11 October 2015

The Spaces in Between

I’m sitting on the beach watching the tide lap in and the sun is slowly sinking beyond the horizon.  A few puffs of cloud strategically frame the setting sun.  My family is playing Frisbee in the sand behind me and I’m thinking of the family of a college friend I’d fallen out of touch with who passed away this morning after a long and difficult struggle.  He spent nine long months hovering in that in-between space that bridges death and life, moving from ICU to less acute care and back again and again.  He was younger than me.

These in-between spaces are where struggle often seems to reside.  I think of this as I watch the waves lay claim to the land and the land wears itself to smaller and smaller particles.  Here, on the edge of the continent and the edge of the sea, I sit on a narrow sliver of land called the Strandway.  I wonder what it might resemble in another generation’s time, how climate change might affect this densely populated and low-lying strip between sea and bay.

Forty or so minutes south, lies Mexico, whose culture and language enriched my childhood and early career teaching English as a Second Language.  That in-between space of borderlands from here and stretching east through Texas, too, has been a place of struggle.  As I learn the stories of refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan today, hoping to arrive in Europe or North America, I think of this border here, too.  I think of how the struggle of the refugee is one of bleak hope and abject desperation, the likes of which is even more foreign to me than life underwater or in outer space.  The in-between space occupied by refugees and immigrants, even into the subsequent generation, is one that few of us in America can fathom.  When we talk about immigration, it’s often framed in terms of cost, but how often do we think of what it costs a parent to take a child from the only place they’ve called home, at great peril to all, likely never to return?  And to have such faith in the investment of their own resources into their offspring’s future, even if death is a likely outcome?  I think of this massive flow of refugees from the Middle East and I have no answers and no solutions and I hate how helpless I feel.  At the same time I question how Europe will balance the unanticipated logistics of such a huge human migration. 

It’s hard not to feel a sense of guilt regarding my own good luck to have been born when and where I was.  I ponder these in-between spaces and the one I occupy while on vacation, sandwiched between one grading period and the next.  And yet, in spite of my own good fortune, it’s somehow still easy to get cranky about feeling slightly hungry while playing tourist, or about being less than enthusiastic at how the rest of the family’s interests are not always meshing with my own.  It’s easy, too, to feel annoyed that our little cottage here lies beneath the flight path of the San Diego Airport.  At regular intervals throughout the day and into the night, jets filled with humans whose needs (I remind myself) are just as valid as my own, roar overhead to various destinations.  But I’m trying hard to maintain perspective, which sometimes reaches us in the most mundane of ways.  When we first arrived here at this cottage, we briefly met a guest staying in another part of the building.  When I saw him later, I asked him how he was doing, and his response was, “Better than I deserve.”  And I thought what a fantastic sentiment.  Surely that’s an attitude that I can cultivate, living in this land of plenty with an abundance of good fortune.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard not to want more, to feel like we deserve more, even when we surely have more than we will ever need, even though I often remind myself that gratitude is the key to turning what we have into enough.

These in-between spaces, too, in spite of the struggles that exist in them, are also rich in diversity and life.  What exists in between is unique and often not found elsewhere, in terms of ecosystems like tide pools and also more esoteric thoughts, too.  The clarity that finds us here, gazing out at the ocean, also rarely exists elsewhere.  Once I’ve ventured inland, back beyond the scent of the ocean breeze, where the shushing of the waves no longer calms my noisy thoughts, I return to that chattering state of mind which crowds out any quieting effect the ocean might have had.  The peaceful thoughts fall like the proverbial sand through my fingers.  But the memories remain.  We can reflect on the beauty of the sunset, or good times with old friends, and our gratitude that these things did, in fact, exist.  And perhaps at times those memories, the mind revisiting those in-between spaces, are enough.

Here at the coast, my gaze is drawn out, toward the wide horizon, into that space between here and there.  And after an interval, my eyes still on the horizon, I shift the gaze inward.  There’s a mental inventory of sorts that I calculate every time I take in a vast landscape like the ocean.  The waves rise and fall, advance and retreat, their constancy soothing and calming on a fair day such as this.  And, as if in time to their rhythm, a litany of gratitude answers their cadence:  family, friends, health, freedom, and so much more, and the waves echo the thanks in my thoughts:  this is enough, this is more than enough, more than enough.