Life and Loss and Building Sandcastles


I built this sandcastle last summer with my kids.

Because I’m a geek, we took inordinate pride in building it, in making it smart and neat and in digging a nice deep moat all around it.  Wanting it to look good and be structurally sound. But the first wave that came, washed our sandcastle away leaving nothing but sand and no sign we were ever there.

This week someone I know passed away. Someone I worked with, someone kind and helpful who smiled all day long and was nice to everyone. We weren’t close, but the news still left me numb, with a hollow feeling in my stomach. It made me think of that sandcastle, and of the beach that was left when the waves washed away. And it made me write this.

The fact that nothing lasts has always bothered me

When I was little I ran into my parents room – I was probably about 8 at the time. I was in floods of tears and they couldn’t console me. When they eventually found out why, it was because looking out at the garden I had realized that at some point, even if it was millions of years in the future, the world would end. The house we were in, the swing in the garden, my parents and I, we wouldn’t exist. And the bleakness of that thought, crashing into an 8-year old brain was… well you can imagine. I was pretty upset. 24 years later and I can’t deny I still hate endings and goodbyes. They don’t make me cry, but I don’t like them.

watching the waves come in

Some get solace in religion, others in a lack of it

Some people cope with finality because they know there’s an afterlife, and they’re 100% convinced about it. Others are happy to live in the moment because they know there is NO afterlife and they are 100% convinced about that. But what do you do if you just don’t know either way? Personally I don’t have a clue, and my supposed religion – Taoism – is incredibly vague and unhelpful on the subject. Which is fine, but leaves me with the same fundamental question:

If nothing lasts, then what’s the point?

My wife commented recently that it was a shame our 18 month old won’t remember the wonderful holiday we went on. It’s a valid question. She won’t remember any of the past year, or much of the next. What will she remember? Is it just me, or is it a common fear of all parents that if something happens to you when your kids are young they’d grow up and forget not just your holidays but… well, you? That the books you read them, and the times you held them, and the games you played and stories you told and the places you went will all fade into nothing and be wiped from existence? Maybe it’s me, but I find that a scary thought. The thought that makes me less scared though is this:

 What matters is that you enjoyed building the sandcastle. Not how long it stays up.

washing awayThe sandcastle we built isn’t there to be lived in. It’s not made of stone, and it’s not a real castle. In the same way, you won’t last forever and neither will anything else. What matters is that you had fun building the castle. And even if something does happen to me, and my kids don’t remember the building of the sandcastle or the laughter, the smiles, the baby eating sand when told not to, the feeling of the waves running over their toes or me carrying them on my shoulders back up from the beach. Even if they don’t remember those things I know that those things – that laughter, those feelings – have become an irreversible part of their being. Like threads running through a loom into tapestry they may not be visible individually, but they now make up part of a person. And in some way will influence how they treat their own children, and those around them. How they see the world and how they see themselves.

We all create threads in the people around us, and that’s something meaningful

Human beings may be a short blip in the scale of infinity, our lives on their own may be nothing – tiny stones thrown into a rapidly running stream on its way to the sea. But the ripples those stones create are… no hold on, wait. It was threads in a tapestry wasn’t it… Dammit, mixed metaphors. I’m clearly getting in way over my metaphysical head here. Let’s just leave it at this:

The things you do, even when it’s least apparent, mean something.

The fact you exist, the fact you’re alive, means something.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that reassuring. So I wanted to write it.

all that is left?

Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go.

She has but doesn’t possess, acts but doesn’t expect.

When her work is done, she forgets it. 

That is why it lasts forever.

 – Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching V2

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8 Responses to Life and Loss and Building Sandcastles

  1. Philip says:

    Existential questions can be worrying, comforting, but always interesting to ponder on. They have never been far away from my thoughts since my father died when I was 13. And now I am into family history research I see all these births, deaths (many of babies, children, young mothers, fathers) and marriages. Somehow I am here, so are you, our genes striving to continue, evolve and thrive. And perhaps to keep us amused our minds have developed to invent meaning, religion, but also to create sandcastles that might be great empires, overpowering ideologies, incredible technology and everything else that we can think of. But emotions, perhaps they are different, Love…perhaps that is something else. If light can travel through the cosmos forever why not Love (and yes all the other sttuff like hate etc) May be that is the dark matter of the universe. And memory, what is that, is it lost or is it out there too, travelling in ways we do not yet know . As always there is some wisdom in the Tao:
    Verse 52
    Seeing into darkness is clarity.
    Knowing how to yield is strength.
    Use you own light
    and return to the source of light.
    This is called practising eternity.

    Now Dougsan you better get packing, before the universe explodes!

  2. Java Girl says:

    What a beautiful blog. I enjoyed reading it and agree with what you’ve said about enjoying “building” the castles. It rings true to life. Thanks for sharing!

  3. the_lunatic says:

    Beautiful words. My thoughts? My grandmother used to take me to the beach often, and together we would build sandcastles each and every time. I was so young that I cannot form solid memories of these things; I could not tell you what they looked like, or how the weather was, or what we wore …. but what I do vividly remember is the happiness, the feeling that I was special, the love of my grandma. Nothing lasts, and it is what I hate most about this life … but the memories, or the feeling of our memories, are what makes it all worth it.

  4. What. The. Shit! Everything I “follow” your blog, WP unfollows it later. (It’s been happening with a few others, too). Bah. Great post, Dougsan *read with Mr Miyagi accent*. I read that there’s a Buddhist tradition, where they will spend months making a sandcastle type painting… I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was a sort of art form made from sand, and then once it’s finished, instead of framing it or whatever else, they let it drift off into the river to disseminate naturally. It’s a process of letting go. Sweet job keepin’ it Tao!

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