We are, as my friend Sarah has taught me to say, feeding two birds with one hand: visiting my husband’s parents means visiting the beach, and this time our visit is also a welcome distraction from an anticipated trip to the zoo falling through. Turning my daughter’s offhand suggestion of a visit into reality on the same day was an easy decision to make when faced with a few unscheduled summer days.
I love the beach as much as my daughter does, but like my husband, I was not so blessed as she is to grow up making several trips each summer. I do not remember the time my parents took me to Ocean City – I was just a baby. The next time I would make it to the ocean, I was nine or ten years old. But every summer, my grandparents made a trip to Myrtle Beach, and they would bring back a few special shells to my sister and I. I did not realize that you could not find shells like these just laying on the beach – they had been bought in souvenir shops. I still have several of those shells, and over the years accumulated more and more.
Today, when I go to the beach, I find myself picking up shell after shell. One has fantastic color, another a beautiful shape, another an interesting texture. My daughter picks them up too, but I am embarrassed to admit that I pick up twice as many as she does, and an observer would be as hard pressed to see what I see in the shells I keep as I am sometimes to see what she sees in her shells. Each one is precious and perfect as I pick it up – and I am growing to learn that each one is forgotten not long after I get home.
Today, sitting in the shallows with my daughter, I began idly picking up bits of shell fragments and tossing them into the waves. After explaining to her that, no, I was not throwing gobs of sand, she began tossing shells too. Then she got up, ran from the water, selected a shell, and threw it hard into the waves, calling after it, “Bye-bye, shell!”
She did this several times, until she came running back to me with a shell in her hand. It was just the kind I would have picked for myself – one of loveliest I had seen all day – a whole and perfect clam shell, streaked white and purple, inside and out. “Throw it into the ocean, Mommy!” she commanded. After hesitating a bit, I did. Then she said, “Now say, ‘Bye-bye shell!'” And I did.
“Come with me, Mommy!” I followed her away from the water, and began to pick up the first shell I noticed, but before I could bend down, she directed me, “Find your favorite one.” So I kept looking, and found a ruffled black oyster shell that reminded me of the skirt of a nineteenth century ballgown. “Now throw it in!” And I did. Over and over again, I found striking shells, shells that I would ordinarily be filling her sand bucket with, briefly reflected on their perfect beauty, and then tossed them into the ocean, with a shouted, “Bye-bye, shell!”
And then we found a very large piece of kelp, and my pint-sized spiritual director was transformed back into my three-year old daughter, as she carried it back to show Grandma and Grandpa. I took her picture holding the kelp, and then had to explain that we could not keep it, because it would not be the same when it dried out – that it was prettier in the ocean. So she agreed to take it back to me, throw it into the ocean, and shout after it, “Bye-bye kelp!”
As I followed her back to the bit of sand we had claimed with blankets, chairs, and umbrellas, I was stopped by a woman calling out to me from her beach chair, “Miss! I think it is lovely what you did with your daughter, teaching her that the kelp belongs in the ocean.”
As so often is the case, I didn’t know how to respond in the moment. But now I would say, perhaps I was able to teach the lesson of the kelp to my daughter because she taught me the lesson of the shells. I enjoyed the beauty of each shell I cast into the ocean perhaps more than I do those I keep – though I do not like to think of myself as materialistic, my daughter’s easy surrender of her favorite shells inspired me to observe my own desire to possess.
This drive to possess is called coveting – wanting something that is not ours – and depending on how you count, at least one or maybe even two out of ten commandments tells us that we shall not!! It is this drive to possess that leads us to gloss over the fact that we are coveting, in order to justify ourselves – it is not ours yet, but neither is it anyone else’s, at least not yet, or not anymore, or not someone’s who would take as good care of it as we would, or appreciate it properly.
I have lots to say about coveting, but today it is enough to say that I got closer to the heart of my desire to possess the beautiful, and it felt good to notice that I did not need to possess the shells, that I did not need to take them home and keep them to myself – and that in that moment of throwing the shells back to the place from whence they came, I felt I trusted God more to provide the beauty I need when I need it – that I needn’t store my manna in a jar for a rainy day, but can consume today’s bread with joy and with thanksgiving!