Broken Shells by Melanie Bartol Jones

Melanie Bartol Jones lives in Raleigh, North Carolina,  with her 3 girls, dog, and husband. Growing up, Melanie and her family moved every two years because of the Navy. This constant moving taught her how to notice details about people, places, and things, and mostly about herself. Constantly showing people who she is became an art and an opportunity to edit her story. Sports became a natural way for Melanie to fit in wherever she was, and she went on to play lacrosse at Brown University. Melanie’s life continues to be filled with details, physical activity, and change. One role she never imagined was becoming a preacher’s wife. But her husband is an Episcopal priest so the label stuck. On a daily basis she can be found volunteering for her kids’ school, reffing lacrosse, teaching pure barre, whipping up meals for 20, and realizing she may never be on The Today Show. Melanie’s writing focuses on the daily struggles of who she is going to be when she grows up and other faith questions. Check out her latest escapades and thoughts at Not Your Preacher’s Wife.

Editor’s note: I especially like Melanie’s series of “I want” statements that rhythmically wind down this essay. The whole thing is rhapsodic, almost as if the writer is speaking in a kind of trance that lets truth flow out rather than stay hidden. Thank you, Melanie, for sharing your writing.

Broken Shells | by Melanie Bartol Jones

Once I strolled down the beach with my mom when I was a little girl. We were looking for shells after a long day of salty air and strong sun and my eyes were tired. To be honest, I did not really want to be there except my mom and I always looked for shells together and there was no where else to go. I kept staring at the grains of sand and could only find thin, cracked shells that had been tossed one too many times in the powerful arms of the ocean.

Although my mom did not want to pick those shells up, I thought they were the most beautiful ones. Their colors were the most vibrant and I imagined that if they could talk, the broken ones would have the most interesting story.

When I look into the mirror, I often see that same cracked beauty of a tough sea shell. My eyes become blue lapis, a strong stone with material value and warmth. The lapis makes others want to possess me and makes me feel worthy to be bought like a jewel. They give me a basic commodity of value. But I can make them as cold and strong as the ocean that breaks the fragile shells. Then the other, weak sea creatures know to stay away from me.
But no one person is always the sea or the weak shell, or even the highly valued lapis stone.A mirror’s reflection can be as deceiving as the undertow of a fierce ocean. The water can have a pulling strength that overpowers the innocent swimmer before she is aware that it exists. That artificial vision in the glass sneaks up on me, and who I see becomes someone I don’t know and never want to meet.The pulling strength is something my mom always told me to avoid. “Only go in up to your elbows when there is an undertow,” she said.

This way I was evenly matched with the ocean because I could walk on top of it. I could sink my toes into the cool mooshy sand for stability and my arms could punch at the slapping waves. Then I returned to shore and the warm sand with beautiful broken shells. But looking in a mirror, there is no strategy to overcome the pulling force; unless, of course, you only take the quick glimpse. This way the freckles don’t really form on my hidden cheek bones and my large forehead does not overshadow my lapis stones. Others do this, too. A quick “How are you?” or compliment keeps you above water and out of danger, trapping the pain of experience behind the material wealth of lapis.

But I want to swim out so far I can no longer see the shells or the beach or the mirror.

I want to swim with my ribs rubbing against the sleek grey skin of a dolphin.

I want to go underwater and open my eyes until the salt stings all the color out and I can let the pain flow into the strength of the ocean and help someone else.

I want to blow bubbles to the top of the water until I no longer need lungs and I can still keep swimming.

I want to feel the grit of wet sand under my nails, the kind that is bothersome when building sand castles, and have it file my fingers down to become part of the ocean floor.

I want my hair to tangle in the seaweed and force my head to stay underwater and I don’t want to struggle. I don’t want to fight the strength of the ocean anymore.

I want to be a part of the ocean and use it’s strength, it’s beauty, and it’s undertow to help me see the mirage in my glass.

The beautiful cracked shell. Where does its attraction come from? Although the edges are rough and cutting, the tops are smooth from being tossed among salt particles. Its rough journey makes each shell more individual and more precious. All of my shells have rough edges and beautiful stories. And perhaps the rough journey is why so many cracked shells end up on dry land. Maybe the ocean became too much, the shell was not ready or willing or able to become sand and yet it was too tired to resist the strength and the temptation of the unknown.  The warm dry sand with funny looking people searching for them becomes comforting. The cracked shells wait on the shore to be picked by some tender hand and admire for its beauty. They wait to take on an easier transformation than the one required by the ocean. Be part of a lamp in a summer rental or glued securely to a picture frame or someone’s modern beige condo.

It’s always the cracked ones who wait longer. The perfect ones, who did not change, get picked first, making their lives enviable and sweet. But not me and my shells. We wait on the beach for some person to choose us because all the boring, beautiful ones are gone. But we have the story and strength of the ocean to carry through the rest of the journey.

I pick up a cracked shell and show my mother. She stares into my lapis chips and finds the beauty in me and my purpose in picking the broken shell.

She knows the strength of the story because she has her own broken shell. The one that whispers of dolphins and seaweed and salt water. The shell that brings the strength of the undertow and knows the beauty of a rough edge and a smooth top, and the beauty of a crack which gives a purpose and its own powerful story.

5 thoughts on “Broken Shells by Melanie Bartol Jones

  1. I am happy to have found your beautiful story above through my connection to Susan Byrum Roundtree. I too gather broken shells. I was still young when I turned my attention from seeking out the “perfect” specimens and instead sought the unique beauty of the ones that others passed by. I have found that broken shells as well as people that do not necessarily meet the world’s standard of beauty or perfection often possess hidden treasures to share with those who are open to their possiblities~ Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  2. Pingback: Broken Shells by Melanie Bartol Jones | Esse Diem | Essays on Childhood

  3. Pingback: Jones, Paden, Boone, McGrew – more writers, more excerpts, more inspiration | Esse Diem

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