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On Seaglass; or Another Way of Knowing the World featured img
Category: Knowledge and Wisdom

On Seaglass; or Another Way of Knowing the World

August 29, 2023

Lead Photo Credit: Javel Williams via Unsplash

A year or two ago, on a sticky summer seaside stroll, I walked along a beach, hand in hand with my husband as we watched our four children, two daughters and two sons who are almost grown, but still young enough to be willing to go on a road trip with their parents, still young enough to squabble in the backseat over playlists and chargers and blankets and pillows, still young enough for me to want to explore new things with them, to show them the things I love, to regale them with the histories and the fictions and the myths of the past, although I am beginning to think there is not an age limit on the way a parent continues to share, continues to hold on, continues to marvel at the growth of their child, continues to forge links to the past while watching as they walk toward their own futures, just a handsbreath out of reach, and we watched them, my husband and I, two daughters and two sons as they ambled ahead on a foggy strip of sand at the peak of high tide, through twisted ropes of seaweed thrown up by the waves, through clouds of tiny black gnats, through rocky outcroppings and shallow pools, through haphazard piles of driftwood and long streamers of fading foam and tiny bits and slivers of shell and colored glass and splintered rock and the cast off skeletons of crabs and the bleached bones of birds and the shattered claws of creatures I imagine live deep in the water where the light does not reach, all eventually polished smooth by the roll of relentless waves. 

I went home with my pockets full of shells and stones and sand, which is not new, my pockets always seem to be full of the strangest things, bits and bobs and odds and ends and the flotsam of noticing the tiny, tender things that bring back moments so vivid I can almost touch them, can conjure the damp of the ocean air, the smell of the salt, the shiver of the cold sea against our skin, the way the light slants through the spray in a thousand sparkling glints of sun that makes even the fog seem unbearably bright. I am an assembler of artifacts, a collector of the curious, a gatherer of the fragments and figments that we use to define ourselves and to craft the compilation of who we are. 

It is an odd way of knowing: the speaking of stories, the remembering of moments, the assembling of jagged edged pieces that together tell us our place in the world. It reminds me of the old myths of wise women, of long journeys and short lives and tales told around kitchen tables, those worn-wood gathering places filled with good food and good company and surrounded by joy.  

The author Ursula Le Guin talked about what she called the Carrier Bag Theory, her proposition that instead of carefully and calculatedly creating accounts of the world around us we should, instead, live our lives always with a bag in one hand and with the other outstretched, aware of the tiny and the trivial and the strange and the surprising, and throughout those days we should gather moments and mementos and memories, that we might, each of us, at the end of the day, shake that bag and take from it a different meaning, a whole new way of looking at the ordinary, a curating instead of a recounting that allows for less traditional ways of knowing and creating and crafting our lives. 

In my mind it is about the small and stunning moments of majestic beauty. The ridged red of aged rock stained dark with damp and time, the glint of green grass at the edge of silty sand, the snail sliding slow in morning dew, the speckled egg, the bob white quail, the way an end of summer tomato bursts bright across the tongue. We forget sometimes the important things that can be found all around us, if we take the time to look. This is the type of knowledge that cannot be learned in books, that cannot be examined or tested or measured by the traditional measures we use in education. It is a type of knowledge that is no less valuable because it is less formal, no less prized because it has no price. It makes me wonder what we can do to nurture ways of knowing, of learning, of connecting, of creating, of collecting, how we can privilege the intelligence that comes not from formal education, which I have done, for long years and late nights working towards an undergraduate degree while my children were young, studying during naptime and snack time and in the evening while they slept, and a master’s when they were in school and we would study together, two plus two equals four and the sum total of the symbolism of The Canterbury Tales all jostling for attention in my head. 

No, I wonder about the ways of the Wise Women and the Shamans and the Midwives, the Medicine Men, the Aunties, the Neighbors, the Elders, and the Friends, for I think we have too soon put away what Scholars call the nontraditional by which they mean the non scholarly, for what is more traditional than the old tales, the old paths, the old ways of experiencing the world?

Knowledge is an interesting thing. In the ways we collect it, but also in the ways that we share it, not hoarding it like a dragon with their gold, but giving it away, portioning it out, displaying it in full view like a piece of sea glass set on a windowsill catching the light in fragments and fractals and rainbow hues. It is not acquisition but participation. It is collecting connections and interactions and relationships. It is a thing of daily use, wrung out with living, faded and torn around the edges, not a sacred thing to be set on a high shelf and kept safe for a rainy day or a special occasion. No, it is something to shrug into like an old and worn jacket that holds in itself the shape of your body and the scent of your skin and has the perfect sized pockets for a long stroll on the beach as the tide rolls in, and the water rises and you hold someone’s hand in your own, as you watch for interesting bits to keep and to collect, each walk a voyage, a quest, a journey to the place full of wonders to turn over and examine and admire and hand to someone else as we learn to observe and admire and marvel and speculate and notice and, simply, to look.