Sea Glass and Other Metaphors

Some of my personal collection

In 1998, my eighth-grade classmates deemed me “Most Creative” in our yearbook superlatives. To a 13-year-old, this held little meaning. I had never really thought about it until this summer when I took a creative thinking class as an elective in my graduate Integrated Marketing Communication program.

While a few assignments brought me back to my sorority crafting days (which my little will tell you were not very successful), I learned a great deal about the creative side of marketing and where I might fit in within the industry.

I chose my Emerson program because I wanted to learn how to apply my writing skills to a new industry, preferably one that wasn’t as doomed as print media. A year in, I see myself writing on the creative side. As the Web continues to turn most industries on their heads, marketing communication grows stronger and stronger online, where content reigns. (The fact that one of Emerson’s most successful alumni said this in a lecture the other night makes me feel much better about my rather sizable investment in graduate school.)

But, back to that creative thinking class… Our first task – transforming a personal story into a fable, myth, legend, conspiracy theory, what have you – proved daunting and sent me into a self-doubting tizzy. It took a long weekend down the Shore to finally spark an idea, which, surprising to absolutely no one, involved the beach. I likened myself to my favorite shore finding, sea glass, and brought in my collection for show and tell.

My whole life has been about stories – hearing them, reading them, telling them. My professional career follows suit, from writing the stories of my beat for the newspaper to telling the story of beer to our visitors. I hope to spin yarns for years to come. The sea glass story, however, aptly explains this era of my personal life.

The essay in its entirety:

Saunter through any beach house and more often than not frosty sea glass pieces peer up at you from bowls and vases. Your host has spent countless hours combing her or his favorite stretches of beach for these scraps and shards. Once upon a time, each piece belonged to a single object like a bottle or jar. There were no cracks or obvious breaks in the glass’s unity and the container dutifully held its substance safely and securely. Maybe its existence was overlooked – a jelly jar that sat on the refrigerator door and trotted out only when its owner caved into a craving for a PB&J sandwich; a beer bottle methodically brought to the drinker’s lips for the life span of the 12 ounces it held and then cast aside. Some glass pieces originally belonged to ornate vases from decades ago and proudly displayed bouquets of flowers or something equally fancy.
As different as their lives are at first, all these glass items have one traumatic event in common: their eventual smashing into dozens or hundreds of pieces. They find their way into the ocean somehow and the unchangeable, unyielding sea goes to work smoothing their jagged edges and dulling their shiny surfaces. Months, years, decades or even centuries of the briny deep’s dance over these shards morph them into a beach bum’s most coveted find: sea glass.
It’s that in-between period spent buried in sand or lying on the ocean floor that the real artwork happens. Each tiny piece of glass copes and endures its thrashing from the sea with the hope of becoming something beautiful. A scrap of glass from a bottle must overcome the initial jarring shatter that broke it and learn to live with the water’s unrelenting power. After its transformation, the tide hopefully ushers it to the shore where a keen eye spots it. The frosted, now smooth-edged glass is dropped into a beach cover-up pocket for the trek back home, where it joins a collection of fellow pieces, all of whom already understand the struggle it’s been through.
My beach-loving family and sea glass have much more in common than we might think. We once made a whole bottle, intact with no obvious fractures, with the common goal of holding our inner substance together. If our family was the liquid, the five of us were the glass container protecting it. Life within our little bubble (or bottle) was pretty sweet – my parents were happily married for more than 30 years and my two younger brothers and I genuinely enjoyed each others’ company. We cherished summers at our little beach bungalow on the Jersey Shore, which my grandfather and his brother built themselves in the 1960s.
It took a split second and a bad decision one day in November 2009 near our beloved little house to smash our bottle into pieces, one never to rejoin the others. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, my father characteristically decided to take a walk to the post office around lunch time. Because a young woman under the influence of cocaine decided to drive down the road at the same time, my dad never returned. She struck him from behind and in one horrible moment, everything changed. Our bottle shattered and our hearts splintered into millions of pieces.
The first few days after the crime that took my dad’s life must have been like one lost little piece of glass’s first hours in the ocean. The emotions hit like storm surges: one after another with no discernible rhythm or reason. I felt angry, grief-stricken, confused, bitter and lost. My lower lip cracked from frequently being twisted into a frown as I sobbed to anyone in the immediate vicinity. As the oldest child, I found myself serving as temporary family figurehead. My mom was in no state to be able to talk to newspaper reporters, organ donation coordinators, our church pastor or my brothers’ professors. I put on a brave face and handled all the phone calls with an inner grace I never knew I had. Just like that tiny piece of glass, the ocean was beginning its work on me, wearing down my sharp raw edges.
In the time that’s passed, we’ve all battled that nagging feeling that someone is missing – from big events like Christmases and my brother Mark’s college graduation and from quiet dinners at home on the patio or sunny days on the beach. Friends with similar sad situations have told me that it never gets better, only easier to accept with time. We maintain strong facades for one another, but I suspect that, like me, my brothers occasionally give in to the overwhelming sadness. We all reckon with our grief in different ways and how we have taught ourselves to deal is the ocean’s way or polishing various pieces from the same bottle into their own shades and shapes.
The past 18 months have sent me tumbling with the waves, buried me in the sandy, cold ocean floor and propelled me to the surface to feel the warmth of the sun. Like the smallest piece of sea glass, I am at times all but powerless to the whims of a grief as vast as the ocean. As the initial sharp twinges of pain begin to dissipate, my jagged sides start to dull and my hard, shiny exterior softens. With time, I too will be artfully crafted into something as lovely and unexpected as a bright flash of sea glass.
As I meet new friends in a new city, most of them will never know that the girl they encounter is riding along with the ebb and flow of an unforgiving tide. Sure, the waves are changing me, but I’m not a fully crafted piece of sea glass yet. That will come with time and, like passing beachcombers, most people will never know the struggles I and the tiny flecks of glass have endured along the way.

5 thoughts on “Sea Glass and Other Metaphors

  1. Your story really resonated with me. I have used the example of a wrecking ball smashing into a beautiful crystal vase as a visual image to describe what it’s like to lose someone dearly loved. Life is shattered into many small pieces, some infinitesimal and scattered so far and wide they may never be found. I have likened the process of integrating the loss into life and “rebuilding” as trying to find those pieces and put them back together. It takes a long time, and the end result never looks the same as the original.

    Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful story.

  2. Jess, oh my gosh, is this the little girl (my niece) that’s grown into a beautiful, creative woman? I’m so proud of you, your writing is moving and beautiful. I love you and all the pieces of sea glass ! love, net net

  3. Jessica, I love sea glass, and I love it even more now – I will never look at it the same way again! Thank you for your beautiful honesty , what a treasure. xo, Minki

  4. have arrived home & am wading through 16 pages of e mail. what a delightful/heartbreaking present to find your musings sent on by mom. this afternoon we’ll walk the beach & if we are lucky, we’ll find a piece of sea glass & imagine the vessel whole & intact, then marvel at the softening of sharp edges that make it possible to clutch the shard so tightly in my palm & present a resting stop for the metamorphosis of glass on it’s journey back to sand .

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