Paradise found.

Every summer, when I was a littler girl, my family would load up the car and drive seven or something hours South to a place called Chincoteague, Virginia.  It was a family tradition; an anxiously anticipated time of the year when all branches of my dads side would converge within one tiny summer beach rental.  The unique personalities and opinions of the adults would come together in the living room, ending in heated political discussions over whether or not Clinton did or did not, in fact, have sexual relations with that woman.  I loved to observe, or sometimes even pretend to participate.

Stealing away from the evening debates, my chosen activity was constructing elaborate hermit crab racing tracks and petting zoos with sticks in the sand.  The truck with mosquito-killing-gas would come by at dusk and force us to run inside for “fresh air”—back to the debates and heated political discussions.

But the daytime was my time of glory.   My sisters and I would take our rental bicycles and ride the half hour to the beach–over the bridge and along the costal bike path, past the wild ponies and rolling grass-covered dunes.  I made a habit of either speeding ahead or lagging behind them, in an attempt at achieving autonomy in a life defined by my role in the family as “youngest.”  As soon as I was out of earshot, I’d hum merrily to myself, thus beginning my elaborate day of daydreaming.

But the very best part of my day was getting to the beach.  It was where I could truly devote my hours to fantasy, as I splashed around in the waves.  All day—sunburn and shrivled fingers ignored—I would bob in the surf, while developing elaborate autobiographies; tales uncontested by my imaginary audience.  Most days I would assume the role of professional boogy-boarder, boldly answering questions from the star-struck press about my successful career and bravery out there.

“But aren’t you afraid of sharks?” the reporter would say, as the camera crew struggled to stand upright in the crashing waves.

“Sharks?”  I flipped my luscious locks out of my face, “Nah.  Really, they’re really more afraid of me.”

Mind you, these dialogues were actually occurring out loud, the waves only kind of drowning my voice from the judgments of other kids, foolishly thrashing about; riding the waves on their foam planks like amateurs.  They’ll see… one day I’ll really be the best boogy-boarder there ever was!  Out of my way, pip-squeaks!

Other days I would fantasize about being lost–stranded on a desert island, a castaway cut off from civilization.  Looking back, it seems a bit absurd that I would make myself sob, creating in my imagination the heart-wrenching struggle that my family would bear from my mysterious absence.  Forgotten by everyone, I was left to roam the beach looking for sustenance and shelter, missing my loved ones with each miserable step.  And I would spend those days on Chincoteague Beach walking alone down the beach, my imaginary struggle invisible to the people I’d turned into driftwood littering the shoreline.  I loved those days in my magical dreamworld, the kind only a child can construct with such delicate purpose.

Ah, did I mention I used to imagine I was a famous actress?  I gave it a shot, until I realized I was only attracted to screenplays with cynical undertones; Hollywood wasn’t for me.

I used to ask adults, when I was younger, what it felt like to be old.  I couldn’t imagine for the life of me that would ever change–”I” meaning that intangible sense of self that I have and have always had.  How could I?  Does anyone?  Why does it seem that adults were so serious all the time?  Weren’t they too once children?  Now that they could why wouldn’t they eat microwave popcorn every night for dinner?

These were questions I needed answers to.  I couldn’t wait to grow up to see what would happen.

The adults always told me, in response, that it seemed the years had gone by and their bodies did change.   But they—their minds and their sense of self—never got old.  They seemed to see their age as an abstract concept that didn’t affect anything besides maybe maturity and certainly physical degeneration. Someone even told me once that they were continually surprised when they’d look in the mirror to see how old they now looked, because they felt on the inside the way they always had.  The inner voice had never changed, though over time their vibrant imagination had been slightly dampened, with matters of responsibility occupying it’s now vacant space.

