The seashells that make it into the collection, the ones that are worthy of gluing onto jewelry boxes and displaying in glass lamps are the whole ones. They are the bleachy white sand dollars, the shiny conch shells, the hardy raveneli. We search for the ones who have come through the storms at sea and remain in tact. But the lie we believe about seashells is the same lie we believe about ourselves. Because both people and shells who’ve not suffered a few dings, dents, cracks in their exterior are usually not very interesting. The ones who appear stage-ready with very little effort have secrets to tell. Rarely are they innately more impressive or distinctly beautiful. It’s just they’ve been protected or had a distinct advantage on their journey here. The cracked ones, the ones who are missing a piece, the ones who are nicked with a few holes–these are the ones with epic tales. These are the ones we stand back and wonder, how? How are they still able to drift over waves and dunes and land here, still shining as sunbeams glint off their jagged edges?
We spent the week on Tybee Island with my old man and stepmom and their two pugs. We introduced the old man to American Ninja Warrior. I think he’s hooked. Or, in his words, “At least I know not to turn it off immediately when it’s on.” It’s really something to watch the old man with the dings in his back and all the white hair we gave him relish these moments with a five and seven year-old, lifting them up over cresting waves and accepting their sandcake offerings as if all of this beach tomfoolery were brand new. As if he’d never known the wonder of the seaside with children before.
We took a trolley ride through Savannah one afternoon. Savannah with her mossy splendor ravishes me in ways that are more like a lusty romance than a fondness for a city. I think her combination of history and mystery make her unlike any other place I’ve been. The tour guide covered all the major players from Eli Whitney to Forrest Gump (ha!). She didn’t spare us any unflattering anecdote about John Wesley or about slavery itself. History has a way of exposing the jagged edges of our shells that are undeniable. But as the tour wrapped up, we passed a housing development. The tour guide tried to direct our attention to the magnificent railyards across the street, but there was a nagging sense for anyone onboard that we were being diverted. The mansions and the fountains and the art districts well-preserved are all ruddy shells. Heaven forbid we talk about housing projects, though. We can’t be looking at the difficult to explain, the less-than-ideal. Just like a clam shell that we cast back into the ocean, we look away from shells now occupied. We prefer to study the vacated, the accomplished shells, the cockles and raveneli who’ve weathered the storms and who came out unscathed.
The lie we believe about seashells–that the most beautiful ones are the ones who are unoccupied and unmarred–is the same lie we believe about ourselves. Ask any woman who has given birth if she felt at her most beautiful right after having a baby. She has just, with every fiber of her being, brought new life into the world. The magazine headlines will convince us that she can get her pre-baby body back in six weeks time, right on cue for bikini season. I say she will look awesome, sitting seaside under an umbrella with her baby, a mindless book, and a few cracked shells catching the sunlight.