Sea Glass, For Example
Near the center and towards the back, on the middle shelf of the built-in sideboard. A small teacup sits filled with the sea glass I brought home from Glass Beach in Ele’ele, Kaua’i well over 20 years ago.
It’s never been displayed with the many other jars of sea glass that have shown up over the past few years, in such number that they’re now a collection competing for prime real estate on the first shelf, alongside cookbooks and trays I keep out for keys and sunglasses and wallets. That space is accessible, utilitarian, or is supposed to be anyway, meant to aid the running of a household. The higher up you go, the more the items there take you farther away in time into memory, as keepsakes do.
Yet it’s not a strict system, because way up on the top shelf are vases I use all the time, and the sea glass is clearly not helpful in the way that recipes are. But I positioned it there intentionally, as if to catch my eye frequently as we all move back and forth into the kitchen, the busiest room in the house. As if appraising them was a kind of sustenance too.
Actually, there may be no commonly held organizing principle at work here at all, especially if at the very least you’re assuming like we all do that keepsakes are supposed to be displayed because of the pleasant memories they trigger in us. The Kaua’i glass definitely does the opposite of that for me. My memory of being on Glass Beach is not a fond one.
But what if its placement is perfect, only not within space? What if the system it’s organized by is a continuum of divinity, through time? It might be physically there on the shelf, just back far enough to be hardly noticeable, and simultaneously it could be marking the very epicenter of infinity.
It might be resting right where the two halves of an 8 meet when left on its side.
What sounded like a fun excursion earlier that day turned into complete and utter overwhelm as I stepped out onto the expanse of an inlet completely covered with glass in varying stages of wear. The beach is not supposed to make you anxious, but I was a wreck.
I could not cope with how much sea glass was on this beach. The abundance paralyzed me, made me dizzy. I didn’t know where to start. I felt like in order to even want to navigate collecting glass that must mean I was grasping, greedy. How to start, when to stop? We left after about a half-hour.
For years, the handful I had gathered remained deep in my basement in a box with other trinket-y things still unpacked from our cross-country move, finally working itself forward with other boxes in waves as I combed through the years of Stuff That Must Be Dealt With after my husband’s death.
It survived the massive sorting and donation cycles that ensued because I didn’t want to let go of it. It was pretty, after all. I truly liked it. Every once in awhile, when I dusted the shelf where it had ended up, I’d enjoy looking at each piece under a stream of water from the kitchen tap while I carefully washed off any accumulated grime. The glass calmed me, even softly called to me, but the real reason stayed muffled in layers of thick fog when I tried to discern why.
And then, a few years later I met Bill. He had been hunting sea glass for over two decades by that point.
On one of our first dates, I found a piece of an antique light bulb insulator made of dark purple glass which had been tumbled and worn into a heart shape. I thought it was a stone. I showed it to him, offering, “Look at this teeny heart rock, isn’t it sweet?”
His reaction was sudden and very loud. Beaming, he animatedly exclaimed, “That’s not a rock, Susan do you know what that is!?” He switched on his phone’s flashlight and set the little heart directly upon it, whereupon it came to life, turning into a glowing jewel in front of my very eyes.
We’d only been out sea glass hunting together a couple of times by that point, although one of them had been in Puerto Rico right after hurricane Maria where he showed me, on a small beach adjacent to the San Jeronimo de Boqueron fort in San Juan, how to find the last remaining good pieces the storm had brought with her. At that point, I still had no understanding of just how fantastic the few very good hours he’d spent there before I arrived had truly been. To the guards who might’ve thought he was showing up to simply pick up litter, he would show them the treasure pulled off the beach and explained he was collecting “Lagrimas de Sirena”, a nickname for sea glass. For those who liked to collect it, it was slightly magical.
It’s a good thing that he’d found most of the glass on that beach. I really had to look for the few pieces I found. It was perfectly the exact opposite of Kaua’i, and I was neither overwhelmed nor discouraged. I found it invigorating. I got my bearings as he approvingly encouraged me and taught me the basic canon of the sea glass collectors: sea glass is considered done when it is worn and polished on all sides. The most common colors are brown and white, then green. Less common are pinks, aquas, blues, and milk glass in all shades, pieces of china, porcelain and art glass. The rarest colors are orange, yellow, red, and purple.
