For as long as I can remember, I have deeply loved the beach. As a child, I relished doing cartwheels in the sand and running away from the waves each time they crashed. My dad used to wake up first thing in the morning and build life-sized sand cars for my sister and me, fashioning steering wheels from buckets and gear shifts from shovels. It was a little piece of magic to arrive at the beach and see a new creation waiting there just for us.

As an adult, I feel a profound sense of peace while looking at the water. Standing at the edge of the ocean (or Lake Michigan, for that matter) makes me feel definitively small and insignificant in the best way.

Every year since my grandfather passed away, my family has visited Sanibel Island in January. Vacations on Sanibel have been a family tradition for almost fifty years, so the island is nostalgic for all of us. Our days at the beach are grounding, planned around sunsets and sunrises, measured by low tides and the direction of the waves.

One morning last week, there was an especially low tide at sunrise. We bundled up and sleepily shuffled down to the water, morning coffees in hand. The early rise was worth it because we found the beach completely alive. Scallops separated from their ocean homes clapped up at us in droves calling out for the next wave to safety. An octopus took refuge in a pen shell (we brought him back to the water), and coquina shells buried themselves in the sand after each wave tore away a bit of their shelter. We walked out to a sandbar and waded through the rippling waves, a tide pool to our left and the ocean to our right. It felt like walking on water.

Low tide is the optimal time to look for shells, as the ocean pulls back to reveal what it was hiding under each crashing wave. When shelling, there are a few key seconds in between waves when it’s necessary to pounce—right after one wave crashes and before it ricochets back from the tide pool—a moment of clear water before it’s disrupted and made murky again by the sand.

It occurred to me while standing in the ocean searching for shells this year that the feeling and frustration of finding and losing a shell is very much akin to searching for clarity in my twenties. Each time I feel like I finally figure something out or begin to see life clearly, a split second later a wave comes from an unexpected direction and all is cloudy again.

In shelling, every now and then the water clears enough for you to find the shell you’ve been looking for all along, but there’s always a chance the next wave will steal it right from your fingertips. The ocean gives and it takes away. But spend too long hovered over the tide pool waiting for that perfect clearwater moment, and you’ll forget you’re effectively standing in an ocean of possibility. Another wave always comes, and there can be hope in that too.


  1. Joyce patterson

    Another thoughtful piece— being in your twenties isn’t as easy as it was in my time.

  2. Rob Roseman

    Wish I’d have been that reflective in my 20s and 30s and..


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