By Lynn Ingram | The instant that my bare toes touch the soft sand, I scan the beach before me for treasures. It has always been this way. With my eyes fixed as they are upon the sand, searching for small gifts from the sea, I wonder that I have not yet tripped over a shipwreck or smacked face-first into another beach stroller.
Who has not walked the shore in search of perfect shells, delighting in the discovery of some pristine white and whole sand dollar, some whelk majestically formed, a tiny coquina rainbow still hinged, each half a mirror image of the other?
I, and many other shell seekers, often spot a potential treasure and bend down to capture it for our own, finding only then that its perfection was an illusion. We discover an unfortunate crack, a tiny hole, a missing edge obscured by the sand, and we toss the shell back to the beach, resuming our search for the perfectly intact specimen.
The broken and ragged shells do not come home with us to lie upon the porch rail, the windowsill, or the bookshelf. We leave them on the sand for the tide to sweep away and to return again and again, each wave teasing away another bit of shell, enlarging the hole, deepening the crack.
That is what I always did, until one day a pen shell offered me another view.
Pen shells look like fans, simply and gracefully shaped. In fact, I had called them fan shells until my new shell book showed me my error. The rather dull and coarse brownish exterior of these shells stands in stark contrast to the artist’s palette of pearly colors inside. Like many other pen shells I have found, this one lacked perfection. A ragged chunk of its top was missing, likely cracked off by some past rough wave. Not a keeper, I thought at first—and then I looked again. Of course it could be. Wasn’t its glistening and multi-hued inside still beautiful, even though an edge was missing? Couldn’t I still appreciate the elegance of its fanlike form?
A handful of steps later, I spied the angel wings. So appropriately named, so many of these ribbed white shells were scattered along the sand that it looked as though a flock of angels might have flown overhead and all at once dropped their wings in favor of travel on foot. (Perhaps angels enjoy beach walking, too!) I reached for one of the angel wings and found a crater near its hinge—again, not a perfect shell. But weren’t its ridges still exquisitely spaced? Wasn’t it still a lovely and brilliant white?
I continued my stroll upon the beach, and my collection grew. There was the fig shell, with its appearance of fragility that so belies its real strength, half of it gone to expose the beauty of its inner architecture. Were it not broken I could not see the loveliness of its interior construction, the delicate and hidden design that supports the whole.
Then there was a tiny whelk, with pieces of its outside stripped away to expose a middle fit to be a spiral staircase for the tiniest elf.
Next, I chose an oyster shell, admiring loveliness in the most ordinary and pedestrian of shells. Juxtaposed against its rough and dull exterior was an interior that gleamed pearly white.
A moon shell, long a favorite and a rare delight to find intact, showed me a new face when I found but half of one, with its gentle curves and concentric lines exposed, spiraling slowly to a tiny eye.
When I open my mind and discard old notions—a task that seems far easier near the sea than anywhere else—the sea always teaches. This day, the lesson was in the lovely and fragmented shells I gathered. We humans have much more in common with these broken and imperfect shells than with any perfect ones I had collected before. Who among us has achieved perfection—of appearance, of soul, of heart, of skills, of spirit, of anything? Not I, and none among my acquaintance.
If I heed well this lesson from the shells, I will alter my perspective just a bit, adding a grace note to my view of both other people and of my own self. Instead of noting all the “missing pieces” in the faces we show to the world, I might peer through some of those cracks to see inside. There, as I did with my ragged pen shell and broken whelk, I may see where the truest beauty lies, the beauty that exists, at its rough and real and poignant best, despite—or perhaps because of—imperfection.
A native Carolinian, Lynn Ingram’s work has appeared in a number of publications including Sasee, The Charlotte Observer, Progressive Farmer, and Lake Wylie Magazine. She is a psychologist in private practice in Wilmington, and she teaches psychology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. When she’s not writing or sorting out the secrets of human nature, she gardens, dances and reads.