Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

It’s a fact of life in my family that at some point in the year, I need to see the ocean. Last year we braved bitter winds and frigid temperatures just so I could breathe deeply of that salty air; this year, we were able to visit at a more opportune time, and the sun shone (literally and figuratively) on our visit. We waded in the ocean and watched pods of dolphins swim past. We dug our toes in the sand. We witnessed sunrise, and, on the just-right curve of the island, sunset. And we collected lots of seashells.

I know, in the grand scheme of things, that I’m one of those broken shells.As much as I think I’ve passed along my blue eyes and my love of the ocean to my elder daughter, I couldn’t help but notice how differently we approach the shell-collecting ritual. She picked up every bit she could find and soon discovered that her hands and her pockets were full. So she’d race back to her bucket or drag it along and gently layer in pile upon pile of fragmented shells. Every so often she’d interrupt her process to plod across the sand, pretending to be a camel, or run to the water’s edge and squeal as the cold water lapped her toes.

My approach, meanwhile, was somewhat more methodical. I kept one eye on my children and another on the shells, offering her only unbroken pieces. The irony is that even those pieces were largely broken; the best I could usually offer were whole halves. An oxymoronic collection, indeed. And I made an exception after finding most of an intact whelk shell. I carried it for nearly five miles of my run just to present it to her as a treasure. I sought out variety (too many clams, not enough scallops), unique colors, or shells with a hole in just the right spot to make a necklace. For me, part of the pleasure of the ocean is its soothing regularity.

Yet as I stood on the beach, listening to my younger daughter try to understand the horizon line and watching my elder lope gracefully across the sand, I felt our shared smallness. It was a sublime moment, one imprinted on my mind though I, the family photographer and historian, am only just recording it. Gazing into the ocean is not unlike gazing upon the face of God, at least metaphorically speaking. It shows us majesty. It puts us in our place. It takes our breath away. And those are just a few of the reasons we crave its wildness and its steady presence.

In that moment, I saw my family so clearly. I wanted to model for my daughter a more careful selection of seashells. I wanted to warn her: stay away from the broken bits; choose wisely; the bucket is only so big. And at the same time, I envied her unhindered joy, unmarred by the pursuit of perfection. She laughed and screamed every time a wave hit her because there was no other outlet for her joy, no words to express the wonder of the ocean. I see the world the same way I see the beach, beautiful but broken, and never the twain shall meet.

But I came away from that scene with buckets of seashell shards (not to mention lots of sand), and an awareness that my daughter had chosen the better way. I played the Martha to her Mary. I found all the right shells to make the collection worthy of display and study, and I only sensed what I was missing when I paused to take in the whole scene. I still feel uneasy, unnerved by her process. It’s not orderly! It lacks rigor! And it’s fun.

And maybe that makes me uncomfortable because I know, in the grand scheme of things, that I’m one of those broken shells. Not even a whole half. Not with a gap in just the right spot for jewelry. No interesting shape or pearlescent sheen. I am grimy with sand and jagged, and some days, I’m sure the sand and the salt and the sun have washed away whatever beauty I once could have claimed. It was never much. I can’t impose the order I long for on the world or even a child’s seashell collection. But watching my daughter find such beauty in brokenness buoyed me with hope, that even for a creature as broken as me, there is One eager to collect me.

Image by Chillsoffear via Pixabay.

1 Comment

  1. Extremely well written piece and your description of the ocean as looking upon the face of God was brilliant. My mind has danced around a similar thought on many occasions when visiting the ocean, but could never conceptualize the thought with such precision of language or clarity of thought. Thank you for making my day better!

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