Eventually, I would learn so much more, the kind of learning that comes with the doing of a thing, the getting it in your bones and muscles: how to recognize the shades, shapes, and thickness of centuries’ old glass bottles, or marbles, beads, and buttons, how to approximately gauge the age of fragments with embossed words and designs. How to distinguish “jewelry grade” showpieces from the just as beautiful but less symmetrical cousins. How to stay calm and not combust on the spot with jealousy when a newcomer showed you the bottle stopper they found five minutes in on their first day.
For that first evening’s hunt, Bill gave me just enough information, which was basically what to throw back and what to keep. It was exactly the kind of beginning with guardrails that made it fun. Even if for the first few months I’d resist letting go of glass that wasn’t done, he would graciously throw it back for me, and it helped train my eye. Eventually, instead of giving him the pieces I couldn’t stand to chuck back, I released them myself, finally trusting that there was more sea glass on any given beach than I’d ever have the time and energy to collect. There was enough for anyone, in fact.
I can’t say for sure but I’m guessing that bringing a woman hunting sea glass who doesn’t know that much about it but who then rather quickly finds a piece of heart-shaped purple glass, is probably similar to being a super hockey fan and watching, stunned, as your new girlfriend catches a puck during a playoff game. Mike Meyers, who is a super hockey fan, described both his passion for hockey and his first date with his wife this way.
It’s a completely charming story and later I found myself laughing out loud as I thought about it and the beginner’s luck I’d had. I also checked and rechecked that the tiny purple heart was still in my pocket the whole way home. It felt like perhaps the Atlantic ocean was trying to get my attention on a number of points.
Of course a piece of glass like that needed safekeeping. I remembered the tiny teacup holding my stash from Kaua’i. Without even setting down my bag after I hit the door, I went immediately to find it.
Suddenly, the fog cleared.
As well as having become one of my favorite pastimes, sea glass hunting is also now my favorite form of meditation. I’ve always loved the beach, but it happens often that even when I don’t know I am particularly tense or anxious, after moving onto the sand and instinctively beginning the subtle scanning of the gravel beds at low tide, I’ll notice my thoughts slowing, my breathing deepening, and I am suddenly present only to what’s actually happening moment by moment. I am calm and I am searching, completely open. I call it “uncoiling”. Occasionally I’ll look up at the horizon while I change positions, taking it all in, how peaceful I feel and how much I have come to love the beach even more and for an entirely new reason. I move slowly from standing to sitting and then standing up again to stretch my legs and neck, completely comfortable in my own skin.
Hunting is actually an imprecise word to describe what I’m doing, because it’s impossible to use effort in acquiring a good piece of glass. Yoda must have known this. There is no try. There is only do, and there seems to me to be little actual do other than choosing to receive what the ocean wants to give you. The more I grasp or yearn for an amazing find, the worse I feel. I’ve only ever found remarkable glass by happening upon it. In fact, what is most astonishing about the amazing pieces I’ve collected is not just the mere fact of their existence, but also the experience of discovering them. It literally feels like I stumble upon them, and how on earth do I end up in exactly this spot at exactly this moment and look down (or brush aside this gravel) at exactly the right angle?? How are any of us not part of a greater design, a divine order? I wonder if about these moments when our humanness seems to be guided toward such synchronicity, so gently.
Little zaps and intuitive nudges happen all the time while I’m scanning. It’s dousing for sure. It feels good to slow down, dig a little, move across to another part of a beach, all part of a dance whose steps I didn’t know I knew. I don’t need to know who is guiding me. I just follow the flow. Sometimes I am led to a totally ordinary piece, these are my reminders to be grateful for the joy in each moment of this pastime (and also that every piece is special). When the piece I am led to is extraordinary, I become instantaneously raucous and silly, and have been known to start swearing and laughing all at once.
