Monday, August 5, 2013

Flourishing: Seasons, Directions, and Boundaries

We've all noticed, I'm sure, the way we pass boundaries in life almost without realizing it until we look back. The day-to-day adds up mostly without fanfare; yet it has its own force, and impels us forward in unexpected ways.

Recently, my family made it down to the Atlantic to swim for the first time this year. The waves that day were excitingly high, as we chanced upon a full moon and a high tide together. I uncharacteristically got right in instead of mincing and wincing as usual, and enjoyed jumping or diving through the oncoming waves.

Along with the surf that day, however, there was a particularly strong longshore current that carried us up the beach very quickly if we weren't careful. I basically spent all my time between swells swimming against it to keep in sight of the kids playing on the sand. At one point, I went back out of the water and left S. still basking in the ocean, and he almost immediately started drifting with that current. Without his glasses, and without me nearby as a landmark*, I guess he just didn't realize how far he was getting. I kept my eye on him as he got further and further away, and finally decided I needed to run and flag him down before he became no more than a speck.

Once out of the water, he (rather comically) asked where the kids were. I pointed far away and we started walking, passing one lifeguard station (our stuff was alongside a further one) and countless sunbathers and umbrellas. After a little bit, he asked incredulously if we weren't there yet -- I answered that we had probably passed the halfway point. He had just gone so far so rapidly.

I heard a lecture once, in a series about complex systems, which mentioned an interesting bit of crowd dynamics that had been studied in busy subways**. At rush hour the influx of passengers and the jostle of people trying to move in opposite directions can be very jumbled and tangled-looking, yet watched in high-speed footage, there are very fluid-but-clear boundaries. I find that fascinating. On the ground, you might be thinking in terms of very small movements -- holding onto your kids or your briefcase, aiming for that door, pushing just the right amount without being rude -- but as everyone is doing those same small things, a larger dynamic emerges. That's how birds and fish school as well, it turns out; small behaviors can become amazingly magnified beyond the sum of their parts in complex systems.

Getting back to home, I was doing my annual shopping for school supplies recently, and had a sudden moment at the checkout where I became conscious that instead of buying piles of crayons, I was buying piles of binders. It was an odd realization, that the days of scribbled crayon drawings are past and the era of term papers is looming; I've had many moments like that this last year, as the reality that I'm beyond 'young' motherhood has suddenly intruded on me. For the most part, I'm just forging ahead day by day, while the inexorable currents of life dwarf my efforts while I'm not even looking; but, just like on the subways and in the ocean, the direction I'm facing and the little internalized habits and pushes are what will tip the system in the end.

Here's to getting somewhere.

*We have one particular ocean story in which we were at a strange beach and underestimated the rough surf, and since I'm the stronger swimmer, S. followed my 'glowingly pale' legs through the murky water back to the safety of the shore.

**A little trivia -- the top 3 subway systems in the world carry a combined total of 21 million people every day; the top 10 carry roughly 18 billion per year. That is a lot of commuters!

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