(This post contains brief but potentially triggering language about abuse.)
I have a significant rock collection. I love natural beauty, especially small objects from the places I go that remind me to be still and reverent. Not only do I know where they’re all from, for the most part, but I also remember the moment I found them. Like the tiny shells from the shores of Connemara on the west coast of Ireland, or the perfectly polished slate I found on a beach west of Cork under a supermoon, to the pieces of quartz I spotted when hiking Mount Mansfield in the Green Mountains of Vermont with the man I will soon marry, each rock is a memory.
Wherever I go, I look for the treasures, and I’ve been doing this since I was a little girl. For a few summers, my grandmother rented a house in Cape Cod for family vacations. This is not the grandma who lived in the red house on Broadway in Carle Place; this grandma lived in a big blue house on Cherry Avenue in Flushing, Queens. Her family lived well during the Great Depression and she was a professor of social work. I have a photo album made by her of time we spent together in Cape Cod when I was three years old. Even then, I’d walk the beach and collect shells and starfish in a bucket.
There are a few reasons why we spent a lot of time down by the ocean growing up. First, I grew up on Long Island and we also traveled throughout New England, like to Cape Cod. And my dad is also a wooden boat builder and sailor, so we spent a lot of time out on the water and by shores because of him. My habit of collecting tiny things may have come from this grandmother, however. She rounded up treasures from all the far-off places she traveled to, or from gift shops selling replicas of things from far-off places she wanted represented in her home, and she managed to adorn every wall and surface of her big blue house with them. But my collecting took shape differently and I believe that’s due to my mother. While both of my parents encouraged us to go out into nature and marvel, it was my mom who taught me to take notice of even the smallest forms of life. “They’re all God’s creatures,” she’d say. “Take care of the earth worms.” I have clear memories of my mom and I in the backyard of my childhood home, noticing all the tiny things moving and growing just past the deck and the oak tree.
I can’t believe that little girl no longer exists because she grew up and is living the life she’s living now. And yet, on every coastal stretch I’ve walked since we arrived in Maine a month ago, I’ve been that little girl, dropping to my knees, literally or figuratively, every few steps, to cherish the rocks and shells at my feet or the seaweed draped across the sand. What’s that line from Mary Oliver’s poem When I am Among the Trees? “…And never hurry through the world, but walk slowly and bow often” is the one. I’ve taken this way of being, and my mother’s influence, for granted. I’ve allowed myself to forget its importance because I’ve been too distracted by feeling like I didn’t fit in, whether in high school or as an adult without the wealth and status of a really good job, and security – whatever that means. Maybe this is why I hang onto my rocks: they’re the parts of myself I know are true, and that I secretly love, like how I feel on the top of a mountain or along a stream bed. They remind me of my smallness, and that when I’m sad and the world is sad, there’s beauty out there, existing all the time. Plus, they’re just lovely to look at.
The shores of Maine remind me of the west coast of Ireland, except for the fact that the trees here are so tall. When I stayed in Connemara for a time during July of 2014, I’d walk the rocky edges of Bertraughboy Bay from my cottage to the edge of the Atlantic. It’s all sky there, expansive cloud formations and full-spectrum sunsets. I took to drawing what I found along the shore, like the seaweed. I think it’s called Bladderwrack. I loved it in Ireland and I love it here in Maine, too, especially when the tide arranges it beside a shell, or even better, an oak leaf, as if on purpose.
I’d walk this stint of coast in Connemara, with the Twelve Bens towering behind me to the north, thinking about where I was and who I am in relation to everything else. I’m certain my little girl self knew this magic, but until Connemara, I had forgotten that the wind makes music in the grass, and the melodies of seaweed and barnacles exposed to air sounds like the sea is singing to you. In journals from that time, I swore to never forget that places like that exist, nor the grace it offered me, but that’s different from promising myself I’d always remember.
I can’t believe what I’ve put up with over the years, from employers, from men. The closest I ever came to a physically abusive relationship was being pinned against the hood of my car with his hands around my throat. Two essays ago, I wrote that the coast of Maine is going to heal me from everything I experienced in New York. I also realized it’s going to remind me to never again blame myself for someone else’s behavior and to hold my boundaries like the lines of a sail in gusty winds. Most importantly, always be exactly who you are, Claire. And I know who that is.
I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to say here in this essay except that I hope it’s okay to pick and choose. I hope the woman who hated herself for tolerating abuse and mistreatment is gone forever. But I hope I never stop being that little girl on the beach with her grandmother, nor the woman who walks through the woods now, drenched in wonder.