We went to the beach labor day weekend, knowing there’d be traffic, while meanwhile all the rest of California–including the town just up the cliff from the beach–was baking and burning with 110 degree temperatures and fires up and down the state filling the valleys with smoke. Needless to say there were a lot of people at the beach.
My kids loved loved loved it. They don’t love the beach every time, but this was a kid-friendly beach with a shallow creek to play in and sand everywhere and snacks and other kids to make friends with. I did have to do prep beforehand, telling my daughter that this trip was more like a camping trip. Otherwise she’s done with the beach in a half hour because of the overwhelming sensory input of wind and sun and sand and people and sound. But knowing we’d be there a long time, she ran in and out and took breaks and made friends. And went through four outfits wanting to get wet then be comfortable and dry then get wet again. The baby threw rocks all around, traveling far and wide, and drew with sticks and made mud piles and took naps. My husband and I also managed to take turns napping.
In the midst of all this, I looked around me at the beach chock-full of kids running in and out of the water and families and fun and thought, this is it, this is basic goodness. Everyone here may have had a stressful week and a long drive and difficulty packing but here we are, full of joy. I’d been listening the night before to The Moth radio hour’s “Where We Belong” episode and the story by John Jay Read about making friends on a Shambhala 30-day silent meditation retreat. The story ends with a beautiful moment that I won’t spoil, but which stands for Read as a moment that embodies the Shambhala concept of basic goodness, despite the cruelty or even as an accidental result of the cruelty he experiences in other moments. My reaction to hearing his story was that I wanted to hold it in my heart for a long time, and that I wanted to recognize basic goodness–but without going on a silent meditation retreat. And sitting on the beach full of joy I thought, here it is.
Then the feeling quickly faded, and began seemed illusory. All I had to do was listen to all the adults yelling at their children all around me, and quickly it became difficult to sit among so many other families. So many of the kids seemed to have a small slice of freedom and then any transition involved orders, yelling, grabbing, and threats. I chatted with the fairly relaxed mom of a three-year-old, who joked, “She seems all docile and compliant but then you turn around and bam!” And I thought, why do you think I’d want your daughter to be docile and compliant? Why do you? Outside dictatorship or abuse, where in the world are being docile and compliant are these positive attributes? I’ve been reading about childism in a couple places lately, especially on Racheous.com and Happiness is Here and Respectfully Connected. Childism and even indications of abuse were rampant on the beach that day once we kept an ear out. So much so that in the car on the way home, with the kids asleep, my husband and I had to process all the scenes of coercion and threat we’d witnessed. As he put it, “it’s so sad because there is so much of this, and unless it escalates more and more no one will do anything about it and this will just be something sad in these kids lives.”
What do you do with the sadness in the world? Not just these repeated moments of coercion filling a kid’s childhood with sadness, but the floods that have wrecked people’s lives in Texas and wrecked lives and killed thousands in India and Bangladesh. Meanwhile we have an angry, narcissistic would-be dictator attempting to run our own country and decimating attempts to deal with climate change and poverty while also putting thousands of immigrants in jail.
I can’t answer the question of what to do with this sadness. Particularly as an introvert, someone for whom typical forms of social activism are jarring, I don’t know. But getting back to the beach, I have been thinking a lot lately about who I am angry at that I can’t change, and who I have actually influenced in my life. The people I have influenced are mostly not the people I’ve given advice to, unless they’ve explicitly and repeatedly sought out that advice. The people I’ve influenced have surprised me, I didn’t know I was changing them because my relationship wasn’t about changing them, in fact it never occurred to me to change them. I spent time with them because I wanted to, and I lived my life as I’ve found I want to. And apparently that made all the difference.
The people I am angry at, that I can’t change, are people who I’ve expected to be one way, and then found out they are another way. I thought someone close to me was a centrist liberal, and it turns out that they are sometimes a right-wing racist troll. I thought someone close to me was a medical professional who always carefully researched decisions with an open mind, and it turns out that they not only embrace mainstream medical advice without question but then push that advice upon other people. I thought another mom I know was supportive of screen time, but it turns out she disdains screens and ridicules her children for watching “bad” shows and thinks screens will make her kids fat and wants to limit them as much as possible.
I get upset because people don’t meet my expectations, because I trusted them or looked up to them and then found I cannot. I get upset on the beach because I thought I was in the middle of a child’s paradise and in fact I was witnessing children in pain. So maybe the question is not what to do about all of the disappointment and sadness and pain that I cannot remedy. But to take a line from unschooling and reexamine my expectations.
I cannot expect the world to be other than it is. I cannot expect a toddler will dress themselves or get their own towel off the beach and I’m certainly not interested in yelling at them for not meeting those expectations. I cannot expect that Houston will have taken climate change and flood preparation seriously, because they did not, or that India would better distribute it’s economic wealth so that people don’t die in monsoons.
I can act as a model and do the best I can for myself, hoping that witnessing our peaceful interactions with our kids influenced someone to be a bit more gentle with theirs.
I can attend to the sadness in front of me, listening to the fears and heartbreak of the mom who is worried about screentime rather than shaming her for critiquing her children.
I can stand up for DACA, attending a vigil and posting on social media to assert that it’s not ok to criminalize, detain, and deport our neighbors who call our country home.
I can let go of trying to change the people in my life who are hurtful, because our relationship is only fueling their cruelty, not helping them find that basic goodness.
I can laugh, and try not to let the weight of sadness carry too much into my kids’ lives.
I can keep going to the beach, because you cannot pour from an empty cup. I can attend to sadness while also finding renewal and joy that will buoy my energy to be an activist in the world, as the next story in that Moth podcast, by Michele Oberholtzer, so simply and beautifully demonstrated.
There is so much beauty in the world. I constantly feel that I don’t have time to go to all the places and learn all of the amazing things that there are to learn. To taste the food and hike and swim and touch and look. I can attend to sadness while also modelling an alternative to abuse and martydom and a hope for those who’ve lost too much in these past weeks. Even in sadness there is so much beauty and so much to learn in the world.
I can live like my son does on the beach, trying to carry three rocks at once and wandering all around because there is so much good in this world.