We went camping recently. Camping as an adult isn’t exciting, at least for me. It’s so much work. I had my smartwatch calculating my steps, giving me empirical evidence that even just puttering around the campsite packed in a whopping 8,000 steps. Add in meal prep, cleaning, tent set up, tent break down, making sure nobody burned themselves at the fire pit, and broken sleep on the hard ground that has you up every hour repositioning your body so a different part can take its turn getting sore, and lets not forget the cold walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night. You can say it isn’t exactly a relaxing way to spend the weekend. I foolishly packed a book thinking I’d get some reading done, but I didn’t even get to a single paragraph. On top of it all, it rained. Everything got muddy. It took a week for me to catch up with the mountain of laundry.
One of my friends told me to enjoy it. Soon they’ll be grown, she said, like her kids. One day there won’t be family camping trips. I don’t think I can fully conceptualize a time when my home will be empty and my kids will be off living their own lives. Right now, it’s just me in the trenches. But I try to force myself to remember the hourglass of parenting, the sand running out, life passing us by. One day their dirty faces and hands from digging in the dirt will be a distant memory. Their joy and delight over a roasted marshmallow will dissolve.
I came across this famous Charles Dickens quote within the last week: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
To me, Dickens is remarking on the phenomenon in our human existence of “and/both.” At any given moment, we are likely to be tethered between two opposing feelings. It was great making my kids happy on a camping trip, and I also don’t like camping anymore. It’s a special memory, and it also causes a lot of stress. It’s okay to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
I don’t necessarily think everything should come easy. In fact I do believe in struggle. I’m willing to do hard things for the purpose of my bigger picture.
A few weeks ago I took my son and dad to see Hamilton, and “I am not throwing away my shot” from the first act of the play resonated with me. It goes back to that hourglass of time. My dad likes to say that I overload myself, presumably foolishly. I don’t think so. Yes, I’m often tired, stressed, going non-stop, AND I’m living my life the way I want, happy, fulfilled, and satisfied. I’m building something. I’m creating, making meaning, finding experiences, seeking joy, learning to let go of what is not for me. I try to make my life dynamic. I’m not looking for a static existence, and I am not throwing away my shot in my “one wild and precious life” (borrowing one of my favorite phrases from Mary Oliver), even if that means I often grapple with the negative effects of reaching for something bigger than myself.
Tomorrow, my husband would have turned 59. I try to wrap my mind around a timeline in which he would have lived long enough to have gray hair and file for his retirement, this being his last school year. I imagine I would have been sad to not work with him anymore, and there would have been growing pains with him at home full-time and me still having many years of work left, but I also think about the house husband I could have had, one that would run the kids around to their practices and do all of our chores and errands, lightening the load on my back.
We taught together, and his memory is a trickle now. There are only a few people who remember him or heard of him. His name is nothing to the masses now. I picture his once larger-than-life presence something akin to a Chernobyl scene, an abandoned playground, a dilapidated building eaten away by rust, a forgotten dream, a fading tragedy.
Sometimes I think of him as a sand castle, intricate and grand, perfectly sculpted from the sand. And in the next minute, washed away by the tide, worn down, eroded, unrecognizable.
Kenneth existed in a world that is no longer relevant. He is MySpace to our TikTok. He died when our kids were 13-months, 3-years-old, and 6-years-old. As I type this my youngest, Peter Jack, is learning basketball from somebody else’s dad in the gym at our temple. I am watching the kind man patiently tell the boys where to put their feet, how to bounce the ball, what it means to play defensively. My daughter, Eloise, is doing the same on the other side of the gym. Somebody’s dad is running drills, explaining strategy. Not their dad. These are children who have no memory of their father, and whose father wouldn’t recognize this version of them. It makes me sad, and it also makes me grateful for the other dads, and for these children, and for life that keeps on moving on no matter what happens.
The further we get from the timeline where we were an intact family, the more I think of the erosion of Kenneth. I’ve read that it can take two generations for someone to be forgotten. I’m witnessing evidence of him disappearing from recollections. The sound of his voice. What he stood for. His reputation.
Erosion: breakdown, decay, dissolution.
I wondered: what is the opposite of erosion?
Buildup, creation, gain, increase.
Isn’t that what we do? As babies, we fall and get back up, learning how to walk. Childhood is full of trial and error. But really, we spend the rest of our lives trying. The rest of our lives falling.
Life is building sand castles and then watching them wash away no matter how hard we try to save them.
It’s also learning to let go, watching your hopes and dreams crumble, building resilience and grit in the process.
Life is also reveling in those fleeting moments of beauty while the sand castle glistens beneath the sunlight, the waves still out of reach.
I saw a quote recently by an unknown author. “Finding ways to feel good in the gap of space between where you are and where you want to be is everything.”
There is hope in the possibility and opportunity of creating something new. It can be scary. We often don’t know what we are doing, but we get better each time we try.
To celebrate Kenneth’s birthday, I remember how fragile and fleeting life is. I remember that it can all be over tomorrow. All we have is now. He constantly reminds me of this truth, and it pushes me to be more intentional, to try harder, to keep pushing for my dreams. This is how I’ve coped for the past 6.5 years without him: building new dreams, creating new timelines, taking advantage of the boundless opportunities of being alive.
So go build your sand castles, no matter what could happen to them. In my mind, the best way to honor the memories of our loved ones who are no longer with us is to live our lives fully. For them. For us. And because we can. While we are still here, there is still so much love and joy to receive and to give.