I’ve told my daughter several times how the perception of affluence has a way of wearing off. That privilege is a perishable sense. And that even the “good life” is usually revealed to be nothing more than “just life” in spite of fortune, fame or influence.
The beach where I take my family is lined along the cliffs with multi-million dollar homes, complete with private stairs leading right down to the sands. One day last summer I was alone at the beach when I spotted an older man making his way down one of these exclusive stairways. After fumbling a bit with his locked gate he emerged on the sand and turned to walk a short distance to a nice spot of sand with a commanding view of the cove and the great ocean beyond. He passed me on the way and we exchanged hellos, and I noted his many accouterments for a satisfying few hours on the sand. He had a beach chair and umbrella, a small ice chest, a towel and a book.
The man had his little camp set up in less than a minute and proceeded to sit, sigh, and gaze out at the little waves. After another minute he put on some dark glasses and continued to look straight out to sea, searching for dolphin perhaps, or maybe contemplating the horizon, or possibly considering his good fortune in life, and asking himself why it didn’t feel better than he thought it should.
I wondered these thoughts as I remembered when the same thing happened to me. The week I became the luckiest man alive, was inducted into a dream life, and faced down the sober truth that there really is no such thing; that dreams are for dreamers, and that nothing more than reality ever awaits us beneath the thin veneer of whatever good fortune we happen upon today.
I was twenty one years old and had been given a beach of my own. Twenty miles of California seashore with a river filled with salmon, sea stacks topped with conifers, mighty storms to keep me entertained and the blessing of more solitude and free time than even a hermit can properly handle. It was everything I could have imagined in life. My dearest dream come true. A humble cabin in the wilds just like my hero Henry David Thoreau had enjoyed during his two year sojourn on thought.
That first week alone on the beach was a busy one as I moved my decrepit little motor home into place, hooked up utilities, cleared a spot to make a waterfront yard, and spent a whole afternoon gathering driftwood to fashion into yard furniture. When everything was done, and my dream home complete, I decided to take a break and to bask in a moment of satisfying reflection on my wondrous good fortune, amazing privilege, and – though I had no actual money – the deep affluence of my youth, health and optimism.
I grabbed my beach chair, along with a snack, a book and my journal and stepped barefoot from my motor home onto the cool sand. I walked out onto the beach and began searching for a good place to sit, a little like a dog looking for the perfect place to curl up and sleep. I found a nice spot in front of the little river which is actually called ‘Little River’ and set up the chair where I could take in both the fresh water moving slowly before my feet and the salt water where the river poured into the waves. A truly magnificent view.
Great waves blocked out the horizon by their line of foaming white, though the accompanying roar was sufficient energy to churn my thoughts and imagination. I sat, put my book and journal on the sand and nibbled my snack, giddy with the energy and wonder of what was happening, where I was, and the life I had somehow managed to engage. I was thinking of the potential. Not even noticing the beach. Consumed in the realization of a dream without yet living the dream.
Finally my snack was done and I put the wrapper in my pocket. I thought about the book and the journal but decided instead to stare at the sea. The silence of my thoughts was a bit unsettling. So this was it. This is what it’s like to have a dream come true? I think I was waiting for some sort of revelation; a sudden secret to be revealed that only those who arrive at the giddy heights of good fortune are privileged to know. Nothing came. The river and the sea were beautiful beyond words, but no more lovely than before. My youth remained vital and strong, but it had been just so days prior when I was without an address and living on the streets. My mind crackled with ideas not unlike it had when I was a small child. My freedom was no more improved nor less impaired than before I had found this life. Nothing really had changed. Within a few minutes a noted the arrival of my old thoughts and worries, the companions which plagued me always, the characters changing with the years though the roles always remaining the same. While the great drama of my beach unfolded before me I thought of my classes, my exams, money, and how I would afford books for the coming semester. And what about that oil change I needed to do on the car. And just what was I to do for dinner tonight. The beach was gone then and my real life had returned.
It would be decades before the lesson sunk in that my every circumstance in life had been nothing more than a circumstance in life. The years alone on the beach, the summers hitchhiking across America, my time as a millionaire, the years in Japan, and now my circumstance as a family man struggling to make ends meet, do what I perceive is right and good, and contemplating the end which will be here much sooner than I like to think.
I wonder if such thoughts were on the mind of that middle-aged man I met at Shaw’s Cove? While staring through sunglasses at the calm sea horizon did he wonder why his exceptionally privileged life didn’t deliver more than mere reality? Why his wealth and status always distilled to nothing more than who he knew he really is? Was he cataloging and solving his problems in spite of his circumstance; letting worry overcome the sunset, the soft sand, and the sight of dolphins swimming by just off shore. Maybe he was facing down these truths, perhaps he was coming to grips with a reality more real than any dream life, or maybe he was simply taking a carefree snooze while his maid prepared his dinner, his gardener cleaned the yard and his accountant did his taxes.