Friday, August 14, 2009

Taking my Children to the Water

I know it’s going to be a good beach day when the house is a little too hot for comfort. I know there’s probably a sound meteorological explanation for this experience of mine, but I feel less scientific about it. To me, it’s like guessing whether a restaurant will be good by the flow of people entering and exiting; it’s not always a perfect indicator, but I feel more sure about the day when it starts like this.  

Tuesday was one of those days. We were all bickering and on each other’s nerves from the moment that breakfast was cleared. We were uncomfortable and needed to get out fast. My wife and I packed some water and snacks in the cooler, loaded up the car with all the gear (that we could find) and after a false start - we forgot the sun screen - headed down to the beach. 

Even just the change from the house to the car brought some relief and there was a visible change in our children. They went from cranky to excited. My daughter ran a constant narrative for us from the back seat, announcing all the things she expected to find at the beach; sea shells, squirrels, space ships and sail boats were the most often mentioned. My son, who is really too young to do much but process raw feelings, was nonetheless happy and excited also. His eyes were wide and alive with interest. I stole glimpses at them from the rear view mirror as we drove and looked for a spot to park. 

I know both my wife and i were feeling better too. We stopped arguing and started making observations about the weather and the kids. We began to smile and be silly. 

For me it’s the thought of the ocean itself that brings my spirits up. I love the water and always feel refreshed after a swim. I’ve wanted very much to share this love of the water with my kids, but the process did not go as smoothly as I had planned. 

I tried unsuccessfully to carry my son into the water twice. Each time I waded in, he started to cry and turned back towards me and clutched at my shoulder with his little hands. He was much more pleased with the bucket of sea water I brought up for him afterwards. He slapped at it delightedly and laughed when it splashed onto him. It’s probably all that he’s ready for now, though I had hoped that he might take a liking to the ocean at first contact.  

My daughter, who has just turned four, alternated between excitement and nervousness. She took my hand and came to the edge, but hesitated to go much further without my carrying her out.

It wasn’t until my wife had spent some time with her and she had made friends with a small boy who was already swimming, that she grew bolder and waded deeper in. 

I find it both frustrating and surprising at how the kids find their own way to things. I want so much to share what I know with them more directly, but find more often that they make strides when I step back a little. 

“I’m going to swim like that boy,” my daughter declared after spending some time with her new friend. She was standing face to face with me at eye level (I was sitting) with her arms akimbo (a lot like her Mom) and looking not at me, but beyond me. 

i know my daughter well enough now to know that when she takes this posture, she is not making an idle statement. Now that the thought is in her mind, she’ll pursue it. It may take her a while, but she won’t forget. it’s an impressive sense of determination in the face of something that obviously frightens her. It makes me consider what that big open water means to her and to my younger son - and it forces me back to when I was young and how I felt when I was first up against the great water. 

And as I do this, going over in my mind the early memories of beach days with a large extended family on Cape Cod, I realize that I’m being led to the memory of that water by my kids. That as much as I wanted to share what I know with my son and daughter, they’re giving me back a little of their own fresh experience. 

It’s humbling to realize that there is a kind of permanent distance between my understanding of the world and what my children perceive. And the direct experiences of my past provides only a rough translation of what they see today - times change. 

But the experience of a cool and calm ocean on a brilliant summer day is large and powerful enough to make that tenuous connection come alive. To me, it’s like hearing a very faint radio frequency from a location far distant and in a language you only know as second to your own. Sometimes a phrase or impression comes through clearly and the magic of something otherwise unknowable comes to you nearly as if the voice were in the room with you. 

We’ll go back to the beach many times on this trip - as often as we can. I expect each trip to bring something new and unexpected. 

My daughter spent the trip home not talking about spaceships and squirrels but about a boy, whose swimming she admires. 

I spent the time thinking about swimming to my father in the calm waters on the bay side of the cape. He used to step back as I swam to encourage me to swim farther than I thought I could - it was confusing and frustrating, but it made me forget my fear of the water and it helped me to learn to swim. It’s not what I expected to be thinking about, but it’s what the ocean had to offer. 

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