For a second, imagine you are on a Pacific Ocean beach. The air is warm, the water cold. You sit in your beach chair, beneath your colored canopy. You are maybe eating a hotdog that is burned on the outside and cold in the center. It is covered in ketchup or relish or sauerkraut and there are bits of sand in your teeth from where it has been dropped. Your hands are messy from the last bite that explodes onto your taste buds like all of the 4th of Julys that have ever been and ever will be.
Your toes are warm in the sand, your stringy hair drips wet on your shoulders, and there is that sticky feeling of the Pacific Ocean on every patch of your skin. The seagulls sit fat on a driftwood sculpture, waiting for the weakest of your children to forget their hotdog as they attempt to bury each other alive. They are patient and know that your children are easy targets.
It is in this space that you see me. I am bald. I am burning. I am walking slowly, my hands cradled around a small pouch of shells and sticks that I tell myself will become a wind chime when I get home. You instantly know what is wrong with me, and try not to stare. You wipe your mouth and drink your beer and look at another, prettier part of the scenery.
Your children don’t know the rules, however.
As I pass, trying intently not to be seen and knowing that I am being seen by everyone, your children hush and watch me bend down and pick up the tiniest clam shell. One of them says, “Why is that lady’s hair gone?” and their sibling hisses at them to shut up.
I attempted to ignore all this as I walked carefully, slowly down the beach. I think, to an outsider, it looked as if I were counting steps or desperately trying to walk a straight line while drunk. I was actually weaving along the line of the water, trying to walk where the sea foam had been left behind after the waves pull back out to the ocean. I gathered the smallest, whitest shells and made my way to the tide pools with the tiny fish, baby crabs, and sea anemones that suck your feet with purple tentacles.
I spotted a white disc in the sand and got excited. After just a handful of tiny shells, I had found the Holy Grail of beachcrafting: there was a sea dollar. It was laid out as if it were waiting for me. I picked it up, imagining what a beautiful addition it would be to my project. How much hot glue and driftwood it would take to make this a masterpiece.
But as I turned it over, I saw that it had been written on in red Sharpie: In Memory of Jennie Anne Smith. 1-16-1961 to 10-20-20.
What to do? I thought about throwing it back into the water, which is what I supposed the original location of the shell had been just 9 months ago. I could take it home and put it in my mobile, pretend that it wasn’t sacrilege. But I’m cheap, not tacky. Instead, I laid it back down on the sand and thought about what kind of life Jennie Anne Smith must have had to choose the ocean as her final resting place.
Whoever she was, Jennie Anne Smith picked this sand dollar as her memorial. Perhaps there was something more solid—a granite monument somewhere far away—but someone had created this last artifact to celebrate her. Someone had written her name in red and thrown it into the sea for travelers like myself to find and reflect on. What kind of woman had embraced death with this moving gravestone, a testament that floats with the waves and returns again and again to the shore?
For some reason, my mind caught on this. On the fact that every person who picks up that sand dollar makes Jennie Anne Smith alive again for an instant before throwing it back into the water.
But I didn’t throw it back. I put it gently on the shore so that someone else would pick it up.
How many have done the same before me? How many have loved Jennie just that little bit, enough to place her marker where travelers could meet her and think about her before placing that sand dollar carefully back on the sand?
I recently heard a man discuss his near death experience. He was an atheist who died and suddenly found himself face to face with Jesus. When he realized who it was, the man told Him that he wanted to build a cathedral to worship Him so that “everyone would know how great” He was.
In his story, the man said that Jesus responded unenthusiastically. “If you want to do that, sure,” was the basic response. “But I’d prefer you didn’t.”
“Why?” the man asked, petulantly. “Other people get to build cathedrals. I want to make something that tells everyone how great you are.”
“I’d rather you just love the people around you,” Jesus responded. “If you love the people around you and others love the people around them, that would be the best. That’s the ultimate plan.”
“That’s the plan?” the man retorted. “That’s never gonna work.”
I thought a little about that. Just loving the people we’re around. The people in our family. The people we work with. The people on the bus. The person whose only memorial is a sand dollar lying on a public beach. Our job is to simply love them the best we can. As big as as donating a thousand dollars to a woman with cancer. As small as just putting a seashell back where someone else can find it.
Love is the plan. Love, big or small, is the only plan.
Because maybe God loves all of us all the time. Maybe His love is infinite and amazing for every single person. But maybe His love is really our love. Maybe the only way some people ever know God is through someone else’s small, seemingly insignificant love. A smile or a lasagna. Putting jumper cables on a car, forgiving the boss that’s a certified asshole. Every bit of kindness and goodwill you give—no matter its iteration—creates a tapestry of love that reflects some higher, holier light.
So, we love. And someday, when we walk along an infinite beach where time is measured like grains of sand, perhaps we will see our love given laid out like sand dollars before us. Perhaps we will throw them back out into the universe to be split and spread to every corner of existence.
As for me, I want to leave my love here, safe on the sand. I hope someone will pick it up where I left it.