There they lay: Four little aliens half-buried in the sand where the children tossed them as they raced, screaming happily, toward their beach house and impatient parents.

No, these miniature plastic beings were not from Mars or a galaxy far, far away but from a country called China. Now they waited in suspended violence for the children to come back and resume the war to save the universe.

Their wait may be long, perhaps forever, I thought. The children may not return at all. The packed family car and angry father probably meant the end of their summer vacation. Maybe they will come back next year when they have forgotten this war and, a year older, prefer to play with more sophisticated toys.

It takes enormous imagination to animate the aliens and give them life, story and purpose. And as this gift fades with age, we need more complex playthings to entertain us.

I pick up one of the aliens and try my hand at play. I aim its menacing weapon at a darting sandpiper, but there is no thrill. Maturity has reduced me to mere materiality. I see only cheap plastic and think of environmental clutter and trade imbalances, things vastly unworthy of childhood.

Childhood is a treasury soon depleted. Quickly we use up the world, burning away its halo of higher realms — the truer kingdom of magic and miracles — leaving only the lowest, crudest rung of creation we call reality.

We once held dominion over a brighter world that still echoes in music, art, and play, but most of us have forgotten the re-entry code.

Yet childhood, seemingly so quickly gone, is not really short. We forget that it is nearly an eternity, another species of time vast and meaningful beyond telling. It is a paradox, but bright and happy like many things close to the divine.

Not again in our mature years shall we enjoy so close a fellowship with happiness nor possess again so much world and time for ourselves.

Yet we long to grow up, eager to learn the way of the world. But for this knowledge we must barter the higher truths and the greater insight we mistakenly call innocence.

I walk down the beach to my own destiny, wondering whether the children will return to gather up the aliens. No, for now I see the carrier-laden car drive away. Probably the children have forgotten about the aliens. For them life is too full and immediate for clinging memories.

Their eternity is compressed into an endless now. The poet Blake said it better: “To hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.”

Perhaps tomorrow other children will claim the tiny aliens for other games. We build our life with realities that migrate through many lives.

Things have no everlasting loyalty to us but lend themselves only for a season. And wisdom, we learn at last, lies in using them well and releasing them with grace and gratitude when our short lease expires.

Shore and surf, original metaphors of life, turn us to transcendent thoughts. Seashores make philosophers of us all. We cannot decipher the meaning of the deeper currents, yet we know, as it was in the beginning, that in its rise and ebb the tide marks the rhythm of the world.

Injured by imbalances, we come here hoping to restore harmonies and find a cure for melancholy. The splendor of creation washes over our skepticism and in a joyous complicity deeper than we know unites us anew with the happy, heroic children who save the Universe from evil for yet another day.

The seashore is dense with the destiny of all things, even four forgotten little aliens half-buried on a Texas beach.

Harold Raley is professor, linguist, writer and philosopher.

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