On the southwestern tip of Shelter Island, there’s a hidden public beach called Shell Beach. I say it’s hidden because you could easily drive right by the unmarked turn-off for it in a residential area and never know it was there. But the beach itself is nearly a mile-long peninsula just barely wide enough for a one-lane, gravel road. And all along the beach are thousands upon thousands of shells. On one side of the beach, in fact, the shells have beat up against the bulkhead and are about a foot thick. The tide has just kind of dumped them there in a treasure trove of conch shells, clams, and cockles, among others.
I went there this afternoon with our summer staffers Charlotte and Wendy and Wendy’s kids Jamin and Cora, and we just kind of walked around in awe at the beauty of this little, underpopulated hidden beach. While Wendy and Cora swam, Jamin and I – decked out in shoes and socks and not remotely prepared to get wet – went digging through the thousands of shells instead.
“What about this one, this one’s cool?” Jamin would hand me one of the jingle shells and point out something about it he liked. I kept tossing the shells about with my feet, occasionally picking one up, inspecting it, and determining whether or not it was good enough for keepsake. There’d be one that was oh, so close to being perfect were it not for the chip on the side. And I wondered out loud, when there’s so many thousands to choose from, what the rubric was for deciding a shell was worth picking up and calling it yours. Did it have to be exotic and different or weird? Or just colorful enough? Or shinier than the others? Jamin couldn’t decide, but it seemed like his rubric was a lot different than mine. He’d pick up fully-broken shells, funky shells, rocks, whatever and acknowledge how wonderful it was. I was pickier. Too picky.
I found a rare conch shell that could easily still function as a home – not a single crack, not a single hole in the shell at all. “Oh yeah,” I told Jamin, “This one’s perfect.” But Jamin wasn’t all that impressed. “No, it’s not perfect, ’cause there’s not a conch living in it,” he laughed to himself.
At one point, we started finding bits and pieces of what looked to be black pottery with orange paint on it. It was curious enough that we started to collect a little of it, only to discover that the more we looked around, the more there seemed to be. Ten, twenty, a hundred yards, there was more and more of the broken black pottery with faded orange paint. It became easier to spot as if our eyes had grown accustomed to look for it and nothing else. Jamin and Cora began to collect mounds of it, and we placed it in a pile and discussed what it could be. On a few pieces were the letters, “CH,” or a registered symbol. It took me back to my time in Israel digging through Iron age pottery and wondering whether the piece I was holding was Egyptian or Phoenician. There was a mystery at hand, and we were determined to solve it. As Jamin and I walked looking for more pieces with writing on them, I started thinking through it: it was too much and too spread out to be only from one jar or bottle. It felt ceramic, maybe hardened rubber and broke fairly easily under stress. The “CH” probably spelled “Champion,” and the orange paint and word itself seemed to indicate some kind of sport-related equipment. I told Jamin I thought it was skeet and explained, the best I could, what skeet is. By the time we met back up with Wendy, she’d been thinking the exact same thing.
Searching a beach through a treasure trove of shells and skeet, and I can’t help but shake this notion that we find what we’re looking for – what we were probably looking for before we even stumbled upon the treasure. Earlier this week, I read an article on CNN about how UFO experts have grabbed hold of some of the pictures taken by the Mars’ rovers and claimed they see alien life encased in the rocks. Others have come to call what they saw “pareidolia,” the trick the human mind plays in that we often see something that isn’t really there because our mind wants to bring recognizable shapes together to create meaning from them. It’s the very same thing with seeing Jesus in a piece of toast. And it felt similar somehow digging through shells, seeing in the shells the worst and best of ourselves:
There was brokenness within me built into my drive to find the perfect piece. There was happy, childlike love in Jamin’s discovery that the broken pieces were still whole and wonderful in his eyes. There was such absolute grace in Jamin’s admonishment that what I saw as the “perfect” piece lacked perfection because it was merely an empty house and no longer or not yet a real home. There was the mystery of the broken pottery and our very real desire to know the stories that brought the brokenness to this beach – determination in solving a puzzle that would somehow bring us comfort. All summer long, what I’ve seen in myself, in others too, are these very things. We want so badly to find the perfect pieces when there just are none. We could choose to pick up the broken ones and see them as just as beautiful, if not more so, than the ones that just haven’t been around long enough to break, but too often, we end up blaming the whole treasure trove for not having enough of what we’re looking for rather than asking why we’re searching how we’re searching. And I think that’s so very important – to recognize that our perception is our reality and may very well need to be questioned, even if it’s questioned by a seven year-old. That our frustrations, our struggles, our puzzles before us so often have so little to do with what’s right in front of us and so much to do with the baggage we’ve stored up and carried to this very moment where we find ourselves frustrated, struggling, or puzzled in the first place. At any rate, I’m not sure I’ll ever pick up a shell again the same way without seeing how beautiful it really is, but I will be going back to Shell Beach.