The promise of seashells


I AM HOLDING a beautiful shell in my hand. It is a chambered nautilus: convoluted yet symmetrical. It is a whelk, I think.

But I am not a consistent sheller or an expert on the subject.

The lines are so lovely and the inner pink hue so delicate that I can hardly put it down.

The creature that inhabited it is gone, and as a token of remembrance and ecological balance has left the shell for us.

I am walking along the beach at Sanibel Island, Fla., a place I have been before for repose and pleasure.

This small shell is a find, as most of the larger spiraled shells are picked up and sold in shops. I am pleased with all my shells this day, I put them in my pockets and will examine them further when I get home.

Once again I have fallen in love with the concept of the shell. Millions of different shapes remain on the beach at every turning of the tide here, brought up as offerings from the sea.

I find that the plain scallop is everywhere -- it's the most common seashell here. They are usually white and fragile as a rose petal.

They are all lined just a little differently. Some are the size of my little fingernail. Some are the size of my hand. No two are alike, they say.

With Easter and Passover almost here -- the promise of new life, new beginnings and spring, the seashell more than the egg exemplifies the shedding of old life for new life.

When I think how many Easter baskets I have filled and Easter eggs I have hidden or dyed, I think the shell is a much easier way to express Easter. I will bring each of my children a whelk and let them look closely, see its different chambers that represent different life stages.

The shell tells a long story of travel and travail. A story of living in an ocean full of adversaries, kind of like our human existence.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her best seller in 1955, "Gift From the Sea," wrote at a time when she was trying to shed some of her heavy domestic womanly cares. She was looking for tranquillity and spiritual renewal. She found it among the shells on the beach.

She saw the oyster shell as a symbol of the growing family and its machinations. Many children (she had five), many responsibilities. All the shell's tiny bumps, all the mollusks stuck to it, she thought, suggested motherhood in the '50s.

When she updated her book in 1975, she told about another time: "When I wrote 'Gift From the Sea' I was still in the stage of life I called the oyster bed. Then when a mother is left the lone hub of a wheel, with no other lives revolving around her, she faces a total re-orientation.

"All the inner and outer exploration a woman has done earlier in life pays off when she reaches the abandoned shell."

She is talking about the empty nest, and she equates this stage of life as ringing hollow like an empty shell until the woman finds her true center.

I can empathize with the shell now at 60something. And I along with millions of others during the war weeks wondered if our waters' edges would suffer like the Persian Gulf, becoming an inferno of dark burning oil despoiling God's land and seas.

But here along this beach known for its wonderful shells are many clues that the ocean is in the hands of a supreme being, and the seashell with its tiniest of creatures inside will still inhabit the sea for years to come.

Like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, my shell treasures brought me at the end of this past February back to some kind of reassurance of continuity.

I remember when my mother used to say, "Hold the shell to your ear, and you can hear the ocean."

She was right, you can hear a sort of rushing sound; the shell's story is not too different from yours and mine -- many chambers, many lines and convoluted passages.

My shell is small, but its message is great.

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