I see now hat some people never really “grow up,” at least not in the warped sense that I had as a kid, of what growing up was.  After all, I’ve come to realize that what I thought it meant was all rather confused and misguided. As a kid, I thought that when I “grew up” I would be just like the adults around me.  I could see that these adults all had a house and kids and a job and lots of rules (most notably, of course, were the ridiculously tyrannical ones like “dinner before dessert”).  But now I realize that those were just things that I as a youngster could see a lot of people doing.  I’ve spent my whole life observing others from whatever vantage point I’ve had—a kid observing parents, a teen observing pop idols, or a young adult observing my successful peers.  But I never knew a thing about those strangers’ unique processes of really growing up until I finally started that process myself.  Anyone can get a good job and start a family, but that’s no indicator of the experiences they’ve had to give them credentials as a well-adjusted and responsible adult.  Growing up has to do with the decisions you’ve had to make, the experiences you’ve lived, and what you’ve absorbed through all the bullshit you’ve interacted with.  Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in his classic Mother Night, that if we want to prepare children for adult life, we should let them “[spy] on real grown-ups…learning what they fight about…how they satisfy their greed, why and how they lie, what makes them go crazy…and so on.”  Wouldn’t that make all us kids out there a little less confused about what it’s really like to be a grown up?  Perhaps then we could have said to ourselves earlier, “Fuck that jazz! I want to stay young forever!”  And instead of eagerly awaiting each approaching birthday as a new marker of success, we’d relish each day of youth and innocence like we knew how special it was.

I’m still a kid really, and will always be.  But at least now I know the answer to that question, of what happens when you get older.  I’m starting to believe the adults, and understand that I will never really change, at the core of who I am.  Everything I experience will augment my growth, but that child-like curiosity will always be there unless I actively suppress it.

The people I love the most are the same.  The people I don’t understand are the ones who’ve tried to undercut the voice in their head that inspires dreams and imagination, and who’ve exchanged the dreams for what’s “expected of them.”  I don’t have any less respect for those people in any way, I simply find it harder to relate.  Like a kid, talking to one of those alien adults who don’t eat chocolate for dinner.

But most importantly, I am finally waking up each morning to go to a job that doesn’t feel like work.  I am a grown up, by all accounts and measures, but I’m not living the “grown up” life I had envisioned as a kid.  And how spectacular it is!  I’ve before never been able to live and work in such an unbounded environment.  Here is my office:

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I spend my days under the surface of the earth, in a completely different world looking for cool creatures doing interesting things.  Today, I spent 15 minutes watching a snapper get his teeth cleaned by shrimp and cleaning gobies.  I feel just like I did when I was a kid amongst the waves—I can spend time with my thoughts, while creating imaginative scenes around me; the actors: a turtle munching on coral, fish swimming sideways along a vertical wall because they don’t know the difference between up and down, or a grouper recruiting scuba divers to hunt lionfish with them.  And I get paid to do this!

And finally–just as I always wanted—I’m a castaway on my own little [slightly/not really but let's pretend] deserted island in the middle of the ocean.  Only in this scenario, the tears don’t roll down my face, as I’m fairly certain my family knows where to find me, and fighting for survival isn’t a daily concern.  The point is, my imagination is alive and winning, in a perfect state of accomplishment mixed with contentedness.  I’ve followed my faintest desires and ended up here.  I think I’ll stay a while.  Just look what I come home to everyday; I can’t describe paradise any better.

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I’m exactly where I want to be, for now.  And that’s all that matters, for now.

3 Responses to Paradise found.

  1. tina

    I am glad to see my children apply themselves to strict and continuous self examination. Although at times it gets a little ”old’…….it is also the stem of character. Once in the practice, looking around it is quite simple enough to understand how ” the unexamined life is not worth living”. kudos and keep it up.

  2. tina

    we have to dig for the buried treasure.

  3. Rachel Levitin

    “I’m still a kid really, and will always be. But at least now I know the answer to that question, of what happens when you get older. I’m starting to believe the adults, and understand that I will never really change, at the core of who I am. Everything I experience will augment my growth, but that child-like curiosity will always be there unless I actively suppress it.”

    I feel exactly the same way. Been thinking about that kinda stuff a lot lately too. Nice to know I’m not alone :)

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