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.

Elements of Style, Served Whole

A Single Man is a truly wonderful, heart-rending story and a beautifully constructed film.  I had some questions about how this movie would work out, as it was directed and written for the screen by Tom Ford, who built a decade of fashion and design credibility at the house of Gucci.  I have respect for what Ford has done in that field, but that was no guarantee of a cross over talent to writing and directing.  Zippee.  I was on board for Colin Firth (George).

Style is a whole thing.

This story portrays a deep and unyielding grief at the loss of a long-term partner and love.  It also is incredibly stylish down to every detail, and one can really see the hand of  haute couture creative direction in each element.  Costumes, accessories, hair styles, make-up, decorated rooms, offices, drawers, cars, bars…….everything has a refined finish that speaks of a world that rests on a foundation of commitment to design and beauty.

What most impressed me about Ford’s directing and screenwriting was his ability to avoid letting the elements of style mask the agony of the characters’ struggles.  In fact, he is masterful at using style as a vehicle for a theme of what happens when wholeness is severed.  The pretty things remain, but they are shadows and copies of what was once a complete life. 

Some characters cling desperately to the shadows, trying to leverage some kind of unity through lavender cigarettes and Tanqueray gin.  There is only one character unaffected by a splintered life; not coincidentally, it is George’s lost love, Jim.  Jim appears in flashback only, as when the story opens he is already dead.  He appears only in George’s memory, a memory steeped in devotion as well as the happiness and fulfullment that Jim brought into his life.

Ford is excellent at showing George’s attention to details like a beautiful smile, well coiffed hair, or a Windsor knot as what they are — the last grasps at pieces of beauty in the face of having lost what was truly beautiful and irreplaceable.  Never contemptuous but consistently honest, Ford manages to show even his own biographical engagement with style as walking a fine line between holding on to what is beautiful in appearance and being willing to embrace “the awful” — in this case the truth of homosexuality in the 1960s, grief, and growing old — as “having its own kind of beauty.”

I highly recommend watching this film with someone with whom you are completely, unrepentantly, and wholly in love.