Life’s a Shell Game



We live in a world that strives for perfection. The fashion, business and technology, cosmetics, lifestyles and, of course, sports industries have made fortunes from convincing people to pursue the ideal of perfection.


There’s influence to be the perfect size, to set the perfect table and be the perfect hostess, have one’s makeup perfectly applied, be the top sales associate, have a perfect season…. Although society is starting to push back some, the marketing gurus, aided by social media, are still coercing us to seek perfection.


While in one of my favorite seaside gift shops, I stared at the rows of bin after bin of perfect, unchipped seashells. The fact that many of them, such as the assortment of giant conch shells, are never found on the upper coast of Texas, hardly mattered. I photographed the individual bins, marveling in the artificially bleached whiteness of the sand dollars and a variety of starfish. Although their color was anything but natural, they were still lovely.


What is done with these ideal, fragile shells? We study the selections carefully, turning them over in our hands, making sure they’re free of any imperfections before we purchase them. Whether we decide on the stark white sand dollars, the brightly colored sea urchins, or intricately patterned junonia, they’re all jewels of the sea.


Once we make up our mind and pay the vendor, then what? We take the tissue-wrapped shells home and put them on a shelf, usually inside a glass cabinet where they’re free from any of life’s mishaps.


While walking our dogs along the shore in front of our house, I began looking for sand dollars. Rather than perfection, I found a lot of broken bits and pieces of the round discs. I started examining the other shells as we walked along. The more I studied them, I noticed that–with the exception for a variety of scallop shells–none were unbroken.


As I picked up shells and examined them, I couldn’t help wondering how far they’d traveled. Of course, it was impossible to know. Even the thick ones were cracked or broken, underscoring the power of the sea and the trials of their journeys.


I took my cache of shells back to the beach house and spread them on the deck table. As I looked at them, I began to think how much the shells looked like real life–a bit battered, a little weary, anything but perfect. Yet, they were each unique and beautiful.


I was reminded of a line from a movie I’d watched years ago. It was set in the Regency period, and although I don’t remember the title, the writing has stayed with me. A young woman had discovered that her somewhat older fiancé, of whom she was greatly attached, had been in love before. Through the innocence of her inexperience and youth, she was devastated.


His answer to her tears was wonderful: “Would you rather be the first love of a man who doesn’t know any better or the last love of a man who does?”


A partner in life that’s a bit battered by living, a little weary, and anything but perfect is a far preferable companion to the pristine specimen kept in a glass case, safe from experience–from living.