Dear Johanna: Of Sandboxes and Such

sandbox896x504.jpgDear Johanna,

There is a question that you have been asking since the day of Aunt Abbie’s wedding. It is a question I have been skirting and one that I don’t really think I will answer just yet, but you have been asking for a while, so it is probably time I start making a response.

You asked most recently on our car ride to Colorado: Auntie Amanda, when are you going to get married? And my answer was this: I don’t know, Jo. When do you think I should get married?

I love that you ask, though sometimes it is hard for me to hear it. I know that you think I should get married. Sometimes I think that too. Other times I try not to think that, because sometimes when you want something very badly it can keep you from enjoying what you already have. And marriage is not something that I have, at least not right now.

A lot of things happen between being single and getting married (for some of us more than others). One of those things is falling in love.

Love, Jo, is like a sandbox.

I was reminded of this the other month while unpacking books from a box in my closet. I came across a volume I hadn’t seen in years, with a pale peachy spine and simple scripted letters. The title of the book is Playing in the Sandbox.

The first time I fell in love (or maybe it was the second, but I think it was the first), it was with a boy who had thick wavy hair, firm hands, pale blue eyes, and thoughts too deep and too serious for a college freshman (which I must admit, I very much liked). We spent a summer writing letters—emails mostly, but also handwritten letters—which amassed to 167 pages and later became that book that I found in my closet.

All summer we danced around the topic of dating and its many definitions (you would not believe how many definitions there are for dating). We talked on the phone and met mid-way between our houses at a rest stop in York where we ate ice cream while watching semis speed down the high way. Dating, we decided, signified a plunge into a pool that we weren’t quite ready to take. (We used a lot of metaphors. It is kind of a thing that I do). At the uncertain start of our relationship we were content to stay outside of that pool, to stay in the safety of what we came to call the metaphoric sandbox as we got to know each other better. We stopped using the metaphor when we started dating in earnest, but we never came back to the conversation of what that meant. We never wrote letters about the safe part being over.

The next time I fell in love (or maybe it was the time after that) it was with a man who was eager, earnest, quirky, and calculated, with curious brown eyes, a bushel of dark hair, and an amazing array of animated expressions. He was all kindness and generosity, affection and forgiveness at the start of our relationship. It was only later, much later, that we talked about a sandbox. For this man, the sandbox was a space for preliminary analysis; a place to test out a relationship that may or may not work, isolated and separate from the rest of his life.

In both cases, the analogy of the sandbox as a place of sectioned off safety failed, as did my attempts to enter a low-risk relationship where I would not get hurt.

This is never really an option—to both love and be safe.


In reality, Jo, love is messy. It is hard to keep confined and compartmentalized into clean tidy places. Sandboxes are messy too. Try as we might, once we really get to playing and exploring and enjoying ourselves, the sand gets all over. We track it in the house and spill it into the yard. It gets in between our toes and under our fingernails, permeating all the small places we never meant for sand to get to. Then it stays there far longer than we ever hoped it would.

You should know this when you start falling in love—that once you begin, you are bound to get dirty. Despite the numerous things I have heard and read about “guarding your heart” and “being careful” in relationships (both of which I understand less now than I did ten years ago), I do not think it is possible to both love and be safe. Real love is not mere playing. Real love is working and building. Real love is a sandbox that spills over into everything.

I hope Jo, that you will play in the sandbox. Not with just anyone and not with everyone, but with friends who will become more than friends and who will help you learn what it means to love something and someone more than yourself.


In the meantime, you are six. There is time for you to learn. I hope that there is time for me too. Because someday I do want to be married. I want to get messy and dirty with someone who will work with me, making sandcastles and digging moats, rebuilding our lives when the waves wash over. I will tell you the story of the life that we’re making and I will listen when you tell me of yours.

Until the day that I do,
All my love,

Auntie Amanda