Monday, January 30, 2012

Notice the snake when you walk over it.

Some stories are funny.  Some are sad.  Some are just strange.  This is a strange one, and it's a moment I won't forget.

Five or so years ago, our family was at the beach - it was a morning, a beach morning, when some folks are out with young children, some are strolling along and hoping for the perfect shells and some are still in the bed, awaiting a good, beachy day later.  I guess it was about ten o'clock.  There weren't a lot of folks on the beach; but there was beginning to be more activity and folks were starting the set up on those big tent thingies for their family's headquarters.

My kids were having fun messing around.  It wasn't hot yet.  The sun was morning bright, but it wasn't yet burning our skin.  It was one of those fun mornings when the kids and dogs find all of the cool tidal pools and there is one pool per person.  It was good.

I was sitting on the sand, watching the kids, enjoying the slight breeze and I noticed something out of my peripheral vision.  Way down at the water's edge, there was some dark thing moving around, just where the wave reached the sand.  It looked like something was coming out of the water.  Hmmmmm . . . weird.  I stood up and kept my eye on the oddity.  The kid in me wanted to scream with excitement and run over to see what it was, to get everyone excited and be the first one to spot the coolness.  But, the adult in me said to wait.  "You're going to feel like a fool when you get everyone excited, they all run over to look and it turns out to be a stick."  So I waited and I watched.

It looked like the THING was unsure as to whether to stay in the water or break free of the current.  I kept watching.  My kids kept playing.  The sun kept shining.  I began to slowly work my way over towards the water, when I noticed other folks beginning to watch.  Even the 'on task' shell seekers were slowing down.  Folks were watching, but nobody wanted to say it.  Nobody wanted to say the obvious.  It was too crazy.

It looked like a snake!  I'm quite sure that my fellow observers were running through the same questions in their minds . . . Are their snakes in the ocean?  Is that normal?  Do any snakes that look just like the gray rat snakes in our back yards also live in the ocean?  Should a sea snake be exiting the water on a beach?  Have I ever heard of this?  Hmmmmmmm.

Some woman was brave enough to speak what we were all thinking.  She was brave enough to just say it, even though "IT" made no sense.  "That looks like a snake - doesn't it?" she said.  "It does."  "It is."  "What's a snake doing at the beach?"  (At this point, I knew I was seeing something terribly strange, but I was quite thankful that I wasn't going to be the only observer.)  This snake thing would have been a fish story that was very hard to explain!

It was a SNAKE!  It wasn't that the snake was enormous or scary or venomous looking.  It wasn't.  It was quite ordinary, actually.  What was not ordinary was that it washed up on the beach!  That is not ordinary!  As we all nervously giggled - half excited, half wondering what in the world was going on - a small crowd began to assemble.  The kids were all wide-eyed and happy, though I think they were mostly drawing on our excitement.  I doubt they really understood how strange the whole thing was.

Nevertheless, we were all in it together.  The whole of us, this crowd of morning beach-goers, were in an adventure together and it was fun.  It was a moment!  It was odd and strange and funny and exciting.

This snake that had us all captivated finally decided (or was forced by the strength of the tide) to make its way onto the beach.  It wriggled its awkward dark gray body out of the water, stopped for a moment as if to take in the scenery of the East beach at Saint Simon's Island, and then slowly began to inch towards the green, towards the maritime forest where it might have a chance to find some other snake friends.

The trip was slow, but the snake never seemed in doubt about which way to go, and it never acted particularly bothered by the fact that twenty or thirty bathing suited humans were along on the trip.  We made sort of a modified semi-circle around the snake and edged with it across the vast expanse of beach left by the low tide.  Those of us accompanying the snake were friends now; buddies who were experiencing adventure together - fast friends.

As the convoy, snake and onlookers, began to get closer to the sand dunes, we started to spread out a bit.  We let the snake go out ahead of us, to go on 'his' own towards the promised land.  Now we were a loosely formed crowd, eyes to the sand; and, much like a tennis match, our eyes moved together, just the way the snake did.  I would imagine that if an alien had been lowered to earth, it would have known instinctively that these odd humans were all watching the same event.  Their was no doubt.  I say that to explain the next oddity in the story.

The snake was nearing the green stubble of the dunes, and the crowd was excited, all of us wondering how we would explain this particular morning.  Every single human being (and a few dogs) on this acre or so of the beach was involved in this snake saga.  Every one of us.  There were no shell collectors ambling along, no sunbathers, no children giggling at the break of waves.  We were all held in the excitement.  And then . . . we all noticed a jogger coming up on the scene.

