Broken Shells

photo 2 (1)For Spring Break, I took my three year old daughter1 to Holden Beach, NC. It was not warm enough to spend much time splashing in the water. So, we spent a lot of time looking for shells.

Over nearly thirty-five years, I have had the platonic ideal of a “sea shell” crammed into the forefront of my consciousness. I’m supposed to find “perfect” shells, unmarred by the unforgiving motions of the sea that bring the shells within my reach. Shells that will look pretty on the shelf. Shells like this one that used to be a whelk’s home2.

Based on the weight of shell fragments my daughter deposited in my pockets, it is clear that she has a more expansive ideal of beauty than her old man. We collect a lot of “broken” shells, because my daughter sees the innate beauty in these broken things. This may explain why she still likes me3.

You know what? You can learn a lot from broken shells and three year-olds.

My daughters find the broken shells beautiful. Therefore, they are beautiful – de gustibus non est disputandum. Like us, those shells are not perfect; and that is okay.

In fact, it is better than okay. “Brokenness” is often more interesting and educational than mere perfection. Sometimes the “brokenness” allows us to see something more interesting than we could have seen otherwise.

The perfect shells, like the one above, are impressive, beautiful, dramatic. They inspire questions about the creatures that used to call them home. Questions for which my perfect shell is poorly equipped to help answer.

photo 1 (1)On this trip we found several other shells that had been treated a bit more roughly by the sea. Instead of having to listen to me wax lyrical about the way the animals grow and the structure of the shells, we could look at the spiraling insides4 of the shells themselves. We could admire the natural engineering. We could glimpse the “home life” of this creature.

The broken shell provides context for the beauty of the perfect shell (now sitting on our media cabinet), it is an educational resource, it inspires new questions about other animals, and it rewards curiosity.

And, maybe, it helps us remember that we are beautiful just as we are.

1. aka, Punkface MacGruder; but she will tell you that she doesn’t want a nickname. She will tell you this loudly.
2. I am notoriously the opposite of good at shell identification. So, I’m quite happy to stand corrected. I am, however, notoriously good at finding such shells and have a solid streak of finds on consecutive beach trips. Do not ask which item of my clothing I have not changed in the superstitious hope of keeping the streak alive.
3. They also love a stuffed animal cat with only three legs named “Tulip”, who lost its quadruped status during an unfortunate incident with a 95-pound dog.
4. This is also a much safer way to introduce the concept of φ and the Fibonacci spiral to young children than other methods we have used in the past.


Author: Josh Witten

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