Monday, January 30, 2012


A few months ago I meant to post about sandcastles, but didn't.

Here it is.

When we were kids each year we'd take a trip to the shore, no small task for a family with three or four small children to venture out of the depths of Southwest PA.

After a few days on the beach, my dad would tell us that it was time to make the sandcastle. My dad's a funny guy. He is -- in and out -- a bit of a protocol junkie. He ran the house on a pretty tight schedule, tight discipline, tight restrictions, etc. etc. It's actually something he's devoted much of his career to exploring. He actually writes protocol manuals for hospitals, which other people follow.

The beach wasn't much of an exception. His vacation days had as much structure as his everyday life. (And I am not saying this from a critical or judgmental standpoint -- I just want to create some context for those of you who do not know my father.) It's just how he functions, and somehow you learn to just go along with it (or, in my case, just agree to disagree).

The sandcastles were similar in a way. We all knew it was coming, expected it. (I was usually more willing than my brothers because there was some artistic aspect which I found more pleasing than diving in the potentially lobster-infested waters). Yet -- when we all assembled to work on it together, my dad kind of softened as he became more absorbed in the process of building the castle. He got quiet and pensive and would offer suggestions here or there, but would never impose any overarching architectural concept on the project. He kind of let us do our thing, and in that way kept our attention for as long as it was going to last.

I was always very focused. I loved creating turrets with spiral staircases winding up the structure. The staircases were the best part, chiseling elegant little stairs so that very small people could ascend to the tallest room of the tallest tower. I would often get very frustrated when part of it would collapse, or when one stair was disproportionate to the others. Or when a brother dumped wet sand on something, or stuck what he thought was a rather elegant seaweed-and-detritus topper to the turret.

And my dad would say, "Just remember, there's no mistakes in sandcastles."

This helped relieve me a bit, despite the fact that I kept attempting to perfect those staircases. I knew at the end of the day, the tide would have its way, and the whole endeavor would be smoothed over, at least until next year. I know my dad probably couldn't have predicted it, but this idea has really seeped into my worldview. In the past four years or so, every job, relationship, living situation -- has unfolded in such unexpected ways. I've set out to construct my staircase, and, well, haven't made it past the first story. I'm ok with that, and I have to trust in this process, forgive myself of my intended outcomes. The human imagination is hardly infinite. Sometimes mistakes and snares can cast wide potential.

I look at my dad now. He's really struggling because for the first time of his life, the structure he has built for himself is failing. I see him, and he is really grasping for what to do. I am very proud of what he has accomplished, but I also see this moment for him as a big opportunity. And I just want to tell him that maybe there's another way, that maybe you can't always stop tides or little brothers from getting in your way, and maybe there's a better castle lying in a million pieces on the shoreline, just waiting to be built, destroyed, changed, rebuilt. He has to see that it all was not in vain...

I imagine it must be hard, spending your entire life building one castle, and then realizing that there is nothing you can do but let go. I hope at some point he can take to heart what he taught me, and realize that it was a lesson that extends far beyond an isolated few hours of my childhood and into our lives.

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