I am on the beach and I am looking for the broken shells. On any other shell-seeking search my eyes would be scanning the piles of shells for the perfect spiral, the smooth surface, the symmetrical shape. But not today. My husband and I are on our annual vacation to Marco Island and have walked beyond the buildings and umbrellas and chairs to the northern end of Tigertail Beach. Our destination is a point of the beach that juts out into the surf. There are some wind whipped mangrove trees there that have seen better days but add to the beauty of the landscape.
Amongst them is what I am calling a grassroots, public art collaborative. For the last 2 years I have trekked down the beach to see it. It is ever-changing due to wind and weather, but it also changes daily due to the beachcombers who pay homage to it. The medium for this art installation? Dead mangroves and broken shells. The shells are gleaned from the surf and then thoughtfully placed on the branches as if those who visit have placed ornaments on a Christmas tree. And all of a sudden something dead becomes beautiful because of brokenness. Who was that first person to search for the imperfect shell with the hole with the specific purpose of placing it on the weathered branch? Who started this project? Did it begin organically with a hurricane or purposefully with a beachcomber? When did it turn into a collaborative? How long has it been here? How long will it remain? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do know that, for me, this pop-up art speaks of the promise of the imperfect.
It’s such a simple message for those of us conditioned to chase perfection. I’ve spent years searching for the flawless shells. I have a bowl of them displayed in a sunroom back home in cold, gray Ohio to remind me of the many perfect beach walks I’ve taken. I love the wonder of them and the memories of the solitary, peaceful searches for their perfect completeness.
My quest for perfection has taken me both on and off the beach, but today my trek to this solitary stretch of sand is gently nudging me towards a more forgiving search for what is beautiful in my life. Take something that’s no longer perfect or probably never was, pair it with something that’s seen better days or is simply struggling to survive. Repeat and repeat and repeat and before you know it, it becomes a new kind of beauty. Beauty from brokenness, thoughtfully paired imperfection. A reminder that beauty takes many forms and what might not, at first glance, be good enough, can become, in the right set of circumstances, just right.