I think we were all anxious to share this strange story with a new onlooker, a new listener for our story.  It will be great to share this with a new friend - it will be grand!  We all watched.  The lanky jogger was coming up on us quite quickly.  I'm sure we all believed that he was busy trying to decipher what in the world was happening just ahead on his path.  I'm sure we all just knew that.  The jogger kept jogging.  The snake, followed by all of our eyes, kept on towards home.

And the runner kept running!  He was coming up on this strange assembly of humans and reptile and he kept running!  He was getting closer.  He was still jogging.  We were all watching, all waiting, all knowing that he was about to call a halt to the morning's run.

He did not stop!  He kept running and running.  If he saw the crowd, he didn't let on that he did.  If he noticed that we were all staring intently at the same thing, he didn't show it.  If he was interested at all, we could not tell.  He kept running!  We watched.  Time stood still.  At this point, the weird reality that a snake had emerged from the ocean didn't seem all that extraordinary.  What DID seem weird was this strange, tall man who appeared to have no idea that he was on this beach with any of the rest of us!

"Surely he'll stop", we all thought.  "I bet he's just being funny", one woman announced.  But he never stopped.  He never slowed his gait.  He never acknowledged us!  But, my friends, that isn't the strangest part.  He neared the scene, he kept running, he came within two feet of all of us without ever looking and then he did it - he did - he just ran right over the snake!  He never took his eye off of the horizon or the pier or whatever it was that he was 'watching.'  He ran right over the snake; and, luckily his stride and the snake weren't the same length, so the snake was spared.

The grand story of our day at the beach, the strangest thing that many of us had seen in years, the adventure that had brought us together was over - and that crazy man never even saw it!  The snake wiggled the last couple of yards into the brush and the man ran on.  He just kept running.

Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, we all stood there.  We had just spent thirty minutes enrapt in one of earth's oddities and this jogger, this 'outsider' ran right over it!  Is it possible that someone could be asleep while he runs?  Is it really possible that the man never saw us or the SNAKE that we were all watching?  Is that possible?  How very strange.

I've kept that story with me for some time.  I won't forget it.  In the beginning, that story was to be about how unimaginable it was that we all watched this strange snake wash up on our beach.  It was to be a fun story, with a bit of adventure, some laughs and lots of shared fun.  But then the story changed. The oddest thing that happened that morning was that one of us missed the whole thing.

The jogger kept jogging.  The jogger missed it all.  He ran on his path, eye on the prize or the beer or the swim or whatever he was running towards, and he never stopped!  He missed the fun, the camaraderie, the spectacle.  He missed it all.

Usually I'm jealous of the joggers who make running look like a religious experience.  Usually I wish I could make it look so easy.  Not this time, though.  Not this time.

That poor guy missed out on a lot.  He missed a great time, a time of wonder and a shared moment with new friends.  He missed being part of something exciting and different, something that made us all shake off the 'normalness' of the morning and watch a bit of God's wonder.  I would hate to think I could have jogged right through that.

I have no idea where the snake came from.  There was lots of talk.  Had he been forced into the water down the beach a bit and just wrestled with the waves until we saw him?  Had he been dropped into the ocean near the intra-coastal waterways and just floated to the beach?  The kids got back to laughing and splashing and running and playing and we adults marveled in the fun of feeling like little kids again.  We loved wondering together and laughed about how strange the whole thing was.  We never came up with a reason for the snake to have come up out of the water.  We never reached a consensus.

We did, however, agree that the strangest moment of the day was when the jogger ignored all of the excitement and ran over the snake and passed us all.  We marveled at how anyone could be that oblivious to surroundings, how anyone could be that focused, how anyone could miss something that all of us saw.  That was the strange story of the day.  The snake just helped us see it.

I think about that man from time to time.  I guess there are others like him.  I guess we are all like him at one time or another.  We all keep our eyes glued to something or nothing or one particular thing and fail to acknowledge what's going on around us.  I don't want to be jogging over any snakes.  I don't want to miss the excitement of the world.  I want to see.  I want to laugh and watch and wonder about crazy things that happen and then talk about it later.  I want the memories and the good times and the events that bust me out of normality and force me to follow the little gray snakes into the dunes!

The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.
Henry Miller

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