I bent at the waist, my body folded in half, digging rhythmically in the sand. The race was on: I had to quickly restructure my tunnel and bridge before the kids returned with their buckets of water. My hands smoothed over the finishing touches just as the water rumbled at the top of the slope, the warning signal that it was headed my way. Once the rushing water had careened through my handiwork I diligently inspected the damage and quickly began repairs for the next bucket full of water.
Our beach vacation this year was less than postcard-perfect. It rained more days than it didn’t, and when it wasn’t raining, the air was tinged with a chill that made it difficult to strip down to a bathing suit. Unfortunately, this is becoming a familiar narrative to our summer vacations. This day, in particular, the rain stopped late in the day and though it was hardly hot, we weren’t going to be held back anymore. We were like an army, this gang of kids and adults, the melding of two families, and like an army we marched seaward.
The beach was cool still, and I pulled my sweatshirt over my head, turning my shoulders to brace against the wind. With this gaggle of kids, it was important to keep the energy fresh, and the enthusiasm strong, and I knew that I’d be warmer if I kept moving. With a shovel in my hand, I puttered around, digging and smoothing with no particular goal or plan. I wasn’t making a sand castle, or a road, or even digging a hole. I was simply feeling the sand gritting under the pressure of my hand, and the scrape and edge of the shovel. Soon, though, my puttering designs caught up with the sand castle that our friend, Andy, built and the moat that the kids dug around it. Someone dumped a bucket of water in; someone else poked a little hole. Eventually, our whole gang was involved in crafting a winding maze of tunnels and bridges, ditches and moats, for the water to travel, and we were united with one goal: get that water down through our labyrinth and back to the ocean.
The kids were on the fast track with the water, and as soon as they dumped one bucket at the top of our mountain, they charged back to the ocean to scoop up another. They were numb to the sharpness of the icy water and fearless about the chill. On the other hand, I took up my post at a particular intersection of bridge and tunnel track, and made it my job to improve the strength and efficiency here. Each person, young and old, was invested in the success and continued maintenance of our Rube-Goldberg-like waterworks.
If I’m honest with myself, it was more fun than I had let myself have in a long time. Something in me clicked, or, more precisely, unclicked and I felt myself loosening up. I remembered how to have this kind of fun. It’s just like riding a bike.
There was something about the teamwork, the camaraderie of it all. I wasn’t being chased away from grown-up conversation by the precocious 18 month old, who demands my hawk eyes to steer him clear of trouble, because he was digging in the sand, too. I wasn’t missing out on the fun that the older kids were having, because they were ankle deep in ice water having their fun right beside me. Mark and I were working together, and because of the strategic engineering conversations with the other adults we were all engaging our minds in challenging new ways, too.
Maybe, we a little too wrapped up in our city of sand. Maybe.
Here’s what I learned: the water, though encouraged, perhaps, by our craftsmanship, ultimately sought it’s own path. It rounded out the edges that I thought were packed firm and it overflowed banks that I thought beyond it’s reach. I learned that even when I perfected a tunnel, it only stayed that way until the water came at it. We could engineer ourselves a city that was both beautiful and strong, and we could talk our way in and out of tunnels. We could do all the strategizing and the hypothesizing, and we could even know it all, but still. Still the water carved through the sand, and it pooled and puddled when there wasn’t enough slope in our track. Bridges were strong, until they weren’t anymore. By the time we were all chilled to the bone and hungry for dinner, our range of mountains and valleys, tunnels, bridges, castles and moats showed the obvious signs of erosion.
The metaphors are there, tall and short, and I am the sand. I am that bridge. That sand, when I dug down into it, showed these glorious striations of color, ash tones, dark coal hues, and warm tawny browns pressed upon each other in stripes revealed only when I sliced into it. The bridge was tall and angular, lofty above the tunnels, but it was supported and buttressed and it needed constant rebuilding.
And here’s the thing: it’s layered, and it’s not. Sometimes fun is just fun.
I walked home that night, sand gritting in between my toes and darkening my fingernails, and I wanted to suck that salt air deep into my soul. There was nothing special at all about our hours on the beach, creating and recreating, laughing and plotting together. And there was everything special about it.