Stories

Leaving The Beach

Copyright (c) 2004 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved

So that's it then. I'm all done. I raised my kids and they are on their way; I've been in love with everyone that I will ever be in love with and I'm ready to leave the beach. It's kind of sad and kind of funny that, aside from my leaving, tonight is not particularly different out here than any other night... at regular hushed roaring intervals the waves deliver their iridescent foam; behind me the lights of the city cast their same yellow glare to bleach out the evening stars. Like the thirty or so other nights that I sat out here on my towel clicking away on my laptop the birds occasionally walk past and squawk about whatever is meaningful in their lives.

My feelings educe how school was just a holding area — something that society imposed to keep me preoccupied until I was old enough to join the employment workforce. Like a mouse in a cage, school was a spinning exercise-wheel to keep me in shape until I passed through a plastic tube to the next enclosure. Society and the schools had miniature obstacles of achievement tests and credit-milestones just to keep my interest, but all along I knew it was just a way to bide my time. After a few years of bouncing along my career march from job to job I began entertaining the viewpoint that work was just something to keep me busy until I retired. Then I would finally be able to leave the cage and roam the wild open world. Again, the whole workaday world constructed false goals, marginal targets, improvement objectives, meetings to attend, all to focus my efforts and retain my interest. At heart I knew this was all diversionary to keep me busy until I was old enough to retire. Now I've come to the conclusion that this whole matter of life was just something to occupy myself replete with my own vainglorious deceptions of perfecting my karma or balancing my soul or raising future generations. But none of that actually matters.

I can tell partly because I'm sitting next to the Pacific Ocean. Here in front of me, twenty feet away, is the largest pool of organisms on earth. Animals have lived under these waves, whitecaps, and seaweed for billions of years. My own body and all of its cells are just a tiny spike of evolution — a piece of the great oceans that clambered out several hundred million years ago while the rest of the mass of life continued onward. The span and distance of the ocean at my feet is larger than any piece of land that I have ever seen — it is wider than my entire vision, except perhaps out to the twinkling stars. And here it is lapping at the wet sand just twenty feet away from me: the lip of life, the tip of depth. It will continue to evolve — trillions and trillions of organisms, cells, plankton, fish, and remain for eons and eons, long after I and the rest of the humans after me have fossilized.

So what lasts beyond our lives? The ocean, yes, and nature, the planets, the stars. But anything by man? Will I have contributed to anything lasting? What do we as people bestow exactly, that continues beyond us as individuals? Small things, oddly enough: icons, Ronald MacDonald, the Arm&Hammer logo, ideas and thoughts. Styles, styles of architecture, styles of eating. Were any of these things my creation? No, I just inherited them from my culture and passed them along to my acquaintances and kids. Passing between me and those I know, the aspects of our culture flowers, metamorphosizes, and evolves, existing somehow outside of the people themselves — ideas that people support move along between them yet outlast the physical manifestation of their vessels. The containers age, rust, and then pass away to ash or dirt, but the ideas continue onward.

Leaving behind my shoes and socks up here with my towel and my laptop computer, I'll still keep my clothes on. The water will be cold upon my feet — I'll stand at the brink, in the backwash, for several minutes... it might stretch into a half hour while I savor the boundary of the continent and the ocean, between life and death.

Next to me I have both a weight belt and a floatation vest; I'm still unsure if I will use them. I fear that if I just walk out into the water and swim until I am exhausted and can journey no further that when I drown the currents may ferry my body back ashore. That would be terrible, for although I am done with my life I'd like to avoid accidentally shoving my anxieties on somebody else. So I figure that when the time is right I will don the weights and life vest, swim out a good distance, and then remove the life vest... the weight belt should then fairly well prevent my being found.

It is somewhat peculiar typing here under the stars (familiar friends for most of my life, these constellations) that tonight I'm not really alone at all. An occasional stranger goes jogging by, I feel the love of people that I have worked with, relatives that have already made the journey, even the people riding the Ferris wheel on the pier a couple of miles away. A random plane passes overhead and I connect to the passengers there too. So I am not alone at all, really.

The smell of ocean brine shrimp returns my attention to the ceaseless waves: they continue to pound the shore as they have for millions of years and as they will for millions of years after I am gone. The pounding waves eventually wear down and smooth out the remnants of everything that violates the ocean. After an intricately carved oarlock falls overboard the ocean reduces it to a smooth shiny unrecognizable object that I kick while strolling the sand. Things that don't belong in the ocean get worn away to quaint collectibles.

