason for its brevity?  I think that Lightman touches upon an answer to this question.  At the heart of physics is a yearning to understand, to explore the unknown,  to discover.  In this circumstance, the value of youth is that it is less clouded by experience.  Youth lacks the prejudices and preconceptions that must of necessity accumulate as one ages.  In a discipline where groundbreaking solutions often defy everything we thought we knew about the world, the fresh perspective and exuberance that often go along with youth are invaluable.  Something that Lightman doesn’t mention is the vehement criticism the older physicists of Einstein’s time directed at his theories of relativity.  A large part of the physics community dismissed his theories as nonsense.

The older we get, the more we must try to fit things into a framework for life and for reality that we’ve developed over time, whereas in our youth we’re still in the process of creating that framework.  In general, that our framework becomes more rigid as we age is not a bad thing.  In many cases–perhaps even most cases–that framework survives because it works.  It is the product of a lifetime of taking in and processing an overwhelming load of experiences.  In short, it is the result of years of trial and error.  This may be an oversimplification, but there is a grain of truth to it.

Oftentimes the youth of a culture are the primary catalyst for change, while the older generations are a check against that change.  Each serves an important purpose.  On the one hand, the young infuse a society with adaptability, while the old serve as a break against excessively radical change.

My greatest fear in aging is not that I’ll lose my athleticism or my youthful appearance.  Rather, I fear that I might forget what it’s like to experience something for the first time.  For every experience that I have–both good and bad–the realization rests in my mind that I’ll never again repeat that experience.  I’ll never again know with total fidelity how it made me feel: how it made my heart race, or my adrenaline flow. . . or how it brought me to tears of joy or tears of sorrow.  I fear losing the ability to see things in the world that don’t fit my framework, my paradigm.  I fear losing novelty, of living without the sense of awe and childlike wonder at this world that make life worth living.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in aging is balancing the fruits and insights of experience with the chaos and novelty of youth–of becoming wiser, but not at the expense of our openness to new things.

*I don’t know about that story I wrote in my last post.  I was trying to capture that feeling of experiencing something (the ocean) for the first time, and in particular doing so with someone for whom the experience is not new.  Except that in the story, the experience of seeing the ocean is new for both the father and the son for different reasons.  For the son, the ocean is new because he has never seen it.  For the father, the novelty lies in seeing the ocean for the first time WITH his son, sharing it with him, and allowing him to interpret it as he likes, as a child might.  I kind of rushed it yesterday, even though it’s something I’ve thought about writing for a while.  Don’t know if it worked!  I’ll probably post more fiction here and there for fun… I think?

Youth is Wasted on the Young?

I’ve heard three times this week someone say, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I’ve never understood this statement when it’s uttered out of scorn.  Sometimes I think the translation of it would be: “If I could, I would rob the young of their youth,” in which case it springs from jealousy. But how can anyone know the wonders of youth without first having been youthful, without having been ignorant for a while of the distinction between feeling young and feeling old, or really just feeling older? It makes perfect sense to feel from time to time that youth is wasted on those who have it, but to repeat the phrase as a mantra, as some universal truth? Really?

If I ever come to believe that youth is wasted on the young, then the only rational conclusion would be that my youth was wasted on me. Because it would mean that I begrudge those who have it. It would mean that I’ve failed to see that good things come of having been young: certain childish appreciations you never lose, fascination for simple things, a love of life that flows out of unreason rather than originating in calculations of cost and benefit. What is the value of a soap bubble? That it floats. That it reflects a rainbow. And a blade of grass? What does it do for me? It glows green, it seeks out the sun, and it will do this 100 times out of 100. What more do I need?

I don’t think we lose these insights gleaned when we were kids. We just wish we could experience them again for the first time, when we lacked context and didn’t know how unusual they were, before we understood that we were supposed to deconstruct everything, even what is indivisible and perfect as it is.

Yeah, well, I’m not that old, right? Sure, but at some point you do become aware of the process. Which doesn’t mean I know much about it.

*This is a re-post of something I wrote as a note on Facebook.

At the Dance Club: Power, Beauty, Influence, Inspiration

At an undisclosed dance club I witnessed power of a sort I had never seen before.  A lone woman in her mid-twenties wandered onto the dance floor during a brief pause between songs.  Her skin was tanned.  Her black hair gave off a rainbow sheen that shifted in the dim lights of the club.  It hung to her shoulders and swayed from side to side as she glided to the center of the dance floor.  Where other women in the club wore elegant dresses with low necklines, she wore a simple pink tank top and white shorts that revealed an athletic body with soft curves.  Where the other women wore high heels and lustrous footwear, the woman in the pink tank top wore only flip-flops.

In the idle moment between songs, the throng on the dance floor milled about, sipped martinis, laughed and yelled at a volume still adjusted to the music that had just cut off.  They took no notice of the woman in the pink tank top who had wandered into their midst.

Then, the music resumed.  Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music” issued from the speakers and the woman in pink began to undulate to the song’s rhythm.  The music worked its way slowly through her, from her hips to her arms and her legs, even to the tips of her slender fingers, until the whole of her being became a physical extension of the music that pervaded the club.  Her movements rippled through the throng on the dance floor as waves of gravity through space, and, slowly at first, but with quickening speed, the dancers around her fell into her orbit.  Their movements mirrored her own.  Their bodies turned toward hers.  First one man joined her, then another.  These men flew in like comets, and like comets they soon hurtled outward after their brief encounter with the sun at the center of their solar system. 

The woman in pink danced at first with her eyes closed, lost in the music yet aware of everyone around her.  Then she opened her eyes and in an instant rested them on everyone in the club, as if every dancer enjoyed her undivided attention.  Each person felt her stare as a private linking of souls, as if they alone existed in her world.

When the music stopped, the woman in the pink tank top stopped dancing, too.  The solar system that had coalesced around her flew apart in an instant and scattered in all directions.  As she glided off the floor, as inconspicuously as she had glided onto it, some of the dancers whom she had drawn into her orbit stared after her as planets longing after their wayward sun. 

What is power?  There’s brute force power—the power to force action in others.  There’s power in beauty and grace, in movement and skill.  There’s power in doing something well and inspiring awe in those around you.  There’s power in suggestion, in planting seeds of thought and action in those around you and waiting for them to act of their own accord, influenced by your suggestion, but not forced or coerced into action.  The power of influence spreads surreptitiously.  It ripples from its source like waves in a pond, often accidentally.  Brute force bangs its chest and howls, makes itself known through volume, because in these acts lies its power.  It barks and flexes its muscles, shakes its fists, and sometimes levels blows against those whom it wishes to control. 

The woman in the pink tank top walked into a club knowing no one.  She danced with grace, skill and beauty.  She drew people into her orbit in spite of herself, not in an effort to control, but because she was herself.  She was authentic.  She was joyful.  Maybe it’s a mistake to use the terms “power” and “influence” to describe what she possessed.  Maybe the better word to use would be “inspiration.”  The woman in the pink tank top inspired a crowd of people she did not know to array themselves around her and to dance to her rhythm, to give rise to something transcendent, an organized system that didn’t exist before her arrival.  A person may play the violin to perfection; she may sculpt statues with precision or write computer code as poets craft verses.  A person may simply show kindness.  Any of these acts, done well, can inspire.