I sifted through shells on a Florida beach one afternoon last week. It was just like that beach has been on many other occasions: wind, waves foaming up around me, salt in the air, grit mixing with sunshine on my face. And shells in all colors: tiny, smooth coquinas, with purple shadings or orange stripes, and larger scallop shells, rose and white. I made a sand castle and tiled its top with scallops, but a wave came under it, and it caved in, so then I smoothed a place and paved it with scallops. Doing such things makes me feel very alive — it might be the joy of manipulating raw materials that we discussed in my college aesthetics course — but it could also be because I did the same sorts of things when I was five years old. Or perhaps the two are related.
In any case, there I was, and, being me, I started thinking about poetry. Ted Hughes’ poem “Relic,” to be exact. Dr. McAllister’s interpretation of the poem’s first stanza was “When you walk on the beach, you’re walking on dead things.” The poem talks about a washed-up jawbone, and the continual eating that takes place in the natural world. The end of the second stanza says:
” … Jaws
Eat and are finished and the jawbone comes to the beach:
This is the sea’s achievement; with shells,
Vertebrae, claws, carapaces, skulls.”
So, there in the midst of my youthful joy in sea shells, I suddenly realized they were all simply the dead castings of a devouring sea. With sand under my fingernails and salt in my hair, I prepared to fall into poetic gloom. Then I thought a bit further, and fell not.
Digging amongst all those dead shells, I had found live shells also. Live coquinas, that, once unburied, immediately began digging down and down. (If you hold them in a handful of damp sand you can feel them trying to bury themselves in your palm.) The live shells, though very beautiful, are not readily visible. They do not adorn the water-line with colors; to stick them to sand castles or carry them home in your pockets would kill them. When they are dead, though, they come to the top, and can be sifted and piled; they can pave a tiny sand-path, adorn a damp sand-hill, get lost in the bottom of the beach-bag.
Is it a stretch to tie the beautiful death of sea-shells to the death to which Christ has called us? We have been called to lose our lives; indeed, we “have died, and [our] life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is [our] life appears, then [we] will also appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:3,4). Hidden with Christ … to appear with Him in glory. Beautiful? Yes, because He makes us so.
In any case, there upon the beach, this is what I thought. Perhaps, Ted Hughes, the sea is never satisfied, perhaps it is full of death. But I am promised satisfaction; I am promised life. I need not be gloomy upon the beach.