A different world
The Suburban & Wayne Times

Thursday, August 7, 1986


A Different World

© 1986 John Dallas Bowers


        I was in another world a couple of weekends ago. That in itself wasn’t unusual. In fact, afterwards, when I mentioned it to my wife, she volunteered that I’d been there for twenty years – a period of time roughly encompassing our marriage. And, of course, there’s some truth to that.
        But this particular time, I was down at the shore – Cape May, New Jersey, to be precise. And frankly, the transition caught me by surprise.
        As can sometimes happen at the beach, it was about 400 degrees, bright sun, and no breeze. In desperation, I took my chair and went down to the water’s edge. But, of course, since there wasn’t a breath of air, that was no improvement.
        The only remaining alternative was to sit in the water, which is what I did. And it was after I settled my chair in that last stretch of ocean that this other world unfolded.
        It didn’t happen immediately. My first awareness was a feeling of mild foolishness. I didn’t see anyone else sitting in a beach chair being buffeted by waves. But as my daughter will confirm, unorthodox behavior and I have been close companions for years. And besides, it felt great.
        But there is a time lag when entering a different world. If you’ve ever taken a November walk in the woods, you’ll know what I mean. At first, it seems like just you, your crunching footsteps, and the barren trees. But sit down for ten minutes and things begin to happen.
        The creatures who first saw you as an intruder and froze into silence, accept your presence and go about their life again. You’ve stepped into their world.
        And that was what happened as I sat there in a foot of water. Tucked between the adults sprawled at the ocean’s edge and the body-surfing teens, I discovered a separate stratum of beach society: the pre-schoolers.
        It’s been a while since our daughter was that age, and I’d begun to lump all children into "teenage or under." But there’s a special character to kids in the four-year-old range.

        Here they were, old enough to navigate in water up to their waists, but young enough to have a parent or older sibling nearby. Confident enough within their sphere of play, but still wary of the breakers twenty feet beyond. And for them, I was a curiosity.
        But as out-of-synch as it may have been to have a middle-aged man sitting amongst them in a beach chair, they seemed to adapt to the idea pretty quickly. First came the tentative questions. Do you always sit in the water? Isn’t it cold when the waves hit? Why don’t you fall over? (I answered this one by misjudging the impact of the next wave and falling over.)
        It wasn’t long, however, before I seemed to move from alien creature to captive audience. Kids are like that. Attempts at aquatic acrobatics were followed by expectant looks for approval. I became the trusted guardian of a small inner tube when its owner tired of it temporarily. I may have continued to look silly to those on the beach, but to these folks, everything was okay.
        Well, not entirely. One mother who surely thought of herself as more responsible than paranoid, nervously called her son away just as he started to ask whether I’d seen any fish. There were no whispered warnings – that I saw – but my guess is the point was made later on. Did I resent it? Sort of. Could I blame her? I suppose not.
        But life is never static. The tide was coming in, and I was sinking further into the sand. A moment of decision had arrived, and I was prepared for the challenge. I got up, returned the chair to our family grouping on the beach, and went back for a swim.
        As my feet hit the water, I paused and looked just ahead where only moments ago I had been sitting. Many of the same children were there, but it seemed unfamiliar.
        I decided it was the perspective. From where I stood, the ocean started at the edge and went to the horizon. Their view – at half my height – stopped at the first big wave. It was a more tightly configured world, one which belong to them – and those who chose to join them.
        The elusiveness of that perception led me to another truism I had learned and neglected: a four-year-old’s world, reduced in its scope as it may be, can reawaken joy buried by decades of stress and sophistication. Proportions are radically different. Simple pleasures are just that. And the conflicts and confusion we adults wrestle with have no place there.
        I remember now enjoying fatherhood particularly at this stage of our daughter’s development. She and I did a lot of playing together – on the beach and elsewhere. I think I was as openly affectionate and comfortable with her at that stage as I’ve ever been. Even as I write this, the peace and satisfaction of that recollection almost overcome me.
        Jennifer is sixteen now, many years removed from that narrow stretch of ocean. Our relationship is more difficult – for both of us, I think. For her, maturity means pulling away from the dependency which gave me such a sense of purpose. And my attempts to rekindle that earlier easiness and unabashed affection cause embarrassment and impatience.
        But it could be worse. I could be looking back to find I’d missed that chance to be in her world during that fragile period. That would be devastating.
        I didn’t, though, and I thank God for that. And I’m looking forward to seeing how those early experiences with Jennifer will shape her attitude toward her own children. It’s too soon to tell. The effects are deeply buried, I think, and must await her own maturation.
        For me, the adult world is often a mixed blessing. But when things get too complicated, I know where I can find pleasure on a simpler level. That world is as close as the nearest child – and as available as my sensitivity and love.

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