Welcome to Pismo Beach, California. It’s famous for clams, which were harvested there by the millions, until the closure of commercial fishery in 1947, just a few years after the end of World War II.
It’s also famous for a bucket-full of movie references, including the fictional “Pismo Beach disaster relief fund” from the 1995 movie Clueless. I had seen the movie when it first came out, but didn’t remember the reference until a colleague at work mentioned it. Apparently director Amy Heckerling said she needed her character Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone) to do a good deed without it being too dramatic for the film’s comedy vibe.
“I remembered hearing a W.C. Fields movie where he said something about Pismo, the way he speaks — ‘Pismo!’ It just struck me as a great sounding place,” Heckerling said. “There was humor to it. You didn’t think anything horrible could be happening in Pismo Beach.”
Now it’s October 2022 and I’m walking along the Pismo Beach pier. It’s the second time in 3 days. Feeling like time is moving faster than I can keep up with, like I’m very far from a 1995 comedy vibe, I play a game me and my sisters used to play in 1970s-era station wagon car-rides.
I spy, with my little eye:
- Three kids of various ages playing in the sand. They play with the familiar ease of kids who love each other but have zero need to broadcast it publicly.
A brown-haired girl in a white t-shirt, maybe she’s 10? Dipping her hand in a filled-up plastic water bucket ready to create a masterpiece.
A younger boy, intent on digging in the sand he’s crouched in, on all fours, next to an array of brightly-colored plastic digging toys.
Another brown-haired girl, this one standing, supervising, sand on her legs and covering her feet, planning her next step.
- What appears to be the adults: 3 women of different ages, including one in a blue and gray flannel shirt matching the gray, white and navy woven blanket they’re seated on. Snacks at the ready in a white plastic bag, plastic Pepsi bottles warming under the sun.
- In the distance, the rocky coast of Central California stretches like a reverse C, mountains in the distance; in the foreground, one spike of a large orange umbrella buried in the sand, spreading its octagonal wings, a splash of color against a backdrop of beige, tan and cream-colored sand befriending blue and white ocean caps.
WHAT DO YOU SEE?
As I look closer I spy a circle, about 12 feet in diameter, outlined in the sand, dotted by brown seaweed.
When I look at that circle, what I don’t see is what I saw when I was there a few days ago: A Magically Mysterious Castle of Sand.
Something so beautiful that everyone was drawn to.
Like they’d pay their respects and then walk away.
But all that was there, just a few days later, was that empty circle.
I felt sad for the lost sand castle, waves of enormous grief moving through me. When I first saw it, I had wondered:
Who built this?
What is the sand castle’s story?
Who poured their hearts into it?
And so a few days later as I saw the empty circle where the castle had once been, I started thinking, "Who destroyed this? Why would someone do something so terrible?" And then I thought of the Buddhist teaching I’ve heard from Thich Nhat Hanh about the Empty Boat.
A man was rowing his boat upstream when, suddenly, he saw another boat coming toward him. He shouted, “Be careful! Be careful!” but the boat plowed right into him, nearly sinking his boat. The man became angry and began to shout, but when he looked closely, he saw that there was no one in the other boat. The boat had drifted downstream by itself. He laughed out loud. When our perceptions are correct, we feel better, but when our perceptions are not correct, they can cause us a lot of unpleasant feelings.
I looked again at the empty circle. I started to realize that quite possibly it wasn’t a person who had destroyed. It may have just been the ocean waves. Maybe it was just the cycle of nature.
And when I looked again I saw those same kids making a new drawing.
It said: “I LOVE YOU MOM”
And the girl in the blue bathing suit did a cartwheel as the little boy in the turquoise shirt and ocean-damp suit ran through the “V” in the word Love; and there were teenage boys in black wetsuits wakeboarding on the surf in the background.
The Sand Castle was lost.
In its place, an outpouring of love and an unbridled zest for life.
We’re here to create our most magical and beautiful sand castles. To make our messages in the sand. Maybe to surf through the waves, leaving our own special wake in our path.
We’re here to make our lives works of art with our own unique stamp on it.
For me it means a sand-scape that reflects all of who I am:
- The part that didn’t have the energy to go on the beach to take a close-up picture the first time the way I wanted to.
- The part that had the energy to go back a few days later to visit it.
- Because I promised myself that as a reward for walking down to the beach I'd get those crazy Cinnamon rolls my friend had told me about.
- The part that couldn’t stop themselves from going OH MY GOSH!! when a whale slapped its tail, and another one swam by.
- The part that loved being a part of a group of strangers, joined in wonder and awe.
- The part that overheard one man go up to another who was wearing a US Navy hat; as he shared how his brother didn’t speak for 10 years because of the trauma of being in Vietnam.
- The part that went to that vet, shook his hand, and loved learning how grateful he was to be in Pismo Beach, visiting from Florida, with his daughter and her daughter.
The part that knows that my Dad loved walking on the beach collecting seashells and that the way I honor him is by building my own version of a sand castle.
Ironic, perhaps, for a Sandler: I hate the feeling of sand between my toes. So I wear my beloved and over-used blue, pink and orange Hoka sneakers whenever I walk on the beach.
What's important is building your sand castle in a way that works for you. Even if your sneakers get wet.
The name “Pismo” is taken from the Chumash word for tar, “pismu.” Native Chumash used the natural tar wells to waterproof their canoes.
May we all create our own spectacular sand-scapes, so that when the ocean comes to wash it away, we can head out on our tar-covered canoes and feel like we did our best.