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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

After nearly 50 years on the east coast, living in Tennessee feels weird. Not least of which because every snowfall, every half an inch of it, turns into a state of emergency. Our community sends out emails two days beforehand telling us to be careful. The garbage doesn’t get picked up. Everything closes down. Everything that isn’t closing down emails you to tell you they will NOT be closing down, so come on by, business as usual, and then you show up and it’s deserted and you can’t do or get anything you want because it snowed.

It feels weird to live in a state where the bagel hasn’t been invented. Einstein Brothers does not count. Getting bagels there is like having a craving for a burger and going to McDonald’s.

While there’s no salt to combat snow, and no bagels, and no real pizza and no jughandles, perhaps the biggest travesty in this landlocked state is a dearth of seashells.

If I told you how many seashells I have in boxes and containers, you wouldn’t even believe me. And yet somehow I ended up here, without even one in my pocket.

What is a pocket without a seashell?

I couldn’t tell you when my love affair with seashells started. I couldn’t tell you why. I can, however, tell you this.

My parents spent their honeymoon in Bermuda, and while it was the only “anniversary” I missed, they brought home two large seashells that whispered the ocean’s secrets to me all through childhood.

My mother and I may diverge on our love of birds, but we share a love of the ocean. I just happen to also like the seagulls.

If this was the seagull blog, I could tell you about how I fed them cheese doodles from my hand. But we can save that for next time.

This is the seashell blog, those magical seaside treasures that I’ll take over gold any day.

Ok, well maybe I’ll take the gold, so I can spend more time finding seashells and less working at a desk in Tennessee.

You probably know the basics of seashells. They’re made of calcium, and homes for many sea creatures. But think about it. There is an animal somewhere that makes that. Those colors and textures and shapes are the creativity of a being we almost never think about unless it’s on our plate.

Don’t get me wrong, scallops and mussels are delicious, but what if we’re eating nature’s Van Goghs?

Ralph and I lived on Brigantine island for three years. It was just over a mile to the edge of the ocean and I walked down there most days, even when it snowed.

If this was the ocean blog, I could tell you how standing there, watching the gulls and the waves and the sand were the absolutely positively most peaceful, contented moments of my life.

Let me clarify.

Standing there between October and May were the absolutely positively most peaceful, contented moments of my life. During the summer, the tourists came with their dogs and radios and trucks that they drove down the beach.

Drove! On the beach! Over the seashells!

October through May I rescued as many seashells as I could. I put them in my pockets and carried them safely home, then washed, dried and lovingly collected them in a jar or a container or somewhere spread across the surface of a desk or dresser.

Sometimes, if I was very lucky, I’d get a whole shell in a unique shape, like a spiral shell. I never found those by looking. When I actively looked for shells, I’d find an inordinate number of the white or gray clam shells, lots of mussel shells, and mostly smaller clam shells in a variety of colors. It was only when I was not paying attention at all that a really rare find would suddenly appear.

Then I had to collect it and spend a while taking portraits of it. Seriously, think about it. An animal MADE that. An animal lived in that.

We make houses, too, but it requires a lot of nails and permits, and quite a bit of destroying of habitats. Animals that live in shells make them right from substances in their own bodies, creating them over time, layering them, strengthening them. To date I don’t know of any other creature that collects people houses like we collect sea houses.

Smooth shells are made for sliding quickly and easily along the ocean floor. Spiky shells are made for protection. Nobody really knows why shells are so multi-colored, though some speculate it’s because of the diet of the animal depending on where it lives.

You might wonder how many seashells a person could possibly collect. The answer is: all of them. I mean, just because you have one perfect white clam shell doesn’t mean you don’t need another. Besides, they want to go home with me. I hear them. They sit there on the beach and say put me in your pocket!

I try to resist sometimes, I mean, I can only have so many containers in one house. Sometimes I just pick them up and admire them, then place them carefully back down. I try to walk away.

But they call. They want to be in my pocket, I can’t help it.

Giant clams can grow to be over three feet wide. That would not fit in my pocket but it wouldn’t stop me from trying to take one home.

The seashells on Brigantine beach are mostly big, whiteish clam shells or small clam and mussel shells. Once in a while there are teeny tiny cone-shaped spirals. They come in so many colors it makes you wonder what they could possibly be eating in New Jersey.

Ninety miles north, in Asbury Park, the shells are from a whole other world.

Asbury Park has a special place in my heart because it’s where my family went on vacation every summer. And it’s where Ralph and I stayed many nights when we had business meetings nearby and didn’t want to drive 90 miles to and from Brigantine.

The sand on the beach is much coarser than it is on its cousin beach farther south. And the seashells are tinier and more prolific. They wash up in great collections, like my birthday and Christmas and the Fourth of July all in one.

It’s almost impossible to leave the beach once you get on it, what with all those seashells clamoring to be admired and collected.

I’m an equal opportunity collector. I like the oddball shapes and the broken ones as much as I like the perfect white or spiral ones. There is so much personality to be found.

I’m especially fond of seashells that hang out with other bits of the ocean, like driftwood and seaweed. I tend not to collect those as much because they look so comfortable and at home where they are. Like a little piece of artwork. You wouldn’t walk into the Louvre and take the Mona Lisa’s smile home with you. Sometimes you have to let art be art.

But mostly I take them home.

It’s been a long time since I had a seashell in my pocket, and I don’t know what I was thinking moving here and not bringing a single one with me. Seems like a pretty big oversight, if you ask me.

But I have my containers and jars and boxes waiting for me, and there will always be a beach to walk. I need to get to one soon, though, because I can hear them calling me now… Collect me! pocket! hurry!

Photo, top: a perfect seashell enjoying an afternoon on the beach with some seaweed in Brigantine. Photo, bottom: the seashells and a bit of sand that my brother David and I collected when he visited over the summer, the same year I left him crammed in the cabinet under my bathroom sink.