The tide is coming in: I can tell that it is gradually creeping the waterline up the beach. The sublime implication is that the heft of this grand old Earth is more stately than all of the puny animals and plants or civilizations or even the ocean itself: the tide is the physical manifestation of a force greater than all matter combined. It is a remnant of gravity — the happenstance that the moon, a mass of rock, is out somewhere (I can't see it tonight, it hasn't risen yet) pulling this massive body of water in a certain fashion, altering it's course twice a day up and down against the shoreline. The tide speaks of how the visibly "physical" is inconsequential.

The tide imparts that I could leave the beach or I could follow another course entirely. I could put a shell in my pants, I could bury my head in the sand, I could return to the boulevard and saunter in front of a car, or I could just sit here and type until I starve. The tide tells me that my thoughts, the molecules in my body, and all of my friends' bodies make a hill-of-beans difference in the world to the force of gravity. But the tide also tells me that the invisible, the unseeable, is as powerful as its metaphor — that what I write and what we read, all of the accumulated thoughts and writings of people (their love, if you will) exists beyond both the people and the civilizations. Our love and our works of art — the gravity of humankind — is what moves us, what outlasts us, and is the only thing (being both majestic and intangible) that gives everything else its shape and form.

Contemplating this metaphor in my last moments makes me chuckle. So my life was less pertaining to raising my kids than it was about the love for my kids. And my life was not about the inheritance I leave for my descendants, although it is about the concept of inheritance.

At 65 I have seen the best and the worst of the human world. I have seen old folks in nursing homes rotting away ignored, starving and maimed kids, shriveled premature crack-addicted babies. But I've also seen the most amazing art glass, thousand-year-old fine gilded metalwork, women that can meet all of your dreams with just the glance of their eyes. I've watched the birth of my children, I've been high on everything imaginable, I've rescued lost souls, made love to spiritual and powerful women, seen my friends die, and witnessed the miracles of God. Yet when I have something important to think about, something unresolved and spiritual, I still return back to the beach. My voyages here cement the importance of the visits to the same basic yearning.

As I perch quietly I remember when my parents brought me here as a kid (bless their souls, hi mom, hi dad). They would usually drive to the beach to visit their buddies from college who had done well enough for themselves to own a little beach house a dozen or so blocks from the sand. The adults would sit around and read magazines or chat or play bridge while the kids (me, my brother, and the friend's son and daughter) would romp around in the waves, build sand castles, or scrounge around for interesting shells or rocks. So I've had good memories of the beach. But I also find myself drawn here in times of sorrow: the death of a friend, when my dad passed away, after my girlfriend and I broke up. The sheer size and mass of the body of water relieves me of my concerns and allows me to put myself back in balance.

And I'm tranquil now: I have settled any favors extended my way, I'm not abandoning any debts, and I'm certainly not bequeathing a terribly large fortune garnered at somebody else's expense. I've prayed for other folks as deeply as others have considered me and I've passed along to my kids the best of what I inherited from my relatives. My ledger is clean.

I guess my only lingering disquietude may be what my kids might think. This has been no small concern to me over the past couple of months while I've been putting this whole thing together — I've rolled it over in my mind while sitting with my coffee, while shopping at the supermarket, while driving about somewhat aimlessly on a Sunday. I really don't want my kids to think that their dad went crazy and suddenly killed himself; I especially don't want them chafing their own lives thinking that they may have inherited a deeply suppressed "suicide gene". The general feelings my kids will have about my death concerns me — they are busy with families of their own and I'd hate to rocket them into years of a blue funk — something that will detract from their families and their own success.

I think the trick here (that I've noticed from my own senior relatives) is that you need to balance your state of love and hate with your kids. I know that it seems almost manipulative, bordering on a case of anal retentiveness, but when you die to be courteous to the souls of your children you need to make sure that they hate you as much as they love you. Maybe this seems heretical, but this balance is of higher Tao and greater importance than the love and support of your kids. I'm not saying to be hostile toward your kids — just poised at equilibrium. The last thing that you want when you die is to have your kids pining for your love. I'm not saying that they should feel relieved at your death either; predominately they should be neutral.

So with my toes in the water I am mentally asking my kids, "is it okay for me to go now?". Do they need anything else from me to continue on with their lives? Have I given them all the tools, knowledge, and wisdom to lead safe and productive lives of their own? And beyond that have I given them the proper clues to pass this similar perspective along to their own kids? Am I done here? It's not a trivial question and frankly the answer is more visceral than ticking off a checklist — it is mostly a gut feel. I have the peace of mind that I can meet any of their future needs by my prayers from the afterlife. Is it okay for me to go now? Yes, it is.

