Over time plenty of people smarter than me—or at least more eloquent—have taken a stab at “what is life like?” And like anyone else who’s gotten past the age of, say, 16, I’ve given it some thought, too.
I don’t think my thoughts are any more profound than anyone else’s, but I did come up with an analogy that’s clarified in my head over time, so I thought I’d least get it down and out of my head so I could fill up that space with something else.
Until I was 12, we lived in the Northeast, and most summers we went up to visit my grandmother, who lived in Eastern Connecticut. Groton Long Point. Just across the street from Long Island Sound, in fact. Lovely spot, only a few miles from Mystic and it’s now-famous pizza place. Spent a lot of time on that small beach, and the somewhat bigger town beach up the street.
Sometimes we would go a bit farther north to visit my Uncle Harold and Aunt Maureen in Framingham, Massachusetts, or my Uncle Richie in Yarmouthport on Cape Cod, and we’d go to the beaches there. They all had a few things in common in that the waves were all that huge, and the sands shifted a lot so there were a lot of sand bars. Sometimes at Cape Cod even a little kid like I was then could wade out quite a ways, the water usually not getting more than knee or sometimes waist deep.
Bear with me; I’m getting there.
Sand bars are funny things. And the water patterns around Cape Cod and in the Sound are, too. They swirl and twist and do funny things, especially before and after storms. My parents were always careful of course, and I was a good swimmer, but the ocean is still the ocean. Undertows, rip tides, sudden waves…even on calm days the ocean likes to whap you a good one just to keep you on your toes. I remember once body surfing at Virginia Beach, thinking I was getting the hang of it when one wave literally shoved my face in the bottom for a good 10 seconds, almost like the Atlantic saying, “Pay attention, kid; you ain’t in charge here.”
The funny thing about sand bars, and the North Atlantic murk, is you can’t see jack through it most of the time. You can be wading along, 40 feet from shore, looking down at hermit crabs and sand dollars and whatnot, and then whoosh! the water is up to your waist and you can’t see a damn thing for 5, 10, 15 minutes. But you keep blithely wading along in that warm, shallow water, because you’re a dumb kid, and whoops! suddenly you’re floating in cold ocean water up to your neck because the sand bar ran out.
Or maybe you’re even feeling your way carefully along the sandbar, your eyes squinted against the glare of the sun glinting off the top of the water, thinking you’re being so clever, and WHAP! a wave hits you from behind and you come up sputtering and spitting out salt water, thrashing and trying to get your balance and breast-stroking back towards shore with your toes feeling for the bottom, hoping you don’t have to put your head down and swim against a fucking rip tide.
That’s life, isn’t it?
You’re wading through that water, and sometimes it’s warm and shallow, and sometimes it’s deep and cold, and sometimes the damn bottom just drops out without warning, or a wave whacks you from behind for no particular reason you can see. And you just have to do your damn best to scramble back onto whatever the nearest dry land is handy, even if it’s only a toehold on a sandbar that’s 5′ below the waterline.
And furthermore, for white folks, we got a lot more—and a lot shallower—sandbars to walk across. And the rich folks, well, they’re not even at Cape Cod, they’re in the damn Bahamas, and the water is crystal friggin’ clear for two fathoms down, filled with pretty fish, and warm as a mother’s kiss, and chock-full of man-made sandbars and stocked with lifeguards, just in case. Whereas PoC in this country just got heaved into the cold North Atlantic off Nova Scotia and damned if there’s any sandbars.
I know; not the most poet analogy, but I’m a prose stylist, not a poet. I hope you see the point, though. And the real point is: This is why we need friends. Friends on the shore, so we don’t all have to be wading and swimming at once. Friends maybe with boats and life preservers and surf boards. And we needs to help those folks off Nova Scotia, cuz it’s not their fault they got chucked in there, is it?
And we certainly shouldn’t be tying heavy weights to their feet and asking why they’re drowning.