What my favorite knight taught me about sand castles

The joys of summer! The sun, the warmth, the lazy days, the sound of the waves, your feet in the sand, a good book on your lap. This is accurate as long as you don’t have a small child with you. In that case, the book never makes it out of your beach bag, the sound of the waves get filtered and you don’t only have your feet in the sand, but part of your body while you are digging for shells and rocks.

I am sure there is a saying out there that mentions that "once an artist, always an artist.” So when I am trying to suck up the beauty of summer at the beach with my youngest child, the artist in me takes over. I delight on the colors and the shape of the waves, I feel the air on my face and the roughness of the sand on my skin. I also feel the itch to do something with my hands; that irresistible and unavoidable call to create. First I want to sketch but I know my son’s idea of fun does not include that. Then I start seeing the pendants that I could make out of shells, but practicality takes over and I abandon the idea soon after. However, there is an activity that satisfies my creativity appetite, helps me build memories with my boy and gives us both hours -who I am kidding? minutes- of entertainment. Let me introduce you to the ancient art of building sand castles.

I take my job seriously and so our castles not only have towers. They have dams on one side, underground rivers of the other, flanked by forts and mountains. A road of shells, flags made out of seaweed. I invest a lot of time and effort into our sand castles as if my life depends on it. They have taught me about gravity and how to take in consideration the tide changes when finding the perfect spot for construction. Of course, I do want to pass the love for the activity on to my youngest son.

Without falling of the stereotypical gender roles, I have to say that my son has a lot more of the physical need to express his energy than his older sisters. My girls, although active and curious girls, would be contained drawing, writing, playing in the sand. Maybe it has nothing to do with their gender but with their birth order, or the fact that he arrived when we were more tired (thanks age gap!) or it might just the way he is. The fact is that invariably of the amount of effort we put into building our sand castles under my proud look of famous architect, every time I look at what we have created with certain sense of achievement, my son comes with a smile on his face and mischievous eyes and says the dreadful words: destroy, destroy! He steps on our castle, fills the dams with sand and levels each tower. Certainly, our definition of fun differs slightly.

Beyond my trying to understand why he finds so much pleasure in destroying our castles while trying to deter him from doing it so early on the game, I decided recently to step on his shoes and see why he finds that part as fun as the building.

Whenever I have brought this topic to discussion among other parents, the often answer (given positively by parents of boys, coincidentally) is a laugh followed by the words “boys, boys, boys....”

I summoned the most analytical side of my artistic being to scrutiny the subject. I soon realized that one of the concepts we tend to forget as we grow older and stop being spontaneous and fresh is that as in anything else in life, in order to create we also need to destroy. In order to create something new, we need to know down the original essence of a material. The canvas needs to be altered, the clay molded. When building a song, there is a group of notes that repeat every so often, very likely in a particular order, until you alter that order to generate a new melody. Otherwise, we fall in the trap of monotony.

Creating implies not only that we say hello to something new, but also that we say goodbye to something old. The problem is that our human nature rejects change as if it is the plague, and creating actually calls us to embrace it. No wonder so many people are afraid of creating something new and prefer to stay anchored to old ideas, relationships that have ran their curses, jobs that do not offer any growth, dull lives where everything seems predictable as the most monotonous melody.

I also thing that our egos are constantly obsessed with the idea of accumulating achievements. We love to build, we love to see the accumulation of the steps we have taken previously. Call them diplomas, called them workout sessions or job promotions. We like to see that each step we take takes us closer to our goals. In building a sand castle, I was doing exactly that. But life is rather more like the game I play with my son, where I construct and he destroys, than what I though the game should be: building wonderful structures that we will be able to admire as we step out of the beach, maybe leaving it for others to enjoy and play with.

My son, with his fierce bottomless source of energy and his mischievous giggle taught me a big lesson that day. As an artist and as human being, wouldn’t life be a lot easier if I start seeing my existence as a creation/destruction cycle? If I stop being so attached to the final products and enjoy the process more? if I take courage to knock down the structures that have served its course? If I accept that part of my nature that occasionally just wants to throw some old dishes on the floor?

Among sand castles and dams, that day iI discover that if I want to be a true artist I need to conciliate both side of the creation cycle. I am not sure if that would make me a better artist, in fact, but I am sure somewhere there must be a Harvard study to demonstrate that. What I know is that when I master the subtle of art of detaching from my careful finished products, may it be be a painting or a sand castle, I might find some kind of holy grail called freedom.

Sand castles are only a least sophisticated version of the mandalas that represent the universe in intricate designs made out of sand. It is used as a meditation practice but the climax of the process comes in understanding those are designs meant to disappear, regardless of all the effort put into its creation. I can’t say building sand castles feels like a spiritual practice. But that hot summer day that my son insisted on knocking down the structure we have built in a matter of seconds I was reminded on the importance of detachment, the importance of focusing on the journey rather than the destination and the significance of traveling through this life as light as possible, without the need to carry every brick we have used in the past. After I helped him level down the last part of our castle, we moved down to the playground to keep building new memories together. I almost skipped back because I was so free...who am I kidding? I was just the same person, just a tiny bit more aware of my creative process. I wish all lessons were as easy to grasp, but then I also have to admit that any lesson is usually better served with feet on the sand and sun rays warming our skin.