What I See in Sea Glass

By Nicole Wise

therapeutic benefits of beachcombing

Years ago, I ran a marathon. I’m still surprised to report that crossing the finish line turned out to be beside the point. The life-altering part ended up being the hours I spent training on the curvy, hilly country roads where I lived, which allowed me—forced me—to work through sadness and anger about a divorce I did not want. My time on the road was excruciating and painful and transcendent and uplifting, often all in the same run.

One pale pink winter morning I watched smoke curl from the chimney of an antique home. Breathing in the sharp, cold New England air, I caught the woodsy scent of smoke and pine trees and something else too, light and sweet and floral. It was the fragrance of fabric softener, someone’s freshly washed clothing tumbling in a dryer. It was warm in their home and cold outdoors. Though I knew nothing about the family (and they knew even less about me), I nonetheless felt a connection, a fragment of intimacy in our shared world. The moment is crystallized in my memory—one of many from those runs—I’ll carry with me forever (I hope).

Now, 15 years later, when I drive through the neighborhood where I trained, my body remembers exactly how it felt to run there. Every run was its own, but all had a sameness. This long, curving incline, that garden. This barking dog, that pothole. I welcomed it all—the loveliness, the loneliness, the pounding, the release.

I’m gentler with myself now, with no particular pain in my life, but I’m still chasing those moments of connection with the world. The punishing runs have been replaced with vigorous morning walks, which often end at a sandy neighborhood beach where I indulge myself with a search for sea glass. Whether my mood is light or dark, my spirit lively or burdened, my mind shifts when I step on the sand. My focus and vision sharpen. I become fully present, reliably so, in a way that seems to only happen here.

Allow me to set the stage. I live near a messy, rocky Connecticut beach, not one that shimmers and glistens with jewels from the sea. Glassy beaches like that exist, but not where I live. Here, the treasures are not so abundant.

As my mind settles, I might first notice small, bright bits of plastic among the pebbles, shells and sand. I stop for a few deep breaths, take in the view, scan the horizon, familiar as it is, for new things to notice. Sometimes a lighthouse or a far-away landscape zooms into sharp focus, brilliant and colorful in the sunlight; sometimes a powdery haze softens everything into chalky pastels. If the tide is high, I hear the waves slap the sand. If low, I’ll catch a cool, earthy undertone of mud in the briny air. Then, when I bring my gaze downward, my eyes and mind begin their work and the sand transforms itself into thousands of possibilities.

The process is oddly mathematical. As I scan the sand, my brain sorts patterns and identifies anomalies. A speck of color pops, an opaque shard of pottery gleams a brighter white than the creamy shells around it. I pick it up and turn it over. Often it’s just a stone or a shell but sometimes a small frond of blue leaves, detail from the blue and white pattern of willow ware china, reveals itself. It may once have been the edge of a dinner plate or a saucer for someone’s cup of tea. Whose, I wonder? What moments in their lives might have been served up on this particular piece of tableware? Or maybe I’ll pick up a pillow-shaped bit of aqua glass with a powdery texture that looks like what I think a sugar plum must look like, or, rarer, a softened sliver of cobalt blue glass.

Time falls away. Just as my body and brain memorized the roads I ran, I’ve apparently trained myself to use this beach (any beach actually) as a place where life will fall away. I usually leave with a handful of pieces, most ordinary, but each delightful in the moment of discovery. Sometimes I hunt with purpose; I’ll want blue or purple or a glossy hunk with a pleasing heft. I may indeed find what I was looking for, but more often I find a different sort of treasure—a satisfyingly heavy  chunk of pale green milk glass, a sharp triangle of striped pottery, or a bit of glass worn away into the unlikely shape of a heart.

I  have noticed that this happens in life, too. It’s human nature to plan and pour energy and effort into what we think will make us whole and happy—and sometimes it works out exactly that way. We look up (or down, as the case may be) and realize we’ve arrived at exactly the right place. Other times it’s not quite so linear. You end up elsewhere, with something you never thought to want. Sometimes it turns out even better.

My love for sea glass is both literal and deeply metaphorical. I’m drawn to the translucence, the texture, the shapes, the way the colors play in the sunlight. I’m curious about the provenance of particular pieces; what it used to be, how it got to look as it does.

For me, sea glass is art, science, and archaeology, all at once. I’m captivated by the story of transformation from the turbulence of the sea. Glasses and dishes (and beer, wine, and Coca Cola bottles) that were once clear and perfect got broken, were tossed out. Bright, shiny, sharp pieces tumbled through waves and sand, softening gradually, eroding and becoming something entirely different along the way. Broken pieces become lovely in their own, very different way. These are the types of thoughts I have as I make my way across the beach.

Though I sometimes make things with my sea glass, that feels beside the point. It inspires me regardless of what I do with it. Like most of us who collect sea glass, I’ve sorted mine by colors and shapes. I stack it into cairns and arrange it into pleasing patterns and take photos, often sharing them on social media. Mostly, though, I just keep them in files on my phone to look at when I’m bored or crave a moment of calm.

Sea glass brings me peace and pleasure, and represents possibility, but there is also another reason I love it. At an age when friends are thinking about retiring, my professional life has intensified. I am working harder than ever and grateful that I can—that painful divorce left me the lone parent of four. My children and I will be paying off student loans for decades. It has all been much harder than I ever expected, but richer and more satisfying, too. While I can’t exactly say my life has been a walk in the park, every time I look at all the sea glass I’ve collected over these many years, I am freshly reminded of how much of it has, indeed, been a walk on the beach.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.

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