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Faith in Vermont: Why Build Sandcastles?

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Posted on July 9, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Ever since I was pregnant with our first child twelve years ago, with a few exceptions, our family has spent a week of every summer at the Maine coast. This summer was no exception. Our daughters consider Maine one of the fixed points of their year, and look forward to our summer week there all of the 51 other weeks. 

This year brought some changes, as is inevitable with the passage of time and the aging of people. Some were bittersweet: Due to a combination of busy-ness and illness, my extended maternal relatives visited Maine for only a day instead of staying the entire week. But some were sweet: My growing daughters no longer wake at dawn demanding entertainment, being now content to sleep late and spend slow, quiet mornings reading, drawing, and talking. They can apply their own sunscreen and help lug beach paraphernalia. For the first time, we were able to enter the gift store in town that’s full of breakable items, where my daughters chuckled over the card that said, “Let’s get this party started (because I’d really like to be in bed by 11!)” – which they suggested getting for their father – and debated over which welcome mat would be most appropriate for our house: “Welcome to the Jungle,” “You’ve Made it This Far,” or “The Neighbors Have Better Stuff.” 

But the beauty of our Maine week – and the reason I suspect it holds such a special place in our daughters’ hearts – is how few things change year to year. For the past six years, we’ve stayed in the same house, with a big climbing rock out front. Each visit entails several nonnegotiable activities: multiple visits to Perkins Cove Candies and the Corner Café, daily beach and rock climbing time, and an excursion to Dunne’s Ice Cream (formerly Brown’s) and Nubble Light, with dinner at Fox’s Lobster House (where their Nana spent a summer hostessing during high school.) 

And when we go to the beach, the girls always build sandcastles with their grandfather – my father.

My father has always loved the beach, and he introduced me as a child to the simple shoreline pleasures that we now share with my four children: rock climbing (a must for New England beachgoers), tidepooling, and sandcastle building. Now, with four pairs of increasingly adept and enthusiastic hands, our sandcastles have become more elaborate. They always feature a moat, a defensive wall, and a castle keep, but this summer they included towns and fields, temples and gatehouses. Instead of merely building them on the sand, we’ve branched out to multi-level structures nestled into the craggy coastal rocks. 

Here’s the strange thing about sandcastle building, though: For all the time and effort it requires – not to mention sandy knees – the castles never last. We build them knowing full well that the tide will rise and the waves will wash away our workmanship. We go back to the beach the next day and start all over again. Looked at logically, from a dispassionate distance, it makes no sense.

I raised the question to my family over lunch on the porch of our rental house about halfway through our Maine sojourn: “Why do we even bother building sandcastles, when we know they’ll just get washed away?”

Nobody answered; later that day, they went to the beach and built another sandcastle.

It occurs to me that one of the things that sets humans apart is that humans are always doing things that don’t make sense -- at least when viewed logically, from a dispassionate distance. There is probably a biologist out there who can prove me wrong, but other creatures seem to do things that mostly make sense. Observe an insect, animal, or plant, and they’re probably focused on finding nourishment and shelter, or on reproducing themselves. These things make sense: Their goal is survival. 

Sandcastles have nothing to do with survival. Neither do art, music, literature, dance, or drama (although my eight-year-old asked me, while in Maine, to imagine a world without art or music, then shuddered at the thought and concluded that she’d rather not live in such a world.) 

Relationships, apart from the basic biological urge to reproduce, are another human activity that make no sense. This has come up in conversations I’ve had recently with both a friend who lost his wife to cancer, and another friend whose family has taken in a foster child. Both have had to answer the question: “Why bother loving and caring for others if loss is the likely or inevitable outcome?”

Love, in other words, makes no sense. 

The only way I can explain sandcastles is to theorize that the human soul longs for something more than just survival. We hunger for that which transcends our basic appetites for food, shelter, and reproduction. We have an urge to create things of beauty, even if they’re temporary, because our souls are enlarged by the act of having created. We have an urge to love, because even if loss is certain and painful, our souls are enlarged by having loved.

That these things appear to make no sense could be because our view is too small. I considered this as I watched the world of a tidepool one afternoon. To the periwinkles, limpets, crabs, and algae there, that tiny pool in a rock was the whole world. I even imagined little periwinkle PhDs explaining with authority how things worked to all the other inhabitants. All the while, none of them had the least idea that they were part of something so much larger: a beach on the edge of an enormous ocean on a spinning planet in a vast universe. 

Perhaps, considered from a larger vantage point, sandcastles might make a whole lot of sense after all.

 

 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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