What is sand

January 5, 2011


“It’s a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.” – Madeleine L’Engle, The Summer of My Great Grandmother

I recently started the fourth and final book in L’Engle’s non-fiction series The Crosswicks Journal, and I am sad. It is always more difficult for me to finish a series than a single book; I feel like I am getting ready to say a premature goodbye, seeing off an old friend I was expecting to stay longer.

I think this sadness is okay, as long as I do not try to turn L’Engle’s gift—this small, beautiful bit of sand—to rock.

Of course, I couldn’t if I wanted to, but even trying is dangerous. In trying, I forget to be grateful. When I pinch the sand between my fingers and try to mold it into something it is not, try to build my house upon it, it loses much of its beauty. And if I instead simply pretend my sand is rock, then when the rains come down, when the streams rise, and when the winds blow, my house will fall with a great crash (Matthew 7:27).

I remember singing “The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock” in Sunday school, but I never thought about what “the sand” was. The foolish man built his house upon it, so it must be bad, right? But the sand Madeleine L’Engle is talking about is her husband’s good health: she wrote this when his doctors suspected a tumor in his brain. Surely good health is not evil, but rather a gift. And a lot of the sand in my own life—authors who have said what I am afraid to say, friends who remind me of truths I so easily forget—is good.

But then why is the foolish man so foolish?

It is not the sand itself that is bad, but our “building our houses” on it—our refusal to acknowledge the sand as temporary, and able to be washed away—that is dangerous. I have spent much of the past few years trying to figure out what, if anything, is unshakeable and eternal rock, and what is sand. I am learning the two are to be treated differently; one demands my complete trust and the other I must not trust too much. But I am also learning that both can be beautiful.

The first time I really found myself tempted to turn sand to rock was a year and a half ago, when I was preparing to say goodbye to some dear friends. We had spent 6 months together at a school in rural England, and had grown very close. We knew we would most likely never be all together again; three of us lived in Canada, one in America, one in Germany, and one in Holland. There was a constant sadness in each of us during our last few days together, and any talk of “staying in touch” was painful. Once, in a moment of frustrated honesty, my German friend Tim said it might be best if we just never spoke again. A lot of me agreed with him—it scared me to think that in a few months these deep, inspiring friendships would be reduced to e-mails and rescheduled Skype dates.

Looking back, I think Tim got some things right. Our time together was a gift, and we were to be thankful. To try to hold on to this gift, to drag it across continents and stretch it across years, would have been silly. We actually have stayed in touch (I have even gotten to visit with the two Canadians since), but our friendships will never be what they once were. There is a sense of loss, and none of us ignore it.

Sometimes I daydream about going back to England, away from all my responsibilities and back to that familiar intimacy. Sometimes, reading a book in my living room, surrounded by my family, I am so overwhelmed with happiness that I wish time would be still. This is when I must remind myself to be thankful for the temporary gifts I have been given, and to never try and turn sand into rock.

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