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Carol of the Shells

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” –E. M. Forster

I collect seashells. More accurately stated, I am constitutionally incapable of walking near any ocean body without searching for seashells. So when Steve and I spent a week at Holden Beach, North Carolina back in July, I was combing the shoreline, back bent, eyes peeled, within hours of our arrival.

We did go night-shelling--Steve's a patient man!

We did go night-shelling once–Steve’s a patient man!

I didn’t find a lot that first day: a few baby’s ears and some slipper shells, which appeal to the little girl in me who can’t help but think of doll shoes. Steve–-who isn’t a sheller but does love a good beachwalk, and so indulges me–-found a beautiful olive. I swooped down excitedly more than once, thinking I’d found a moon snail, only to be disappointed when I’d pick the prospect up. A lovely whorled front would have the back cracked off, or, if the back was whole, the front had large holes in its fragile top curve. Barnacles marred one, having made their home on its swirl.

When I first started shelling, I would often pick up blemished shells. I would settle for the conch with a hole in the back, or a slipper shell with a chipped, jagged edge. The pickings were often slim, and I didn’t have the patience, or maybe the fortitude, to leave the broken shells on the beach. Sometimes the brilliant coloring or the graceful whorl exposed in a fractured shell looked too beautiful, even in its brokenness, to leave behind. Besides, if you turned them just the right way, looked at them from just the right angle, you couldn’t see their flaws. Still, they never seemed quite so impressive once at home as they had at the beach. When I grew tired of the fragments cluttering my collection, I decided I needed to raise my standards. I vowed then to collect only perfect specimens: bright color, shiny finish, completely whole with no marks or blemishes. But therewith came the problem of the perfect: such shells were elusive. There were few, if any, to find.

As I walked Holden’s shoreline, searching for a moon snail, it occurred to me my relationship history had followed a similar arc. For a long time I’d been so afraid I’d never find a good “shell” (i.e. man) that I would pick up specimens I knew were damaged, just in case I never found anything better. I could ignore the fact they were broken, overlook holes or sharp edges, if I refused to look too closely—though that rendered intimacy impossible.

Yet I also quickly realized it was just as limiting to seek only perfection, by definition the unattainable. A shell is a vestige of a living being. It is product of and home to a life; it has tumbled in the surf, cracked against other shells, been baked by a hot sun on some days, warmed by gentle rays on others. The truly broken are better left on the beach, but the flawless are found only in shell shops, polished and perfected, sometimes even under glass, the evidence of their complex lives buffed out and shellacked over.

My frustration that first day on Holden lead to determination: it became my quest, for the week, to find a whole moon snail. Over the next few days, I collected more baby’s ears, in shades ranging from dove gray to ivory to translucent white, and more slipper shells, some with striking coloring. I was thrilled to pick up a couple of limpets. One walk provided a plethora of shiny olives, and a fingernail clam—a coup, since they’re so thin and fragile. All the while I kept searching for a moon snail, but every time I spotted the telltale swirl of the gastropod, the shell turned out to be broken or otherwise damaged. Despite the plentiful riches the ocean was offering, I felt disappointed.

My Holden finds

My Holden finds

On our second to last day, I lingered on the beach into the afternoon after Steve had gone back to the house to check email. I read for a while, but the ocean called. When we’d walked up the beach the previous evening, thick piles of shells had swirled and clinked around our feet as the tide came in. Steve stared patiently out at the horizon while I stopped once or twice, but then I’d taken his hand and decided to ignore the shells so I could give him my full attention. On this afternoon, however, Steve was otherwise occupied, and the tide had gone back out, leaving those thick piles dry and accessible. Other shellers had probably sifted through them, but they were worth a look.

I found mostly more of the same, plus a few augers and some tiny baby olives. And then high up on the beach, where the shells are usually most picked over, after I’d turned over piece after piece of beautifully colored but broken clams and snails and tulips, I reached down almost offhandedly to grab the crown of a whelk, fully expecting to pick up yet another piece. I tugged, and out of the sand emerged a whole lightning whelk nearly as long as my hand. Its color was bright, and it was a beautiful specimen, even though the knobs on its crown were a little worn. I shrieked with glee when I realized what I’d found. When I showed it to Steve, he called it my crown jewel.

Oh, indeed.

If you’re following the metaphor, you’re already way ahead of me. For many years, I’d expected happiness was to be found walking only one particular path, and just as my desire to find a moon snail almost blinded me to seeing the whelk, my tunnel vision made it impossible to see, much less appreciate, less obvious but infinitely better possibilities. When I finally opened myself up to the possibility that (a) I could have a wonderful life, whether I had a partner or not, and (b) if I did want a partner, I had to abandon both the broken and the “perfect” and recognize that the imperfect shell, whole but marked by the world it has engaged and survived, was the real find—well.

Maybe you can only see the real find after you understand what it is you’re truly looking for. And often the best gift is the one you didn’t even know you wanted until it is yours.

Opening up your imagination, your vision is a funny thing. I thanked the universe for the lightning whelk. And the next afternoon, on my final shelling walk, I bent over the last big pile of shells I would encounter before I returned to our umbrella and chairs. And there I found not one, not two, but three whole, if ever-so-slightly imperfect moon snails.

Shell love you

2 thoughts on “Carol of the Shells

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