Gifts From The Sea

Assateague Island
Assateague Island

The beach was slowly filling up with fishing poles, coolers and occupied beach chairs. The Atlantic was gorgeous, shimmering in the slant of the early morning autumn sun, the tide rolling in with a surge of foam and spray.  Feet bare, pants rolled up just below our knees, we were dodging the occasional fishing line and adjusting to the chill of the water when we saw it, well Mr. Garner saw it first, tumbling and rolling in the froth on the beach ahead of us.

Mr. Garner started off towards it in a mildly curious manner when a nearby local fisherman called out over the crash of the waves, “You’ve gotta run if you’re going to get it!”  So he darted towards it, scooping it up before the undertow of the receding water snatched it back into the roiling recesses and out of sight. It was a big, beautiful whelk shell.

Apparently, the waves, the tide, the incline of the beach, the season, were just right for the sea to bring forth gifts of whelk shells. The fisherman, who had been there since dawn, had already collected almost a dozen and was giving them to people passing by. He gave us another one in addition to the one Mr. Garner had caught from the surf. It’s hard to express the joy and excitement of pulling your own whelk shell, whole, and beautiful from the sea.  In seaside communities one sees them for sale in shops and such, but finding your own is a special and serendipitous event.

Knobbed Whelk
Knobbed Whelk Busycon carica

We were hooked.  Over the course of our remaining walk Mr. Garner’s vigilant scanning yielded two more, less perfect, but still beautiful, whelk shells. We received many admiring comments and questions as we walked along, our hands full of shells, our eyes searching each gushing surge for another tumbling shell.

At some point the generosity of the fisherman, and the sea struck me as providential and the abundance reminded me I should share, so when I caught up with a questing couple from India on their honeymoon who had marveled at my armful but not been able to find their own, it was only fitting to give them the shell they had most admired for a wedding gift.

The next morning, we decided to visit the beach again at the turn of the tide to see if we could repeat our experience before heading back home, but despite our hopes and watchfulness, it was not meant to be.

Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches.

Ann Morrow Lindbergh in her 1955 devotional memoir, Gifts from the Sea, warns about being anxious, greedy or impatient for gifts from the sea.  We were, in the excitement, perhaps a little guilty of living her metaphor.

“The mind begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach.  One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up on the smooth white sand of the unconscious mind.  But it must not be fought for or – heaven forbid! – dug for.  No, no dredging of the sea bottom here; that would defeat one’s purpose.  The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy or too impatient.  To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith.  Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches.  

She’s talking here, about the thoughts and ideas that can be generated by a mind seduced to stillness by the relentless rhythm of waves on the beach.  Now home, and pondering these words, I hold the shell up to my ear and listen to the sounds of the sea.  I’m not sure I agree about digging, but all metaphors break down at some point. I think the point here is about waiting and trusting, or in her words, patience and faith.

Patience and faith.  One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.”

This is a tough lesson to learn.  There are a few areas in my life where I am really tired of waiting, and my faith, while not faltering, is surely fatigued. So, it is good to be reminded of a few treasures that have tumbled out of the surf on the beach, so to speak, when and where we weren’t really looking for them. 

The sea teaches patience and faith when waiting. I would add that sometimes we must be waiting at the beach, and willing to run…if we want to catch it…our gift from the sea.

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