Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Little Box

Three months after I turned seven, my family moved from the South Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains, to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a town an hour from the coast. When summer arrived, we climbed in our red van and set out to visit the beach for the first time. Along the way, I scrambled from one side of the bench seat to the other, worried that I might miss seeing a fascinating part of the watery landscape or even the ocean itself. With every river or bay we passed, I’d yell, “Is that the ocean?” Each time my mom replied cryptically, “No, the ocean is bigger than that.” Dad would further enhance the description by adding, “And it has waves.” Their negative answer relieved me because none of those bodies of water quite matched the picture of the ocean I’d constructed in my mind. All I’d ever known were mountains, unwavering and stoic; so in my overactive imagination, the ocean with its movement, lived—a creature with intelligence, emotion, and immensity. Unlike those comprehendible bodies of water passing by my windows. After a child’s eternity, Mom announced, “We’re here.” But on both sides all I saw were mountains of sand. “Where is it?” I demanded. Mom addressed my impatience with a tone bordering on exasperation. “Just behind those sand dunes. Sit back. We’ll get out soon.” Satisfied with the promise of our proximity, I stuck my nose out the open window and kept my eyes on the dunes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the massive creature lunging over the top. Dad, like any jaded grown-up, took his time, finding a place to park. Speeding past myriad parking lots and miles of perfectly acceptable shoulder along the road, he ignored my shouts of “There’s one!” each time we approached what I thought looked like a particularly promising spot. Convinced of his cruelty, I sat back to hope that his search ended before the beach ran out. Just when I resigned to never actually seeing the ocean, he settled for a parking lot which looked annoyingly identical to the previous fifty. Even before the engine turned off, I yanked the door open and leaped out into a cushiony mound of the North Carolina Outer Banks. Like a lion across the zoo, the waves roared, compelling me to investigate just beyond the pile of sand. Curiously, I clambered to the top of the dune and gasped. For there before me, at last, was the ocean. Just as in my imagination, it lived, an aggressive yet irresolute creature, charging and retreating, playful and petulant. My mouth, round with awe, spread into a smile as I dashed forward to meet the foamy waves. For hours, I scavenged the shore, greedily rifling through each wave’s deposit of shells, seaweed, drift wood, and mysterious black egg pods. With my dollar store plastic shovel, I burrowed in the sand, determined to unearth the pirate Blackbeard’s illusive treasure that we’d read about at the Outer Banks welcome center. When my short-lived treasure hunt yielded no reward, I tormented tiny orange crabs, making them brandish their claws at the freckle-faced terror chasing them. Sometimes, I simply plopped myself in the shallow waves and giggled as the ocean knocked me about. Beneath and atop the sand, within the waves, the sunbeams, the wind—with all its charm, the ocean enticed me to stay at its shore forever. But when the sun melted into the horizon, my parents called, “Get your toys; it’s time to go home.” “But I’m not ready to go home.” I anchored my stubby beach bum toes in the sand. “Can’t I stay longer?” Clearly immune to the charm of the sea, they turned toward the van and said, “Nope. You can’t stay here forever. Come on.” Rather than working up a futile possibly spanking worthy tantrum, I consoled myself by stashing a pail of sand and a bottle of ocean water under my seat in the van. If I couldn’t stay with the ocean, then the ocean would stay with me. Early the next morning, I scrounged a shoebox-sized Tupperware container from the garage. In one side, I mounded my smuggled sand into a miniature beach, scattering the shore with tiny shells and driftwood splinters. Then I ceremoniously poured in the fishy-smelling ocean water and tossed the bottle aside. Like a pony-tailed goddess, I hovered over the box, waiting to see the tiny waves of my creation roar to life. But instead of lapping against the shore, the water simply rippled to the edge of the sand, and flattened out, still and lifeless in the bottom of the box. Like a creature removed from its natural habitat, the elements refused to stir. Somehow, during my ocean reconstruction plan, I never once considered that a measure of the sea could not function apart from its whole self. Not even a small doubt had dampened my expectancy to have the ocean roar at my command. But there staring at the unresponsive puddle of seawater I felt silly for my ignorant expectation. The box sat behind our house for days, neglected. Every so often I rearranged the shells or raked my fingers across the shore, hoping to evoke the wonder that crashed over me when the ocean first appeared beyond the sandy barrier. But with each of my visits the box disappointed me more, until finally at the edge of our yard I emptied the water and sand. Years later, high school science classes would teach me that the ocean rolls not at the water’s will, but by the earth’s revolution, the wind’s current, the moon’s gravity, and other complicated factors I’ve since forgotten. That little box, however, impressed a simple lesson deeply in my heart. So deeply that the lesson returns now two decades later when my life rebels against the confines of my little boxes of expectation, and refuses to function according to my blueprint of day planners and sticky note lists. Staring into my days which seem stagnant because I’ve scheduled the life out of them, I realize that the times I’m most vibrant and purposeful come when I allow other factors to influence my life. Just as the moon, the wind, and the earth give life to the ocean, larger forces like providence, spontaneity, and grace generate the power that truly gives impetus to my life. Even after all these years, my little box reminds me that the tide of life does not roll at my impulse, and that a life too tightly contained will certainly stagnate and die, just like the ocean trapped in a little box of water and sand.

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