“What’s this, Mimi?”
My granddaughter Francesca pointed at a glass vase of shells on my desk.
“That’s my shell collection,” I said.
Her blonde curls bounced as she nodded her head, “Oh,” she said, “Can I play with them?”
“If you’re careful. Some are very fragile, they might break,” I warned.
I got busy with dinner preparations and was only dimly aware of Francesca playing quietly in my office, and her older sister, Lucia, absorbed in a drawing program, her fingers flicking across my phone.
The next morning I was looking for small treasures – special rocks and crystals – I keep as talismans to finger as I’m writing my morning pages. I couldn’t find them anywhere, and had to retrace the previous day’s route to jar my memory. My eyes lit on the jar on my desk, and sure enough, at the bottom of the container of shells, my rocks and crystals gleamed.
“That little imp!” Looking for a safe place to hide the treasures, Francesca had dropped them in the vase, where they mingled with the shells.
Now, the only way to get them out was to empty the entire container, shell by shell. As I examined the vase, I saw that it was coated with dust. I took it to the kitchen sink, removed each shell and put them in a colander, rinsed them all, and washed the vase in hot soapy water. I spread the shells out on a towel to dry, bemoaning the extra time this unexpected task required.
But as I studied the collection, piece by piece, I realized Francesca had given me a gift. Each shell was unique: some pale, some speckled, some curved, some flat. Yet each one was beautiful. As I gazed at them, I realized I hadn’t taken them out of the vase in years, instead looking at them in a clump.
I thought of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic meditation on solitude, Gift from the Sea, and how her beach visits balanced the challenges of a busy life with writing. My shells were reminding me to step back, take a breath, immerse in beauty and take care of things that are precious to me.
Being a grandmother is one of the great gifts of a long life, and so instead of being annoyed with Francesca for moving my treasures, I felt grateful that she had motivated me to pay attention to my shells. I saw that sometimes I need to unpack things – whether objects, or a busy schedule – in order to appreciate their worth. It won’t do to pack things in so tight that I cannot stand back and really see them.
Being open and receptive is an ongoing practice, as Lindbergh reminds us with her beautiful prose.
“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea