Monday, June 23, 2014

The Broken Shell


Summertime in Florida would not be complete without trips to the ocean, and this summer we’re getting in our share of beach time.  These days, one of Ben’s favorite things to do at the beach is to collect shells.  Ben is, by nature, a collector, and the shoreline provides an endless (free!) supply of collection material.

From the moment that we arrive in the parking lot, Ben has his bucket ready, and he’s stooping down to pick shells practically from the moment he steps out of the car.  It’s as if he doesn’t want to miss any prospects or leave any behind. 

As we pick our way towards the water’s edge, he stops every few feet to plunk another one into his bucket as I prod him on. 

After scouting out a good spot in the sand, Ben waits impatiently while I set up camp, spray him down with sunscreen, and then he’s off racing towards the waves, bucket in hand.  He looks back to make sure I’m coming, and I know he’s ready for his beach walk.

We walk along quietly, taking our time as we search for our shells.  I carefully scrutinize each shell before selecting my favorites to keep.  I like the pinks and the blues, or the ones with the mother-of-pearl sheen.  Occasionally I’ll find an olive to add to the collection.  I keep my eyes peeled for a shark’s tooth, but I’ve yet to find one.

Ben, however, has a different approach to shell collection.

Ben is not a discriminating collector like me.  He picks up small shells and large ones, dull ones and cracked ones.  As I watch his technique, I notice that the ones that he seems to gravitate towards the most are the broken ones, particularly those that are broken pieces of much larger shells.

“What that one was?” he’ll ask every time he finds a new fragment.  

“That was a piece of a sand dollar.  They live on the bottom of the ocean,” I patiently reply.

A little later, he’ll bring me another.  “What that one was?” he’ll ask again.

“That’s the top of a conch shell.  Those are really big shells that let you hear the ocean when you put them to your ears.”  

Ben immediately puts the broken piece to his ears and listens intently. 

“But that’s just a part of one, honey,” I try to explain, but he is too focused on listening to the ocean to hear my words.

As we walk farther down the beach, the bucket quickly fills with a motley collection of shell parts, a haphazard mix of his and mine.  I think about guiding Ben towards finding the pretty, polished shells, but something inside me resists this urge. 

As we continue our walk, we find halves of coquinas, the beautiful butterfly shell for which the beach is named.  We find cat’s eyes and whelks and other shells that I don’t recognize, even though Ben insists on knowing the name for each one.   He settles for the promise of looking them up later on the computer. 

Once, a shell misses the bucket and falls to the sand, the waves washing it towards the sea.  Ben lets out a yelp and quickly scrambles to retrieve it, clenching it in his hand until he delivers it to the safety of the bucket once more. 

As we walk along in silence, I ask the question that has been on my mind since we began our walk that day.  I don’t really expect an answer, but I decide to ask anyway.

“Ben, why do you like to pick up the broken ones?” I ask.

He pauses and considers my question.

“Because….they are good.  Because…they are sweet,” he explains.

“What do you mean?” I press.

“Because…I can keep ‘em and they are my treasure.  They are my sand dollar and my hear-the-ocean shell.  I love ‘em!”

Before today, when I would look at a fragment of a shell, I would see a broken shell.  I would walk by the broken ones without a backward glance, looking for the most beautiful, most polished shell to keep for my collection.  The broken ones wouldn’t even catch my eye, because, like most everyone else, I was searching for what I perceived as the best.

Ben taught me to see the beauty in the section of a sand dollar and remember the animal that once lived on the ocean floor.  He taught me to remember the mighty conch, reflected within a piece that still holds the sound of the ocean if you really, really listen.

I know that in the evening, as he does every evening after our beach walk, Ben will take these pieces and segments of his precious shells, and use them to make some piece of art.  His favorites are the mosaics, where he turns the pieces into something new, something he created on his own.  The rest he will store in a mason jar until he is ready to play with them at home another day, when he will recreate our beach walk, and he will discover his shells again. 

As I watched my boy search for his shells on the beach today, I wondered what our world would be like if we would all take the time to look for the potential within the unfinished, the whole within the part, and the beauty within the chipped, the imperfect, and the broken...

And, as I wondered these things, I found myself bending down and selecting a broken shell myself.


  1. That was a great piece of writing.

    1. Thanks so much! I find that I learn from my son every day, when I slow down and really take the time to see the world through his eyes.


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