The shell and the red balloon

Shahnit’s Shell

When I moved to an island in the Salish Sea, a friend gave me some shells he had found on a beach one day.  We agreed that I would spend some time with them and, in time, find some shells and agate stones here on this island, and so send them to him in return.  His jar of shells, many broken by the surf, sits by my meditation chair as a reminder to be “with” him and “with” all the people I love, even though I am in a new place and not physically “with” them and not yet established enough to have made many friends here.  Such is the reality of a move to a new place. To an island off Washington’s coastline.

This is one of the shells in the jar.  Well, a broken fragment of one. 

I removed it as a way to acknowledge that, though I have many friends, I find it helpful to celebrate them one at a time when I pray.  This one friend.  This one shell.  This one meditation moment.  This one day of life.  

Or perhaps this one hour, given that an earthquake off the coast of the Western United States would create a tsunami which would wash me and Kai-the-dog into Portland.  A Walmart parking lot with my luck. Not a cool Dim Sum place. Kai swims and likes cold water.  I swim. But they say that three minutes in pacific water will kill a human, icy as it is. And in a tsunami, there are the floating cars and houses to consider.  So let’s just say “this one hour.”  You know.  To be safe and all. No need to get ahead of ourselves.

This one shell.  This one blanket on which it sits.  This one lap on which the blanket lays, warming and soft like a washed and dried baby lamb. This one cup of black tea, heavy on the milk. This one life. This one friend of many.

As I stared at this shell-fragment, I wondered about the creature which once made its home inside its folds and curves. I wondered how a Creator-God could make something so marvelous, so geometric, so satiny with hues of peach and tan, white and pearly cream.  And the infinity swirl so commonly used in art to consider the miracle of life.

My heart swelled like the red balloon of a child’s fifth birthday party, all silly and expectant but not yet fully aware of the horrors life can bring.  Will bring. Occasionally.  And while my heart swelled with love for my friend and gratitude for his friendship, I heard, off stage, the toe-tapping of some other friends whose friendship, in the messiness of life, took a turn for the worse – harmed by carelessness on my part or theirs, wizened by neglect, broken by betrayal – mine or theirs or both.

But the balloon of my heart did not deflate.  It did not burst with the knife-pain of the mental images of those friendship-gravestones.  And at 55 there are some. 

The balloon of my meditation stayed not only inflated but buoyant on the ocean of a love I can sense.  The love of some Being which created this swirl in this shell.  Created this friendship I so miss and love.  Created my body, aging and wrinkled as it is – with strange new bulges, red spots, wounds and aches of body, mind and spirit. Created this island.  Created the land with its faults, one of which may create the land-shake. Then the wave. Then the silence.

I do not trust the syrupy sermons of preachers regaling us about how wonderful things are for Christians because God loves us. Life is too complex for that dribble of institutional narcissism. Things can be wonderful for Christians.  And Muslims.  And Buddhists. And Atheists. And they can be horrible too. But celebrate we will.  Celebrate we must. Because life is too beautiful to miss in our busy-addicted culture.

I trust this shell.  I trust this moment with milky tea and a blanket.  I trust this friendship which is alive and I even trust what life taught me from the friendships which are dead, like ghosts in other chairs.  

Kai-the-dog’s legs are shaking – he is dreaming of running even now, as he dies of old age, so slowly. I trust Kai-the-dog’s rising and falling chest as he dreams of being young enough to still run and swim for 20 minutes at a time.  (These days Kai and I walk the beach for 10 minutes, he swims, {well, stands and squats really} and then we go home for a long nap to recover from the exertion. Being old takes courage.)

That there is no Creator of all this beauty is preposterous.  Who that Creator is and what Its rules are, have been a subject of debate and war for centuries. I am too tired for war. As I age and slow down, I am less curious about theology and more curious about the curves of this shell.  I am a potter, so I know that an artist can leave behind marks from his or her hand on the clay.  I’m interested in those marks.

Who is God?  I am not absolutely sure.  I know…I know…one can hear the church disciplinary councils sharpening their quills. But I know this one thing: I can see the marks of Creativity on this cosmos and on this planet and on sweet, old Kai-the-dog; and on this shell fragment.  The truth is that I am less and less inclined to worship the Creator.  Rather, I am more and more inclined to sit with It, chat a bit and thank It for the ivory curve of a shell, the pink tongue of Kai-the-dog,  and what I am learning from my friendships – all of them – the living, the ill and the long-dead. And for my breakfast of bread, fish and cheese.

The more I think I know, the less I believe I know.  But the curve of a shell-fragment seems, these days, to be quite enough to inspire Glory and to fill the red balloon again for one more buoyant hour.

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