In our part of the world it is a rare occasion that presents a whole, unbroken, unblemished shell on the wet edge of the continent for someone to pick up and tote home, so I walked with my head bent, my eyes scanning the crunchy water line for interesting fragments.
Just a few strides from the boardwalk I found half a sand dollar. It looked very little like the whole ones you find at sea shell stores, the ones that are bleach-white and completely round, the ones whose five sets of pores on the top make a perfect Spirograph star. This fifty-cent piece of a sand dollar was exposing its inside, the cavity that in a living specimen is the water-vascular system that enables it to move, the cavity that – in death and dismemberment – was only an empty room.
I found more, smaller pieces as I walked. I picked them up, rattled them around in my palm. Pieces of a dollar. Quarters and dimes and nickels. Loose change. Not quite as easy to carry as a single bill, but still spendable.
Further down the beach something glinted in the sand. I reached down to pick up a piece of moon shell. Smooth as glass, curved like a scythe, it was about the size of my thumbnail. I couldn’t decide whether it was pink or brown or something in between. Either way, I thought and smiled at my vanity, it would make a pretty lipstick.
As I kept walking and scanning the water line, it appeared that, in an effort to get my attention, the tide had deposited an embarrassment of moon shell pieces. Slivers, slices, chunks. All different, but all recognizable and all evocative of a full moon shell.
Just the night before I had stood and looked out over the ocean at a full moon. Its reflection in the water pulsed with energy, scattered illumination in all directions, outlined the landscape in softness like a filter on a camera lens. I had watched it and remembered other full moons, other nights standing under a shower of pewter light. I had stared at the pumpkin-colored ball poised in the sky at the exact point where its surface could be fully illuminated by the sun and thought of the mystery and magic we attribute to something that occurs only once every 29½ days.
Why, I asked myself, holding the fragile pieces of moon shell in my hand, don’t we see mystery and magic in the other days? Why do we reserve the awe and wonder for one night a month? Why do we save things – good china, linen napkins, our deepest emotions – for what we call "special occasions"?
The tide had turned, the roar of the waves had softened and I could now hear in the rhythm of my footsteps the sound of thousands of shell fragments dissolving beneath my weight. Shells becoming sand.
Back over the dunes, through the sea oats, I carried my treasures, bits and pieces, parts and fragments, remnants and shards. I carried them with my palms turned up and open, the way I’d been told by a friend that one must carry anything of value.
It would be lovely some day to happen upon a sea shell, whole and unbroken and unblemished. A pink and white conch or a tiger-striped chambered nautilus or a tightly spiraled whelk. But it is better still, I’ve decided, to look for loveliness in the pieces and parts and fragments that get scattered like crumbs along the shore.
Few dawns are heralded by full moons. Few shells survive the wash of the tide unbroken and unblemished. It is the other moons, new and waxing and waning, that usher in most mornings. It is the pieces of shells, worn down by the wash of water and broken by the weight of travelers that form the beach. And it is the awe and wonder, the mystery and magic of the everyday that is the currency of our lives.