Memo Re: Beach Glass, by Lia Purpura
Lia Purpura is the author of On Looking (Sarabande Books, 2006), a collection of essays, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent volume of poems, King Baby (Alice James Books, 2008), won the Beatrice Hawley Award. Recent poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, and elsewhere, and her third book of essays is due out next year from Sarabande. She is writer-in-residence at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. (1/2011)
Sea glass. Growing up on both the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast, I am a beach girl at heart. For years, I walked the beach every day, sometimes more than once. And for me, it will always be a place of physical pleasures, of sand and wind, familiar smells, and the sounds of waves receding and returning, crunching sea weed and squaking gulls. The beach is also a spiritual place for me, a space where I cannot escape the presence of God. Like the mountains, the ocean reminds me of my smallness, and also of my participation in the vastness of the universe. And, when I find sea glass, the real stuff, I am reminded of all the people, all of the stories that have taken place on the beach, and in the ocean, before me. Each piece of glass has been on a journey. Perhaps aboard a ship, perhaps carried to the ocean in a storm, perhaps trash, but maybe a treasure. It takes decades, 40-50 years, for sea glass to become smooth, and frosty, hydrated with the ocean water bringing lime and soda to the glass surface, churned by the tossing and turning of waves to cause enough friction to change the shape, the texture and the color of the glass from how it once was. It can be fun to imagine the travels of a single colored piece, and maybe also a little disturbing. The darkness at the depths of the ocean are a little overwhelming to consider. But, that is where a piece of sea glass spends most of its time, in roaring tide.
I recently listened to Brene Brown’s newest book, Rising Strong in which she spends time acknowledging the periods of roaring tides, of struggle and vulnerability that people experience before we get to “rising again” in strength. Brene uses Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote on the Man in the Arena to illustrate this period:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
STOP THERE, Brene says. The quote goes on…He strives valiantly; errs, comes short again and again, he does actually strive; and knows great enthusiasms and great devotions; and eventually, in the end, the triumph of high achievement,
Brene suggests we spend more time with that experience in the dust and blood and sweat. Similar to the pounding and tumbling of the glass in the sea, that challenging part of the journey has a value all it’s own, and is a big part of the story. When we are actually in the arena, when we are in the waves, with dust and blood and sea creatures and sharp rocks.
Here in a hospital setting, many people are in the throes of storms, feeling tossed and spun, being propelled forward only to receed yet again, the momentum changing with a tide over which we have little, if any, control. I suspect, though, we do not need to be hospital patients to relate to the chapters of struggle in life either. Right?
So, some simple analogies with sea glass can be made. Firstly, there’s the diversity of the glass; the different colors and shapes and origins, surely with different storm stories. And, secondly, its probably good to support one one another in the waves, not to rush each other thru too soon, but be willing to share tears. And, I cannot help but note the role of tears on our human journey through the waves of life. Tears, the salt water washing right through us, as the waves turn the ocean, tumbling the sea glass, tears are often a part of forming us into new beings, of softening our sharp edges, morphing us into new smoother shapes with less sparkly of a finish. Dissolving pain, draining tension, letting go of old ridges, opening to new ways of being. And thirdly, yes, there is even a message of hope in this analogy, there’s the potential for transformation after a storm, for human lives to eventually land on a sandy shore, forever changed, but beautiful, and with a new purpose and direction ahead, perhaps claimed to become jewelry.
But, more than all that, I’m mostly struck by the reminder in this reading that everyone we meet has been on a journey already. Everyone we meet here at Northwestern, patient, loved one, nurse, chaplain, environmental staff-everyone has a story. We just meet here for one page in a whole long tale. The older adult who lies in a bed at the end of life was once different in appearance and maybe personality, too. The frail and balding person receiving chemo therapy was maybe once an athlete. The swollen person who cannot walk because of excess fluid in her legs maybe used to dance. The man who cannot remember where he is might have been a professor. The sea glass we discover may not resemble at all the container of it’s earlier life, and may be quite different, even, from the transforming piece that spent years and years being thrown and bounced against the rocks.
Do we have the reverence that is required to appreciate humans as sea glass? The openness, and willingness to get into what the author Lia called “primitive postures”? I pray for that eye for buried brightness, and the drive to give small things their due.
And lastly, as Lia closes her essay, I, too, hope we all can find time for the bright uselessness of joyful endeavors, like searching for sea glass in the sand, those frivolous pastimes that really are not so useless, after all.
Ritual: I invite you each to come up to the table now, and choose two pieces of sea glass; one, to remember your own journey, through waves and still waters, and maybe onto shore. Choose the other, in honor of someone else who’s story you appreciate, or wonder about, or long to learn more about. I hope this will be some sort of a tangible reminder to you of whatever meaning sea glass, or the ocean, has for you, trusting that there is at least a small hint of connection for us all.