There is an old riddle that has stuck with me for years: “What becomes bigger whenever you take away more of it?” The answer is: a hole. Holes have a bad reputation: the finest linens when moth-eaten are rendered worthless by holes, the quickest way to deflate a child’s mood is to poke a hole in his balloon, surgeons earn their keep by sewing holes shut. Just today, Time Magazine reported on the exciting discovery of a mid-sized black hole in the Milky Way, but it was reported not with the wonder we have for total solar eclipses, but a sense of foreboding. Even the positive feelings we have towards things with “hole” in their name are not about the hole itself: a hole-in-one has more to do with the ball and club, and donut holes are exactly the opposite: they are the tasty morsel we want instead of the tasty morsel’s absence.
My older son--who, incidentally, was born with a hole in his heart, but figuratively has more heart than almost anyone I know--asked me to help him dig a hole on the beach. I was sitting under an umbrella reading an excellent book on parenting called, “How to Raise an Adult,” and I told him, “Not now.” Traumatized at an early age by “Cats in the Cradle,” I had sworn to myself that I would never turn down the opportunity to play with my children when they asked, but I was also trying out this throwback benign neglect approach to parenting a 10 year old who probably could use a little independence from dear old Dad. I promised him I would the next day if he wanted to.
I have a bunch of bittersweet memories of summers going to Tobay Beach and Jones Beach as a child. I really didn't love the beach or the sun. I was a redhead and I was always destined to peel (though my sister was also a redhead who would turn bronze, which I thought was patently unfair). I would never be one of those armed with Johnson’s Baby Oil. And I didn't like the blaze of the sand, or how my legs would stick to the vinyl car seats and and my skin would nearly be branded by the metal seat belt buckle. I hated chafing from the salt and the silt. I hated all that was tangible about the beach.
But there was one thing I loved to do, and it wasn't building sand castles. It wasn't moving mountains. It was digging holes. Without our parents, who were busy being parents and not the best friends of children. We all loved to dig, and we all talked about how we would dig to China, which, of course, was located directly under Long Island. Dig deep enough, you’d dig to water and sometimes sand crabs. Eventually, if you had enough time, you’d get to magma, maybe the core. You just needed time and commitment. Which was robbed from you when your mom said it was time to go home. The funny thing about digging holes is that there was no artistry. No picture-taking, no contests. You weren't building anything; you weren't being productive or contributory. There wasn't any real purpose to it.
The next day, my son asked me again to dig a hole with him. I relented. He set up shop right at the water’s edge. Every pile we excavated became patted down to defend against the onslaught of the charging waves. He handed me a shovel meant to be used by a small child and instructed me to keep digging while he ran back a half mile away to recover a matching shovel.
I toiled away, going deeper until I experienced that little boy joy of reaching water a foot or so down. But the tide in front of me was rising, and even though the surrounding dam was protecting the hole, the water reached around and soaked the sand around me. Suddenly the water became too much and flooded our deep hole. I furiously hurled soaked sand towards the ocean, but the hole around me became shallower and shallower. When he would return, I would have nothing to show for it.
Still, the hole, by collapsing on itself, grew wider and wider around me. I was now sitting entirely on the edge of a very shallow crater. He returned to me with a shovel of his own and yelled, “Dad!” He had a huge grin across his face. “This is the most amazing hole! Too bad there aren't hole-building competitions, ‘cause you would definitely win!” He sat down in the water in front of me and started to dig a moat in front of our dammed crater. And we dug until it was time to go.