The first thing I say to Emil when we get to the beach for his birthday is: “Are you gonna dig a hole?” Although his expression doesn’t change behind his sunglasses, I can tell he’s cheerful when he says: “Yup.” He has always done this. I first met Emil in the fifth grade, and he would sometimes spend lunch hour in the schoolyard sandbox containing the swings, excavating interlocking tunnels and archways of remarkable grandeur. One time he invited a gaggle of fascinated first graders to join in and continue the maze with their own additions. I was in the class film club and got sent out with a camcorder to record the extent of the resulting landscape.
That’s why, in the present day, I don’t bat an eyelash when Emil immediately begins digging a hole at the beach with his bare hands. Under the shade of a blue umbrella, I read a thick paperback I brought along. When I look up some chapters later, Emil’s disappeared. All I see are random puffs of sand flying out of a deep pit. A small kid from the next beach towel over wanders to the edge and, without preamble, calls out to Emil.
“How did you dig this hole?”
Emil stops digging and looks up.“With my hands.”
“Did you get your hands dirty?”
“Oh, of course.”
“Did you wash them in the ocean?”
The kid nods, clearly approving of this sensible answer. “This is the biggest hole,” they conclude. Then their parents, alarmed (understandably) to find their kid standing at the edge of a precipice, call them back to safety.
The kid’s curiosity stirs my own. “Why are you digging this hole, anyway?” I ask Emil. He considers it, then says, “To impress?” I guess it is impressive. He looks like he’s having fun. Thinking it over, I suppose there’s only one way to fully understand. “Can I try?”
Emil dusts off his hands and climbs out. I jump in. Even under the full sun of 1 or 2pm, it’s relatively dark inside the pit. I take off my sunglasses. Plunging my hands into the walls, I find it surprisingly cool to the touch. I scoop handfuls of sand up and out, in an attempt to widen the space. With every movement, layers of the wall lose integrity and cascade back down around my ankles. “There’s probably a better way to do this,” I mutter to myself. (There is. Emil showed me later—you scoop the walls from the top going downwards first, then throw that sand out in big handfuls). But as inefficient as I suspect my digging is, it’s still satisfying to see the walls getting steeper, smoother. There’s no rush or reason to stop, so I keep going, falling into a rhythm with the sand: stoop, scoop, cascade, stoop, scoop, cascade.
At some point, I suddenly find myself thinking that this is how it should feel to make art. You always suspect you could do better, but you continue, just because it feels good to move. To keep moving. The body likes to move. My mind likes to draw. It’s not so different. To feel sun and sea breeze and grains of crumbly sand—to play with ink and paint on page after page. It occurs to me that I’m supposed to be on vacation, and not having work thoughts—but I think this is something different. These are not casual work thoughts; these are serious play thoughts.
Time passes imperceptibly. Maybe I get tired, or our friends arrive, or maybe the wind picks up. Whatever it is, we pack up our umbrella and towels and move inland to the fire pit. Someone pitches a tent where we had just been, and we can’t see the hole anymore. We are beginning to think the newcomers must’ve filled it in, when smoke billows up from the spot, followed by a red glow. The campers have managed to light their own merry little fire in the hole. We laugh; it would have never occurred to us to do that. (Maybe just as well: I think the park rangers came over and told them to put it out.) As it gets darker, the tide continues to rise, higher than I thought it would go. It’s certain to undo all of Emil’s work. I ask him if that makes him sad. Unbothered, he says: “That’s the life of a hole.”
You make it, it goes. Why make it, then? For fun. To impress. Because it feels good. To practice and learn for the next one. To surprise someone, or yourself. Because someone might be inspired to dig their own. Because someone might build a fire inside it. And this is how I want to go back to work. From far away, an onlooker would see only plumes and puffs of sand flying out of the ground. That industrious but relaxed, efficient yet contented action—that’s how the creative act ought to look and feel. The pleasure of creating is separate from and precedes the pleasure of being perceived. It can supersede even function and permanence. I must dig as if I intend to reach the ocean, knowing all the while, of course, that the sea will fill it, will destroy it, will undo it in an instant. But that’s as it should be. The completion of a project, the moment when the water rushes in and takes it out of my hands, the moment when what has been made is no longer in my care—that, too, is the life of the work.
I will share with you this quote by Heather Christie, from The Crying Book, which naturally played over and over in my head that day on the beach:
“Writing a poem is not so very different from digging a hole. It is work. You try to learn what you can from other holes and the people who dug before you. The difficulty comes from people who do not dig or spend time in holes thinking that the holes ought not be so wet, or dark, or full of worms. ‘Why is your hole not lined with light?’ Sir, it is a hole.”
Text and photos by: A.C. Esguerra
Where to find A.C. : instagram @blueludebar
Read other stories by A.C. : Here