I walked the beach on the Gulf of Mexico this morning. I got up early and saw the calm turquoise water and clear, blue sky and headed out with a plastic bag and all the time in the world. The shells along this beach are amazing—I don’t know their names but I love the shapes and colors. Shark teeth, too, are apparently abundant here, and while I haven’t found that many, friends of mine have found countless teeth and a shell collection to rival the most respected collections anywhere.

On the way to this wilderness on the near west coast I already knew I was going to spend a few mornings here walking the length of this Key scouring the sand for shells. And so I did, and this morning I didn’t find as many as I had yesterday, but still enough for display on a bookshelf at home. When I walk around my friend’s house I am inspired with ways to display shells, but with the few I have I have plenty of room. I’ll put them in front of the books about travel. The most unique piece I found is what we kind of determined looks like an old tool. It is a rock of some sort but shaped perfectly to fit a hand, with the hammer end of the rock quite smooth, different than the rest, and that part has small grooves in it as if it has been used to bang something. Native Americans lived in this area for centuries so perhaps, or maybe before that, since it is rudimentary, but it definitely leans toward tool more than just rock with a coincidental shape. I know water can carve stones in intriguing ways, but this is a tool, a hammer of sorts.

Few people don’t know the astonishing and—yes—miraculous symmetry in nature; the balance of strength and fragility, the measure of beauty and practical use. Shells might be the best example of this. In this house where I type are my friends shells that defy logic for their survival of tumbling and crashing through storms and tides and pounding onto the beach on top of the million shattered pieces of other shells. In the end they are simply the outer layer for some sea life. At home, up on the bay, we don’t have the same critters, but we have no shortage of the former protections of oysters, scallops, clams, and mussels. I don’t know what lived in some of these shells, but whatever it was didn’t need their protection anymore. Oyster shells can be reintroduced to the water for new oysters to take shelter and adopt, but not so most of these in this collection. They remind me of natures endless display of tranquil strength and subtle measure of time.

But the concept of collecting them moves beyond the pleasure of being surrounded by their beauty. My son collected chess sets I brought back from Russia, and to see them is to marvel at the carvings of the pieces and the meticulous care put into making the boards. Of course.

But there’s more. When I look at one set it reminds me of when he was six, and we sat on the floor unwrapping it from my travel, and how he picked up each piece one at a time and talked about what he liked about them all. The other sets, too, all have moments tied to them which transcend the actual object. I’d tell him each time about where I bought it, and about the transaction, and how we—the salesperson and me—talked a while and bargained, and what the options were and the weather that day, and somehow that set brought him to Russia with me.

I have shells already at home I had found on this stretch of shoreline, and when I look at them I remember not the collecting so much as the conversation in chairs on the beach over rum, or the deeper conversations about family, vacations when we were young, how at the heart of our pilgrimage the simple pace of walking the sands and picking up souvenirs is the same as when we were children. The shells are almost irrelevant; or, better said, a catalyst for some other aspect of how fragile life is—the passing of time, the moments of love shared between friends, or family, or the introspection out walking alone in the early morning hours finding shells and answers and inspiration.

These shells I have connect me to my friends, to these brief encounters of shared space, laughing, remembering, and, thank God, still planning. And my son’s chess sets have the practical aspect of playing the game, but the added bonus, for as long as he can remember, of those late nights of me arriving home and opening the bags and spreading the pieces out on the floor, insuring he knew I was thinking of him while away, wishing he were there.

Odd how both items—shells and chess sets—are so often used as metaphors for our lives; the fragile but durable presence of a shell and the calculating and anticipatory nature of chess. For me, though, the collecting is a method of isolating time, of collecting moments and putting them up on the shelf to pick up every once in a while and recall a conversation, bring friends closer, make the distance not seem so important.


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