What have I shown them already? Well lots of things. I have shown them antique stores, both the corner neighborhood variety, with its bric-a-brac and remnants from small self-important lives, up to top-of-the-line world class collection houses, archiving gorgeous works of art from estates of large self-important lives. I've shown them that a person is not his junk — that junk with intrinsic value outlasts the people who created it.

I've shown them the spirit that lies beneath a place... what it is about a locale that makes it a comfortable small town, an overblown large city, a peaceful shoreline retreat, or a mind-numbing work of nature. I've shown them about the value of materials. That the difference in capabilities between a mediocre tool and a fine tool directly influences the quality of the work that you can create.

I've taught them the importance of grace, physics, balance, and practice.

I've taught them to rely on their heart, but to be wary of first impressions. That the people who talk the most and speak with the loudest authority have the least to contribute to the world. I've taught them to always be cynical of impressions that come easily. I've taught them to push the envelope, but to do so with great conscientiousness and attention to safety.

I've taught them how to listen to trees.

Of course I could just as easily change my mind. While listening to the waves and thinking of the people that I love (the ones that I have written about, the ones that I promised never to write about, and the ones I threatened to write about) I realize that some of them might miss me and some of them might think "hey, good riddance." To be courteous to the former and to spite the latter I might just leave my weights and vest here on the beach, turn around and walk back to my car. But that would represent a failure of sorts — I have planned this and written down my thoughts about it, and I am more or less determined to die with some dignity in my old age. I want to go out with some grace rather than find myself hobbling down a street with a cane: hunched over in pain or staving off some disease or my failed organs eating me away from the inside. No other way about it: turning back would be chickening out.

This way I'll be able to float until I'm hypothermic and nearly asleep, then it will be a short bout of suffocation or drowning, and then I will slowly dissolve, the ocean reclaiming my body cell by cell, until the cells return back to the saltwater that makes up their innards, that predestined their evolution.

The world doesn't disgust me — hey the world is what it is, men do what they do: in my lifetime I haven't seen any grand dispositional changes. Oh sure, technology has marched on, but the motivations and machinations of people are still the same, everyone with their own agendas personally, or collared by the agendas of their peers, their community, their religion, or their nation. No, I'm not cynical about it... I just realize it for what it is. So what. The ocean doesn't care and as I move more toward being a part of the ocean I don't particularly care either.

I know that some folks view suicide, even of an older person, as a sort of "giving up" — as a failure to "hang in there". As if by staying alive a person adds that much to the world. Well I suppose that they could. But the big question for me (as I sit here pushing around grains of sand with my feet into small piles of parallel ridges) is whether or not I can actually do anything more with my life? Is there anything that I can accomplish one way or another? So I make a small mental inventory: who are the people that I could possibly help, and in what ways? Well my kids are already out on their own and they rebuff advice from me, having established their own place in the world — they are already quite adroit at dealing with the people, challenges, and technologies in their life. My grandkids? Oh when they were small I gave them lots of love and the kind of guidance that grandparents give to little children: understandings of the fun little appurtenances of nature, flowers, sandcastles, snails. But now that they are approaching their teens a visit to grandpa is just time wasted where they would rather be doing something else, where their peers and dealing with their parents hold sway.

Being a social human being is much more than just teaching people — there's that whole business of love. Now at my age I've seen pretty much all sides of the issue, from taking to giving, from being stranded in a dead-end life and being rescued by love, to helping others who are in need by the quiet nonverbal thought-guidance that I could provide. So I've certainly been a part of the larger flow. But as I've aged I've also kept touch with the friends of mine who have already passed on — just because their bodies have departed it doesn't mean that I have repudiated their love. And I figure that the same will be true in my case: long after I finish whatever short suffering I endure as I cross that border I will still be in touch with my friends, and certainly my kids. I'll just be a short mental telegraph away. I don't think that changes, at least not in a sudden fashion. So in a sense I am just choosing to end all of the ridiculous side show of maintaining a home and my slowly deteriorating organs and body functions, just to focus on pure spirituality. I am choosing to move my existence to spirit alone.

Every day when a person wakes out of bed and decides what to do, they have a world of possibilities. They could quit their job. They could down a handful of drugs. They could start out writing a great novel. Or they could decide, like I did this morning, that they have done everything that they had set out to do, experienced everything that they wanted to accomplish, and have nothing particularly further to prove. And when that happens they can leave the beach. After I've been underneath the water a few years, my bones returning to the ocean salts, my clothes degraded to tatters, some child will be walking along one morning at low tide collecting shells and happen across a shiny smooth round brass object... the last remnant of me, my belt buckle, washed ashore. He will ascribe it to a chunk of cannon from a pirate ship and will save it along with his collection of shells for sixty-five years.