The more I appreciate the miracle of every single piece, the more joyful the experience is for me. I think about this: I am now holding in my hand part of an object that 30, 40, 50, 60, 70–even up to 150 years ago and beyond, someone else held in their hand. Holding these worn glass nuggets, I am now connected to the time, energy, and stories of people who I never knew. For one last moment each item belonged to someone, and whether it had been a gift, a well-used household item made suddenly useless by a crack or a chip, a bottle drunkenly tossed away, an artist’s creation lost to a flood, a marble used to blend paint, a jar from a manufacturing plant or a laboratory, each of the stories told of these things (and the people who held them!) were released into time for me and others to discover. Even if I’m holding a piece of what was surely trash to them in the end, it is now transformed into something entirely new–not useful in the same way the object started out, but special and serving a different purpose now. The journey of energy connects me to that object, that person, and through them, to potentially everything that was important to them.
That must be why hanging onto pieces that are wonderful but that just aren’t done and need to be thrown back now makes me miserable. It’s so hard though! Sometimes we just can’t bear to leave them! So, if we really can’t let go, we bring them to beaches where we know they’ll get worked enough, where the waves and tides will actually be strong enough to make really good glass out of them, and in this way, we give the gift of connection to another sea glass hunter in a different point in the future.
I have learned to appreciate getting to peek at a work under construction that is this glass, to get to see more of what the source object was, and then to let it go.
Often I find something remarkable immediately after chucking unfinished glass back. Glass that’s still largely what it originally was, but nowhere near done, places me right in the moment I’m in as well, a divine point between the past when it was trash and the future when it is special, neither of which I will experience. It’s just me and an offering, on the beach, breathing in and out.
If you’re into metaphors, you’ll understand what I mean when I say I released something *very* precious into the Universe one Monday afternoon in late August, when I dropped my eldest son at his dorm to begin his freshman year in college. I arrived at the beach we were to explore afterward pretty emotionally depleted. A couple hours later I found an incredible square of what I first assumed was purple fire glass. Fire glass happens when glass is altered by melting, either from being burnt on trash barges that were commonly set afire and floated out to sea as was customary until the mid-20th century, or by getting too close to a campfire, or by being struck by lightning.
Purple fire glass would have been enough of a find. And this piece was big, 2” by 3” inches at least. It took my breath away.
But then upon closer inspection, Bill said he thought it looked like there was a floral pattern embossed or molded into the glass, and even though my heart was still racing at the size of it, I willed myself to focus and saw he was exactly right. So I did a little googling and discovered it’s likely a piece of a vase made of something called black amethyst glass, very fashionable in the 1920’s and which fits with the history of the beach we were searching.
It just might be the most incredible piece I’ve ever found on one of the most incredible beaches I’ve ever been to, especially since some would consider the beach a polluted trash heap, toxic in places certainly and possibly a wee bit radioactive. As my now college-freshman kid says, “No risk, no reward”.
But it’s more than that. It’s a reminder that when we release something precious into the world, it may transform and change, but always into something special.
It’s a footnote to another jewel, too, a purple heart I received so I would remember it was a time to be open-hearted and brave and to remember my wounds had healed.
And it’s a companion to a teacup full of glass that waited for me to discover it again, and reminds me that love is enduring. It will follow us until we realize it has arrived.
With the exception of a few pieces of throwback glass, the Kaua’i glass is all incredible, any one of them a beautiful find, including the best piece of them all, a big triangle of cornflower blue, tinged violet. Gasping, laughing out loud, I took each piece out of the teacup and sorted them, awestruck. Twenty years had passed and I’d had no idea.
Like all good sea glass, it marks the past and the future both. It is a timepiece that was set before I was born yet it would mark the moment when I found it and also when I returned to myself, decades later.
This glass found me all the way back before I was married, before my sons were born, before the many seasons of loss and healing that came next.
Patiently, calling to me softly until I rediscovered it, it allowed me to look back into a vision of my future, and forward into a past I had lived fully. It would wait, until I could finally hear it asking me, “Tell me, how are you or anyone else not connected to the infinite?”Back to all posts