I want to get better at building sandcastles. Instead of simple piles of packed, rounded sand studded with stones and shells, I want to be able to build elaborate multilevel dwellings with windows, balconies, turrets, and drawbridges. However, the Zen place I would need to reside in, to invest the hours and patience into something that will be either destroyed by several deft kicks of a foot, or washed away, one wave at a time until there is nothing left except packed, damp sand, is nearly unfathomable.
I tend to build things with an eye towards permanence; getting significantly attached to a particular outcome. I carefully selected the sturdy, two-story house my former husband and I lived in, decorating it with family “heirlooms” (which in reality were a mishmash of castoffs – but it was an inexpensive way to furnish a house). A room painted blue, waited for our babies. I hung a sizable mirror in the foyer, one with a heavy silver frame and beveled glass. And when I looked at the reflection, there I was, a mother holding up beautiful babies, the proud husband and father at my shoulder, the lovely old home, a gracious neighborhood in the background.
Turns out, it would have been better if I would have built this entire world, these hopes for the future, with the same attitude one attaches to building a sand castle. As Pema Chodron, author of When Things Fall Apart, points out, “we know the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”
Yes, a damned, good way to live life, free from so much heartache. It would have been so much easier for me to let go of the dreams, had I built them with sand castle detachment. I wouldn’t have been so devastated when the metaphorical hurricane arrived to rip shutters from their hinges; to lift the roof, exposing the second story to lashing rain; to twist the house from its foundation. And, the beautiful mirror in the foyer? Well, it slid off the wall and hit the floor with a resounding crash. At that time there was no way to even cross the floor to retrieve the broom without getting cut to pieces, my feet bleeding, imbedded glass, blood everywhere. I lay on the floor sobbing, my hands scrabbling for bits that would have been the blue-eyed baby, the picket fence.
So, the question I’m back to is this: do I dare to build sand castles? How can I invest time and energy into something knowing it will be transient, that there will be so little to show for my effort? And trust me, as soon as I wrote that sentence I was struck by the irony in that statement, for it depicts my life so far. For in spite of all the energy I dedicated towards having a child of my own, there will be no one who will have my eyes, my nose, or my laugh. There will be no graduations, marriages, grandchildren to celebrate or help mark time or provide an identity. I will never be “mom” or “grandma”.
But sand castles? I’m resisting the metaphor. As I cast around for another way to approach the time and energy and focus I will need to actively create a new life for myself, I realized I engage in this sand castle building on a regular basis….it’s called BAKING.
Innumerable hours on Saturdays were spent baking bread, particularly cinnamon rolls, and there are few recipes with such a fleeting presence as cinnamon rolls (unless we’re making a dessert out of the Bon Appétit magazine which is a sand-castle-building-act of epic proportions). The input to output ratio is so huge.
So why spend the time on such an endeavor? Because I loved the process of creating a simple and beautiful treat for my household and friends. Cinnamon rolls are a symphony. To avoid cacophony in the orchestra pit, one had better arrive for the concert calm and centered. To slam bowls around, carelessly overheat the water needed for rising yeast, or rush past the careful kneading of the dough, will result in an inedible mess; much better to accept and devote a four hour block of time to the enterprise.
I love the earthy scent of yeast dissolving and then bubbling in a bowl, its bed of water the perfect temperature. I’m fascinated with the early stages of mixing, watching the ingredients take shape, transforming from a spongy mass to something yet to be defined.
I breathe deep into the gentle scent of flour, as I add it, cup by cup, and eventually handful by handful until the dough responds to my touch. I simply adore the kneading process, folding and turning the dough, pressing it against the palm of my hand and the countertop until it springs into place. Of course, there is the long wait as the dough rises, perched on the warm radiator. But it provides time to clean up the kitchen, read a book, go for a jog, compose an email; a myriad of small tasks can fit inside that waiting space.
Rolling out the dough, spreading butter and brown sugar and cinnamon, rolling it up into a tight cylinder, slicing it into circles, all these are the individual notes of the grand symphonic masterpiece: the finale crescendo as the scent of butter and cinnamon wafts through the air as the rolls bake.
I’ve never had a pan of cinnamon rolls actually reach room temperature without one of two go missing, or before all of them are consumed. And all the steps I just described, they achieve what amounts to ten, maybe twenty minutes of divine goodness. Why don’t I begrudge all that effort? Except deep down I realize these ephemeral twenty minutes also encompass what went before – my enjoyment rests in the entire four-hour creation process. The complete experience enriches my life.
I want to get to this Zen-like place where I happily relish my creation, sharing it with others, even while knowing our time together on a Saturday afternoon is fleeting, knowing the relationship is fleeting (friends don’t always stay friends, husbands don’t always stay husbands) and the product of the creative effort is fleeting (cinnamon rolls get eaten). What remains, at best, is a sweet memory, and perhaps this is the most for which one should hope.
My hope is that entering the creation process – starting a business, forging new friendships, loving consciously – with the same calm, centered state I start a batch of cinnamon rolls, ready to enjoy every involved step, ready to enjoy every moment, will be the easiest way of all.
I’ve obviously made things too hard for myself. The pain has come from grasping at shards of glass; of trying to pick up the debris; of organizing the bricks, slats of wood, a bent hinge; of clinging to what could have been and what should have been. Perhaps I can learn to sit peacefully on a sunny, warm beach, contently shaping the turret, lining the balcony with the perfect little shells; and when the sea comes to claim my pile of sand, I will at least know I had fun, I will revel in the sweet memory.