It was an impossibly springlike February day when I found myself walking the beach, and then found her. Both beauty and new friends often come to us this way I think: in unlikely circumstances, unexpected. When we are thinking about other things, and totally not looking.
She might be an oyster shell; I really don’t know. I don’t know shells all that well. I don’t know what she was meant to be or look like, back when she was young, when she was just starting out. What I do know is that any semblance of smoothness and youthful perfection have been replaced by layers of age and of seasons in which she had been buffeted by storms, when she’d hung on to something for dear life, when she’d carried something on her the whole way. I couldn’t help but notice she had a couple of jagged wounds that went clear through.
Which made her just the sort of friend I’m looking for.
She wouldn’t have even caught my eye in my younger years, when I combed beaches like I did most things, which was mostly in search of perfection. I would think I had finally spotted a perfect specimen of bivalve or nautilus, of mothering or of self. Heart racing, I would bend down and take the shell into my hand, savoring in advance the satisfaction, the success, the prize. Until I would discover, on closer inspection and with significant disappointment, that it was not a perfect specimen at all, that it had a crack in the side, a big chip on the upper ring. Sometimes even a whole half of it was broken off, enormous wounds hidden completely in the wet sand, only the prettiest, perfect parts held out for everyone to see. Fooled again, I would think. Not perfect, not good enough. Toss it back.
These days, my beach walks are slower and more solitary. They do not have much purpose except the very having of them, the breathing of the salt air, the lulling of the whooshing waves that calls us back to that primal place our minds can’t quite remember but our bodies surely do. I am often bundled up against the cold. I do not hunt for shells as much as stay open to them, and when I bend down and pick one up, they look very different from the ones I combed for in the old days. Now I only pick up the ones that are most imperfect, the ones that are interesting.
Which is how I found her. And how I came to notice that she was a real mothershucker.
It was easy to see, as I said, that she was a relief map of experience, with her layers of untold sea stories, and the big holes that went straight through, left to heal on their own. But when I got close to her, I noticed that the part that she proudly held up to the warm winter sun and out for all of us to see was the fossil of a smaller shell, of a being that she had carried with her so long, so completely, so deeply that its delicate ridges had become a lasting part of the landscape of who she was. She was a relief map of motherhood; how did I not see it before?
I understand, I almost said out loud. Man, do I know.
Sometimes I tell myself that when I am done with walking the beach, I will take a minute to do a little research, you know, learn a little, look up the names of the odd-looking shells that I have seen, that I have brought in my pocket. That it might be good to know what they were they meant for when they started out. What they were “supposed” to look like, and maybe did once, back when they were young, back when they still strove for perfection.
But then I think: Nah.
I’d rather spend my time with the bumpy beauties, the ones who tell stories of survival through their scars. Show me the ones who have survived birth and death and stormy seas by letting go, by growing a whole new layer, by holding on for dear life. The old and imperfect who don’t bother to hide their broken parts in the wet sand. The ones who wear proudly the permanent etching of the things they have carried within them and who hold it up to the source in the faint hope that in the warmth and light of that source, it will have been good enough.
Show me the mothershuckers.