The hordes of tourist shops and souvenir peddlers in just about any travel destination may be proof, evidence if you will, of our need to collect things from our journeys. I proffer that our reasons for buying an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt, a Grand Canyon snow globe, or Eiffel Tower key ring, might differ a bit but, are still a response to the same behavioral button that also gets pushed when we stoop to pick agates or shells from a beach, or pinecones from the forest floor. It’s why little kids come home with a pockets full of rocks ,twigs, leaves, and snails. Perhaps this habit results from some vestigial instinct from our foraging past. Or it’s just an effort to hang on to a memory and keep our connection with the places we’ve been and the feelings we had while there.
Whatever the reason, I collect shells, specifically gastropod shells, more specifically broken spiral gastropod shells. I do indeed throw back the shells with no flaw. My penchant is for the shells showing their inner architecture. I gather them, put them in my pockets, or in a bag if I have one. Nearly all of my outdoor jackets have a shell or two buried at the bottom of a pocket or two. Eventually, most of them are deposited into a square jar that sits in our spare room. Every once in a while, I take the jar off of the shelf and look at my collection. On rare occasions, I open the jar, take a shell or two out, and finger the curves, noting the smoothness of the calcareous deposits, soaking up the lines of the graceful columella with every sense I can. It’s a cliché, but I wonder at the marvels of nature: the mysteries of such a complex structure housing this simple animal.
I’ve been hording these shells for years but it several years after this collecting streak began that I figured out why it was that I REALLY like the broken shells. Yes, I collect them because I think they are beautiful, more beautiful than whole shells. But, it was when I realized the simple symbolism: broken things can be beautiful, that I understood my collecting urges. When broken, the shell’s true character is exposed, its inner nature vulnerable to view, that honesty is more beautiful than perfection. And so I like to think it is that way for people. When injured, we show our true nature to others and to ourselves. If we like what we see, it strengthens us and changes us (perhaps we become a collector of broken gastropod shells). Not everyone will appreciate the window into our interior reality but, those that do see through it clearly, like what they see and stay with us, become our friends, mentors, and companions in life.
If you ever meet me, ask me what I have in my coat pocket and I’ll surely pull out fragments of a periwinkle or whelk. If you’re really lucky, I’ll give you one.