The last in my current series of contemplations set among the beach and the Pacific Ocean brings me to the moment captured in this photo.
When I witnessed this moment in Long Beach, it seemed to say volumes about so much of what we grapple with every day: the delicate balance between nature, industry, beauty, practicality, the wealth gap – you name it. It was all here, in this moment.
A mother and daughter, sitting on plastic chairs, enjoying a moment at the beach.
One of the most striking elements for me, though, was the element of race: a majority of Black and Latino children cannot swim because they have little access to pools or beaches. Long Beach has had a strong African-American presence among its population – the only such beach town in Southern California. Even today, it’s rare to find African-Americans at Southern California beaches – even when some of the most heavily-concentrated African-American neighborhoods are within a few-minutes’ drive from a beach.
In Chicago, when I was covering a story about young people mired in gun violence in one of the most economically downtrodden Black neighborhoods in the city (where homicide rates were skyrocketing and mostly taking young lives), I was told by one juvenile probation officer that most of the kids he works with had never seen Lake Michigan or the beach – even though they were within 5 miles of the lake.
So, keeping the race context in mind, I found this moment in the photo quite beautiful. And yet, I also found it melancholy in that the only time I had seen a Black mother and daughter sitting together like this at the beach, was at the one and only beach where their views were so directly mired by giant container ships, offshore oil rigs and tankers, and a massive port complex just to the north of where they were sitting.
I know intellectually that of course there must be plenty of African-Americans that frequent beaches throughout Southern California. But I think it is safe to say that they are not represented in numbers anywhere close to their proportion of the general population.
And yet, this mother and daughter didn’t seem to mind the port, or the container ship, or any other encroachment of industry in what would have otherwise been a beautiful, idyllic scene. They were enjoying their time at the beach.
That reminded me of a conversation I had with the late, great Robert Kastenbaum – one of the foremost scholars of death and mortality research in the world. Kastenbaum said that happiness depends so much on our expectations and the prism with which we see the world. When bedridden with illness, he said, watching a tree outside his window could be intensely pleasurable when your worldview is limited to that tree and that window.
The great O. Henry wrote a short story with a similar theme.
The mother and daughter at the beach seemed to coexist with their world, to find beauty in it, to enjoy the beach and even the view of the giant ship.
So much of every day is a similar negotiation. How do we balance our desires for beauty and the practical needs of our survival? How do we preserve the Earth and still draw out its oil to run our cars? Can we find beauty in the concrete jungles of city life just as we readily find beauty in Nature?
And as in Long Beach, can the forces that seem to be contradictions in our daily lives, forces of opposition, in fact coexist if we only change our expectations and the prism through which we view them?