Broken, Lost, Tossed, Found
Come summertime I find myself, not a beach person, frequently at beaches. I don’t do well in the sun, and as a mother of a certain age I have the usual objections to being in public in what is essentially elastic underwear. But when you’re an apartment-dwelling parent you spend summers on the lookout for spaces in which your children can run around and scream, and on the East Coast the beach is a solid option. And thus I’ve rediscovered a long-lost love of mine: collecting sea glass.
When I was growing up I loved finding beach glass, worn to a deliciously smooth nub, on the pebbly shores of Lake Michigan, where the shards would gather along the pilings. In recent years I’ve found myself picking up this old habit, without being entirely sure of what the point is. I come home with a pocket full of treasure… for what? To deposit in a jar in my already cluttered apartment and forget about?
In fact, when I take a step back, I can see that truly, sea glass is sort of nightmarish. Chunks of 100-year-old trash floating around in the ocean, gathering on the shore! Even the fact that sea glass is becoming more rare has a terrible subtext: it’s because plastic has become the material of choice rather than glass. Will our children’s children gleefully select rounded hunks of Tupperware from the hellscape beaches of the future? Yikes.
Okay so I love aged trash, what can I say. Really I suspect that, like so many of life’s pleasures, the joy of sea glass lies largely in the hunt. A sea glass search focuses the beachy mind. Here in New York City, beaches are noisy, hectic places — amid the cloying heat, the hordes of under-clothed bodies ping-ponging about, and the crashing waves bellowing like subway trains, I appreciate a way to narrow my focus. On a sea glass search, your eyes sharpen. You suddenly see more colors than you’d imagined the beach contained. The sand is no longer just a mass of standoffish dirt. Here you spot a glint of green. There, an amber-hued brown. If you’re very lucky, a cobalt blue nugget shimmers in the surf. Your shoreside stroll becomes a pointless-yet-satisfying journey. And isn’t that the feeling one wants from a day at the beach?
I’m not alone in this curious quest. A quick Instagram scroll through hashtags like #seaglass, #seaglasshunting and, worryingly, #seaglassaddict (u ok, sea glass addicts?), offers a glimpse into a subculture I never knew existed: Sea Glass Collectors. Turns out, we are legion. In winter months, when my own beach days are few and far between, I study these feeds with a weird, giddy delight. There are shared challenges and calls-to-action, when those in the community are urged to share rare pieces (red! Oh, to find a red); or bottle stoppers; or to photograph a rainbow-hued stack.
My absolute favorite sea glass hunter has got to be the gentleman who goes by, well, SeaGlassHoe. He is the heartthrob of the sea glass world, posing at conventions with fellow glassers (who tend, I’m just saying, to be older women) making “salty bitch faces” together — that is, when he’s not posting his spectacular finds — a purple bottle stopper? bowling-ball-sized glass floats? — annotated with irreverent captions. Honestly, I hadn’t ever imagined there might be sea glass stars, but this is the world we live in, I suppose, in which even this gentle hobby becomes a competition. SeaGlassHoe amuses me, but sometimes he stresses me out too. I’ll never find any violet depression glass or sea marbles, I just know it!
Finding out that so many others share my strange obsession has been both amusing and comforting. But it doesn’t get me any closer to understanding why it is I’m so obsessed. Then one day we’re at a particularly rowdy stretch of the Rockaways when a wave matter-of-factly swipes my daughter’s glasses right off her face. We spend a few moments searching around ridiculously in the raucous waves before we resign ourselves to our fate: a new pair of her prescription specs will be ordered immediately from my phone, while we try to cheer her up by imagining a near-sighted shark finding the glasses and finally being able to see. Only later do I realize the frames, their lenses, might become someone else’s evocative discovery.
Every beach find has a story, but inevitably, a person only knows one side of it. A piece of sea glass takes from 20 to 100 (!) years to form. To find a perfectly smooth nugget of what was once deadly-sharp is to feel the texture of history. When I rub a smooth curve of seafoam green that once formed the lip of a bottle, I am also caressing the lip of an Edwardian-era someone who sipped a Coca-Cola, experienced a zing of cocaine-infused energy, and then discarded the bottle, forgetting the moment entirely. For her the moment ends there, but then the glass travels the world, braves the ocean, makes its way throughout time, to me.
Sea glass is a link to the past, but it also connects me to the dumb, living, planetary thingness of the earth. The best times to look for sea glass are dictated by tides and storms, as well as winds — were I a truly dedicated glasser I would watch the tides like a sailor, and finally learn what “neap tide” really means. But somehow it’s enough for me to know that my bountiful sea glass days are connected with the moon. I understand vaguely that I find so many brown bits in Staten Island because of the community’s long-ago love of beer, that the white pieces I find are likely from windows, maybe migrated up from a shipwreck.
After all, for me it’s not about finding that perfect rare piece (with all due respect to the fine work of SeaGlassHoe and others), or even about volume. I’m happy to be an unskilled amateur in this particular field. It’s enough that my handful of sea glass is beautiful to me. A broken bottle from a medicine-man’s wagon, or a bell-shaped insulator from a now-defunct electricity system is tumbled into the sea, and the sheer force of the water transforms a broken hunk of trash into something beautiful. A wet knob of cobalt blue on the beach? It’s been transformed by time, and by its trials. Now it’s a jewel. My daughter’s glasses? They have been whisked from the realm of the useful into another stage of existence, just one more non-biodegradable fish in the sea.
I find myself at an age where my skin is starting to slacken. Even the most space-fabric-enhanced of swimsuits can’t convince me that everything isn’t getting softer than it once was. But look, sea glass’s very age is what makes it special. This hunk of glass in my palm — it’s smooth, and it’s gemlike, because — not despite of — everything it’s been through, all those years getting pummeled by the waves. You can’t have sea glass without time.