From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Crumbling Sand Castles

Love doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.

Ursula K. Le Guin

One mild summer day beside the sea, my husband and I were lying on our beach towels, reading, each locked in our own separate worlds. It had been like that a lot lately. We’d been busy, preoccupied, going in different directions. I’d hoped the leisure of vacation would be different, but so far we’d spent most of it marooned in silence.

I looked up from my book at the ceaseless roll of the waves, feeling restless. I ran my fingers through the sand. “Want to make a sand castle?” I asked my husband.

He didn’t really, but he humored me. Once we got started, though, he became surprisingly absorbed in the project. We both did. In fact, after a while we were working over that heap of beach sand as if it was about to be photographed for Sand Castle Digest. Sandy made bridges across the moat, while I crowned the top of the castle with spires. We made balconies and arched windows lined with tiny angel-wing shells. It looked like Camelot.

Neither of us noticed when the tide changed. We never saw the waves slipping up until the first swish of water gnawed a little piece of our castle away. Indignant, we shored it up with sand and patted it down. But as the waves returned with monotonous regularity, our hands grew still and our eyes drifted off toward the horizon. Sandy got on his beach towel. I got on mine. We went back to our silence.

The next time I looked around, the sand castle we’d labored over was awash in the shifting tide. The bridges were washing away and the spires were starting to lean.

I gave it a soulful look, an inexplicable sadness coming over me. And suddenly in the midst of that ordinary summer, I had a moment of pure, unbidden revelation. There sits my marriage, I thought.

I looked at my husband. The soundlessness between us seemed to reach clear to the sky. It was the hollow silence of a mid-life marriage, a marriage in which the ceaseless noise of everyday living threatens to drown out the music of intimacy.

Dear God, when had the tide shifted? When had mortgages and laundry and orthodontist appointments become more important than those unspeakably long looks we used to exchange! How long since we’d shared our hidden pain or stumbled together upon a joy that was round with wonder and laughter? How had it happened that two people who loved each other could allow such distance to creep in!

I thought of the attentiveness we’d lavished upon our relationship in the beginning, and how, eventually, the endless demands and routines of running a household, raising two children, and juggling two careers had stilled our hands and averted our eyes.

That night, after the children were asleep, my husband found me standing in the shadows on the porch, staring at the night. “You’ve hardly said two words all evening.”

“Sorry,” I muttered. “I’ve just got something on my mind.”

“You want to tell me what it is?” he asked.

I turned around and looked at him. I took a deep breath. “I’m thinking of us,” I said. “I’m thinking that our relationship is being drowned out by the demands of day-to-day living. We’ve taken our marriage for granted.”

“What are you talking about? We have a very committed marriage.” He was indignant.

“Of course we have a committed marriage,” I told him. “But sometimes it seems commitment is all we’ve got. Sometimes we are two strangers existing under one roof, each going separate ways.”

He didn’t say a word. Now I’ve done it, I thought. I’ve rocked the boat to the point of tipping over. I’ve told my husband our marriage is bordering on empty commitment. Good grief! We stared at each other. It was as if we were stuck inside some big, dark bubble of pain that wouldn’t pop. Tears welled up in my eyes and started down my face. To my amazement, tears slid down his face, too.

And suddenly, in what is surely the most endearing moment of my marriage, Sandy took his finger and traced the path of tears on my cheeks, then touched his own wet face, blending our tears together.

Strange how such things can begin to re-create the mystery of relatedness between two people. Sandy and I walked down the porch steps onto the beach under the blazing stars. Slowly we started to talk. We talked a long time. About the small agonies of being married, about the struggle of it all. We talked about the gnawed and fraying places in our marriage and how they’d happened. We spoke aching words about the unmet needs between us.

We were whirling in the darkness that had settled in our relationship. And yes, it was uncomfortable and scary, like bobbing around in the ocean without a boat. But trading chaos and braving pain is often the only way to come upon a new shoreline. For God is in dark water, too.

Finally, with the hour late and a sense of deepening and newness growing between us, I said rather dreamily, “It might be nice someday to say our wedding vows to each other again.”

“What’s wrong with right now?” my husband asked. I swallowed. Was there no end to the surprises this man would spring on me tonight!

“B-But what would we say! I mean, I can’t remember the vows exactly.”

“Why don’t we simply say what’s in our hearts?”

So out there beneath the light of the stars, with the crash of waves filling the night, we took each other’s hand and tried to put words to the music we had begun to recapture between us.

“I promise to listen to you,” he said. “To make time for genuine sharing . . . ”

“And I promise to be honest, to work at creating more togetherness between us,” I began.

I don’t remember all the words; mostly I remember the feelings behind them, the way my voice quivered and his hand tightened over mine. Mostly I thought that what we were doing was rebuilding the castle, restoring the bridges, raising the spires.

The next morning we left the children stationed in front of the television with their breakfast cereal and went walking along the ocean edge. The sun poured a golden dial of light across the water that seemed to point us on and on. We talked as we went, a little awed by the events of the night before—knowing in the harsh light of day that saying words is one thing, but living them is another. We couldn’t leave our newly spoken vows back there dripping in the moonlight. We had to take them home to the frantic schedules and the broken dryer and the Dorito crumbs under my son’s bed.

Miles down the beach we waded knee-high into the surf and stood soaking up the turquoise sky and jade water. We were about to turn back to the condo when it happened. A huge, bottle-nosed dolphin came splashing out of the water a mere twenty yards away, startling us so badly we fell backward into the surf.

Sitting in the water fully clothed . . . a dolphin diving and surfacing before us in a spinning silver dance, was such an unexpected and exhilarating wonder, the two of us laughed until our insides hurt. I cannot remember a joy ever so plump and full.

At last we picked our delirious selves up and walked in our soggy shorts back up the beach, where a few crumbling sand castles dotted the shore. I took note of each one of them.

And I began to hear a voice deep inside me whispering: “When tomorrow comes and life beats upon your castle walls, remember the power of honest pain and blended tears. Remember the healing of laughter deeply shared. Remember what’s important. Hold onto it always.”

Sue Monk Kidd

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