I am sitting on the beach, tapping on a laptop, people-watching, developing an awesome sunburn.
As a kid, I practically lived at the beach. I always sported sunburns in the summers, and my red hair always leaned more toward strawberry blond.
But then, suddenly, there was a time in my adult life when I quit visiting the beach altogether. In fact, I went years without placing a sole on this sand.
The irony, of course, is that I live a mile from the shore. Not far from my front steps are the whitest sands in the U.S., and the most ethereal Gulf waters known to man. And yet, I rarely visit.
What does that say about me?
I’ll tell you what. It says that I have been taking this beach for granted. I’m not sure how I started doing that, but I did.
Maybe it all started after my first beach job as a teenager. I spent upwards of nine hours each day on the blinding hot sand, setting up awkward beach-service chairs, sounding a lifeguard whistle at rowdy teenagers, and hollering at little kids who yelled “Shark!” just for the heck of it.
“We don’t have sharks here,” was the official stance we lifeguards were instructed to take with the tourists.
After that, I went through a period when something simply changed inside me. I quit visiting our shores very often and found myself forgetting about our simple beauty. In other words, I ignored what was before me. Which is classic me.
Something has been happening inside me. Something interesting. I have been spending more time on the beach lately. Usually, I visit in the mornings, reading a book, trying to absorb the solitude.
I don’t know what’s come over me. I don’t know what brought this change.
Maybe I’m sitting here by this water because I’m getting older, and I’m realizing I don’t have that many beach days left. Or maybe it’s because my world has changed.
I won’t lie. These last few years have been challenging for my wife and me. My mother-in-law was ill, and we watched her die a little more each day. My wife and I were at her bedside to help her into the next world, and when she was finally gone, our universe lost its gravitational center.
Now that phase of life is over, and it’s back to real life again. Except, it’s not that easy.
Nobody tells you how hard it is to find the steady rhythm of normal life after you’ve lost your pace. It’s not easy to simply return to living the way you used to. In fact, it’s almost impossible. Because you are not the same person you used to be.
Nevertheless, here I am, on this sand.
Parked beside me this morning is an elderly German couple beneath a cheap umbrella. They are visiting from Ramstein. The old Europeans wear bathing suits that resemble No. 3 dental floss, and I can see their vital organs. But you have to hand it to them, wearing such bold Euro fashions at their ages takes guts.
They tell me that their son died when he was thirty-six from suicide. Their son never saw the famed beaches of West Florida, although he always wanted to see them. It was his dream.
So after his funeral, his parents started making an annual vacation out of visiting this area. They have been visiting this place every year on his birthday.
He would have been sixty-four this year.
On the beach, I also meet a young man who is off work from working the night shift at a convenience store. He is sitting on the shore, trying to figure out how to operate a high-tech drone—which is essentially a flying camera with propellers that are capable of decapitating a musk ox.
He uses an iPad for a remote control. He sends the tiny drone over the Gulf water, staring at his screen. Then, he sidles next to me and says, “Hey, you wanna see something cool?”
“Sure,” I say.
He shows me and the Germans the iPad. I am looking at the azure Gulf water on the screen, and I see a large dark shape several hundred yards out from shore, floating beneath the surface. It looks like a killer whale, or maybe a submarine.
“What is that shape?” I ask.
He points to a medial fin. “Shark.”
How do you like that?
Anyway, after spending a few hours on the beaches of my youth, I’m starting to get a sense of what normal life looks like again. I think I’m even beginning to see things a little more clearly.
All my life, I thought that my life was a journey. But that’s just an old cliché. And I think the cliché is wrong. They say life is an uphill grind, a grueling foot race, a battle, a contest. You fight and fight, and then one day, boom, you’re just done fighting. And then you die.
But to me, this life is not an expedition or a Napoleonic conquest. Life is a Rembrandt, a Monet, a Thomas Hart Benton painting. This life is a poem. A work of art meant to be admired, questioned, wept over, enjoyed, framed, and above all, taken care of. Your life is meant to be loved. Even the bad parts. Your life is supposed to be fun. You are supposed to be having fun. And so am I.
Which is, of course, why people come to the beach.