I’ve never been much of a collector. If anything, I love throwing things away. Probably a consequence of a life lived on the move since childhood. I hold onto material possessions lightly, and there are precious few things that I can say have any real sentimental value to me. One of the few exceptions is sea glass. On my honeymoon fourteen years ago, I started keeping the sea glass that I found on my walks along the shores in whatever country I happen to be in at the moment. My sea glass collection has pieces from four continents, and there is always room for my colorful little treasures in my suitcase.
Yesterday, I was walking along a pebble beach picking up bits of sea glass hiding between stones, and I wondered what it was about sea glass collecting that I love so much. Why is it such a healing process to my soul when I am feeling overwhelmed or burdened? I think it is because I find in the process of collecting and in the glass itself a deep metaphor for human relationships.
Sea glass is mysterious. I never know its origins, how it came to be sitting on the sand in front of me, or what it looked like before being broken and beaten by the ocean. Was it a part of a ship wreck or a bit of broken lighthouse or simply some thoughtless boater’s beer bottle dumped into the ocean? There’s no telling, but I enjoy imagining what each bit may have been before spending years rolling around in the waves. Because of the way sea glass came to be, every single piece is different from all others. Each is uniquely shaped and sized.
When I collect sea glass, I enjoy the process of meandering along the shore, listening to the waves and smelling the sea and feeling the wind on my face. I love spotting the shiny corner of a bit of glass half-buried in the sand and stooping to uncover the treasure. Sometimes it’s a perfect piece, often a familiar green or brown (beer bottles likely), and occasionally I feel the thrill of a brand new color to add to my collection. I have only one rule: jagged edges get thrown back into the sea.
It may sound strange, but I enjoy throwing not-quite-ready-yet sea glass back into the ocean almost as much as I like tucking a new piece into my pocket for my collection. There is something profoundly meaningful to me about accepting that this one isn’t meant for me and offering it back to the ocean until the years and the miles smooth it down for some other person some other time.
Sometimes I wish we could be this gentle with one another and with ourselves.
As I’ve learned more about trauma in my work, I have been deeply impacted with the realization that we all carry our own origin stories, and those stories are inextricably linked with who we are. Where we came from matters and who we have been matters. Meaningful relationships always have space to explore these stories. Gentle engagement with others holds sacred the reality that this person in front of me is a summary of a deep history of events with a significant beginning.
The diversity of sea glass is an obvious metaphor for humanity, but it is the process by which it is made that I find more interesting. New glass is transparent, but sea glass is opaque. Time in the ocean makes it so. Sea glass does not exist without brokenness, without tragedy. It cannot be what it is without years and years of being battered by its life in the ocean, rolling through the sand and being smoothed down through contact with the salt and sediment of the sea. I think this is a bit like life as well.
There is an innocence in children that we all recognize. Children who have yet to encounter the brokenness of life have an openness and transparent honestly that we recognize from our past. We have all become more opaque over the years – jaded by the brokenness we have witnessed and guarded by the pain we have experienced. This is not good or bad. It just is. This, as much as losing our baby teeth, is part of what it means to be human.
While we may mourn the loss of transparency or feel like time has made us a little less shiny, suffering is still the way in which our own jagged edges are smoothed away. How often we look back at younger versions of ourselves a bit of embarrassed by how naive we were and wincing at how unintentionally hurtful that naivety made us. There is simply something about experiencing the discombobulating discomfort of painful relationships, crushed dreams, and unanticipated tragedy that makes us gentler with others. We know how much this hurts, and we know how it cannot be made to make sense. Rather than fight against what cannot be won, we have learned to reach out and hold the hands of others in solidarity through the pain. And we have learned when the unfinished edges of others cut us, to forgive and to gently offer them back to the ocean. They aren’t finished yet either.
There’s something about sea glass that moves me. It speaks of honoring the uniqueness in everyone and recognizing the power of our pasts. It is a reminder to me to approach others and myself with grace for where we all are and compassion for where we might have come from. Picking a bit of sea glass from the shore is a symbolic act of acceptance. In the same way, tossing a still transparent, still sharp-edged piece of glass back into the ocean is a physical representation of forgiveness and self-care. It is okay to leave behind a bit of sea glass that is dangerous to anyone who gets too close. I can genuinely hope that the next time that piece of glass washes up on shore that time will have made it safer and able to be enjoyed. And perhaps somehow in the universe’s mysterious beautiful way, it may even be me that stoops down and pulls it from the sand.