Last night: on a plane, returning from the wedding of a dear but now distant friend. The man next to me — middle-aged, squat, salt and pepper mustache, utterly unremarkable, except to himself, no doubt — opens his laptop and begins to play solitaire. Before the green baize window opens and the virtual cards rank themselves out in rows, I see the picture he has chosen for his wallpaper. It is a picture of a sandcastle taken from a worm’s eye view, if, say, the worm were a knight, about to ride a horse through the fortified outer walls and across the moat, on a bridge paved with tumbled beach stones, to the castle lying beyond crowned with a jaunty gull feather. And beyond the castle a progression of boundaries and vastnesses: shoreline, ocean, horizon, sky.
The whimsical viewpoint strikes me, almost painfully. It was a weekend spent with old friends, many not seen for ten years or more, having the same conversation over and over again, the catching up, the litany of accomplishments: degrees earned, jobs won, husbands or wives taken, property acquired, children begotten, great expectations met, exceeded, disappointed. And all of it so many castles made of sand: substantial earthworks from the perspective of the poor worm, and yet one has merely to stand up from taking the photograph to instantly see the proportional absurdity of the would-be fortifications. Laughably futile, and utterly temporary, perched so proudly in the flood plain of their own destruction.
(The wedding was in New Orleans, not incidentally, which likely explains why I was struck by the picture in the first place, and am running, perhaps a little wild, with the metaphor.)
(Also at the wedding: a man not my husband told me that I was a very beautiful woman, and it shocked me how much I cared to hear it from someone not duty bound to say so. It was like blowing on an old fire, one you had thought burnt low enough by now, but finding with chagrin that the embers of vanity still smolder, and will catch alight again with surprising speed, even as, with the passing of the years, there is less and less to burn.)
I was reminded of the famous Isaac Newton quote, a man whose sand castles were substantially more impressive than most of us ever aspire to build:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
And yet what else should we do with the lives we have, but to go on building our friable houses? We have to live somewhere, after all. The trick perhaps is to remember their (our) proper proportions, and certain fate. And to try and take it lightly.