Tony Woodlief | Author


My mother died while I was at the beach and so while my children spent their days on the shore, I spoke by phone with the many professionals who position themselves between the living and the dead.

My thirteen year-old wanted to build a sandcastle. He has so many preoccupations these days, perhaps chief among them sleep, but this is what we do at the beach, what we have done since he was a baby and could only pat pat pat the sand while I did all the building.

He waited for me one afternoon, waited by the door as I dealt with each call that I promised was the last call, waited with his eyes alternating between me and the ocean outside our windows. He waited until I realized that whatever I might do for my mother in her death would not be, in her estimation, worth making her oldest grandson wait one more minute to build our sandcastle.

So we went down to the sand, and we organized his younger brothers, and we began to build. We are an experienced crew, and everyone knows his part. We build the drainage trenches, the retaining wall, the secondary walls. We build a raised platform in the center, upon which we array the battlements, the buildings, the inner fortress. We build as it might have been had labor not been transmogrified into toil, scooping pliant earth and fashioning with our hands as we have been fashioned.

An old man walks past. He shakes his head. “You’re building below the high-tide line.” He shakes his head and continues down the beach.

We know we are building below the high-tide line and we know the waves are coming. We build here because this is where the castle can be built. The sand is no good above the high-tide line. We build our trenches and our retaining wall. We race against waves that threaten to sweep over our work before it is done.

“Don’t decide to do something based on whether it’s possible,” I tell my nine year-old. “Do it because it’s worth doing.”

I often say things like this to my sons. I know they don’t hear most of it, but I say it anyway, because I want to believe that one day they will remember some of it.

We build the walls higher, we dig the trenches deeper as they are overwhelmed and filled with watery sand. When the waves are especially full we lay down in front of our creation to protect it. We get so busy protecting this thing that will be washed away regardless of our best efforts, that we almost forget the important parts—the buildings, the inner fortress, the church. We build them and I fashion a cross for our church with grass and driftwood.

These days we tell children they can do anything. We tell them this because it makes us feel good, I suppose. We lie to them even as we make their education a practicum in practicality. Every book, every class, every grade has but one aim, which is to secure a good job with good pay and good benefits.

You can do anything you put your mind to—now put your mind to the very practical and possible.

I suppose I am teaching my sons the opposite. You discover the path for which you have been crafted not by calculating what is practical, but by divining what lights up the truest place within your heart. Sometimes that means doing what cannot be done. You have to do it because no one else will, and because some things are worth doing not only badly but hopelessly. Faithfully and hopelessly and with confidence that the hopeless cause is sometimes the most important cause.

Our castle was gone by morning. I imagine the sand grains that comprised it are scattered along the eastern seaboard, on the shore and in the depths, some of it in shoe treads and in the corners of houses. The castle is gone and there is nothing left of the castle, of any of the dozens of castles I have made with my children. The castles are scattered grit—as one day I will be too—and there is nothing left of them to contribute to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product or to the academic resumes of my children. They cannot be dwelt in nor sold; the modern ways of assessing merit can take no accounting of them.

We built them below the high-tide line knowing it was hopeless. We built them below the high-tide line because this was the only place to build them. We built them because this is what we were crafted to do.

Buket and spade on Killahoey Strand - - 1426946

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