Shell Seeking

Grab a cup of tea or coffee or a cool drink... I'm sharing notes from my beach combing journal.

(July 6, 2015 @ West Yarmouth, Cape Cod, MA)

The day began at 4:45. Me, standing next to the bed, thinking about where I could go and what I could do that wouldn’t wake the rest of the house.

I look at the stack of reading and my journal and pen. I see the couch and the glass coffee table on the landing outside the bedrooms and hear my coffee mug clink on it. I see the upper deck chair and hear two sliding doors rumble through their tracks. I sit motionless reading on the couch in the carpeted living room. And at 6:00 a.m., I decide to make my exit: to the beach.

After a walk to collect my favorite, most favorite shells – jingle shells – I turn this section of beach over to the shy birds. A hopping sparrow pecks at the seaweed washed in overnight during high tide. A piping plover runs evenly with alternating feet along the hard wet pack. Where I sit, away from the immediate water line, the piping plover looks like a clump of sand gliding across the beach.

The most common shells here are slipper shells, scallop shells, and jingle shells. Small, shiny, and opalescent, jingle shells gleam in the sunlight and cling to the sand after high tide. Fragile. From being slightly cupped to roughly flat, they look and feel like fragile skeletons shed from the inside of a bulkier shell. Surely nothing this delicate could have housed a creature to ride in the oft times rolling surf.

This morning I pick up only jingle shells. Shaking a scant handful, they jingle together, acknowledging their name. And they look perfect in my hand.

All in varying shades of yellow-orange, of slightly different shapes, and of many varying sizes. The smallest the size of a dime and the largest the size of perhaps a silver dollar. They are beautiful nestled together in my hand. How pretty they would be in a small glass bowl on the counter back at the house. I can add to the bowl after each seek.

A perfect display of shells. Perhaps I can drop the word perfect with them in the bowl. And leave it there. For that’s about as far as that word really should be used. Where its expectations should halt. A perfect bowl of shells.

(July 7th, on the beach at 7 a.m.)

The jingle shell line has slipped into the ocean. Unsure if I missed it by an hour or need to wait an hour – is the tide is coming in or going out?

That leaves me with the high tide seaweed to walk through. I tend to avoid shell seeking at this high water line, preferring freshly rinsed shells planted along clean low-tide sand. But these are worth poking through the green slimy stuff.

Plus, I’m a bit more immune to seaweed today than I was yesterday. A local was overheard saying, “We’ve got the weed.” In Colorado this would be understood differently than here on a Cape Cod beach. In Mom and Dad’s garden in Iowa it would have another meaning. And here, it means we have seaweed rolling onto the beach. I’m guessing a recent storm shook up the seaweed. And the waves have delivered it to our beach.

To swim, we walk out about 10 feet through seaweed. Liam, who in the past has freaked out at the sight of seaweed, marched through it. Thinking back it was swimming through it that Liam didn’t like, when it catches around your neck like a harness, and though you know there is no power in it, the slime around your neck feels life-like and tugs as you swim. And swimming in deep water where you can’t plant your feet and rise out of it, its force – however slight – is off-putting. Like the beginning of strangulation.

But this is seaweed around the knees, not the neck. Liam gathered it in his hands and formed balls. So I did too. Then he squeezed it dry. So I did too, shivering at the sliminess of it. Then the game began: I under-hand slow pitch a big gangly lump of it, and Liam tries to knock it out of the air with a fast pitch. And there was more than enough weed to keep this game going for an hour.

(July something, 2015 the day after yesterday – Thursday)

I was awake at 7:00 a.m. to do my chores: pick up Jingle Shells on the beach. With an overcast sky, the beach didn’t look too inviting for pen, paper, and chair. So I just took my little white-handled blue bucket.

The tide was going out, leaving me a wide water-marked area to comb. A row of treasures at the farthest reach of the water's webbed fingers pulled me, then the row a bit lower tugged. Looking down the beach I tried to make a plan. I would walk a straight line on the top first then return on the lower side, eight feet nearer England.

It didn’t work. The Jingle Shells are rarer than slipper shells, and my head wagged like a dog’s tail scoping out both sides – which infuriated the woman with the straight-ahead plan. Surely, I can walk on a beach without a perfect plan? There’s no need to keep on the straight and narrow. To fight by the sea that roaming urge that sabotages my daily land cruising?

No, today, I’m looking left and right. Chasing bright shells and leaving whatever zig-zag, straight, or diagonal path in my wake.

(The Day after Yesterday)

Shelling at the Surf’s Edge

The day opened with a bit of rain. By 9:30, it cleared. Bagel, coffee, string bag, and chair in hand, I walked to the beach.

The Jingle Shell line is at the surf’s edge. At the very point where incoming and outgoing waves meet and create a vacuum-like suction that leaves the shells rolling over my feet. Most are empty slippers. But the line is dotted with Jingle Shells. My job this beach trip.

These iridescent bi-valves lost a bit of their perfectness after my sister-in-law, Jot, had a look through a shell book. She shared that they are also known as “toe nail” shells and that they remind her of Bill’s big toe nail. Some 23 years ago, Bill’s buddy attached a bowling ball to Bill the night of his bachelor party. At one point, Bill dropped it on his big toe; it’s never been the same since then. Yes, old toe nails do look a bit like jingle shells – as would mine if not painted bright red. The 26-mile Avon walk a few years ago deformed my big toe nails.

To Jot’s spoken observation I called, “Objection! Retract!” for I don’t want to collect old yellow toe nails! No, no, no! But there it stuck. A couple years ago, I had a friend make beautiful necklaces for me of these delicate shells, and now I’ve promised Jot the most delightful piece of jewelry. Made only from the very best. The very biggest toe nail shells. And the very yellowest.

(A Day after the Toe Nail Assertion)

I’m working hard to reconfigure that statement – looking for a landing spot below absolute perfection of jingle shells and well above that of dead about-to-fall-off toe nails. It didn’t take much effort to re-imagine the rough shells of apricot, yellow, and orange hues. Surely they must be mermaids’ acrylic finger nails. Beautiful yet marked by a vigorous under-sea life. A tap on a rock or the peeling of lobster could surely pop off one of these nails.

(The Last Evening)

An evening wander back to the beach to gather my chair. I go without a bucket. I have enough shells. If I find more, I will only take what fits nestled in my hand. At the sight of the water, I know I won’t be shell seeking – the tide is coming in strong. The water is reaching high sand that has been baking in the sun all day. My shell line is more than knee deep in the water. I sit and watch the tide gather strength and push over the dry sand. Bringing with it shreds of now dead black seaweed. The big, green healthy clumps of it are gone. The pieces are now so small they look as if they’ve been put through a blender, on pulse.

I feel little. One of those times when I realize that despite me not being on the beach tomorrow, looking for Jingle Shells, it will still be here. The vastness of ocean and waves. Washing shells onto the beach. Leaving the same tidal lines I’ve worked in all week.

Privileged with the treasures I’ve collected and with the quiet mornings I’ve had alone, I’m somber moving back inland.

Another summer reflection from West Yarmouth, Cape Cod:

Simple Summer Vacation