Just a few months ago, I was walking barefoot along the beach. Salty mists buffeted my face. Cold waves stung my toes. I had arrived here for Dollbaby Week, a gathering of women writers and friends.
Once a year, the Dollbabies come together at Virginia Beach. We share stories, laughter, love, and tears. We celebrate our triumphs and mourn our losses. In mutual support, we forge new beginnings from fallen ashes. We eat delicious food, watch anime movies, and howl at the moon. Most of all, we write. And write. And then, we write some more.
This past spring, all of us arrived a little worn and broken. The grinding pandemic had taken its toll. Everyone had endured tremendous stress; some had suffered significant losses. As the week progressed, we found strength in each other’s company. Our burdens were made more bearable; the edge taken off our grief. I began the week by shedding long-suppressed and bitter tears. I finished by carrying home seeds of joy and hope. This process of renewal is the enduring miracle of Dollbaby Week; it’s why I always go back.
One of our greatest luxuries during Dollbaby Week is the expanse of ocean at our doorstep. Every year when I arrive, I go directly to the beach. The sea embraces me, makes me laugh, even scolds me (gently) for not visiting more often. Between bouts of writing, I walk the shore at least once a day, singing with the waves, spying on shorebirds, and searching for dolphins. Often, the sea offers some small lesson for me, held inside a humble gift.
There was the year, for example, that I threw every perfect shell I found back into the ocean. I had no explanation for this behavior, beyond the certainty I was destined to find something other than a perfect shell, something truly special. After I’d discarded countless beautiful specimens, the ocean offered me Sea Dragon. Seaside Proverb: Only through letting go can we discover what is truly ours.
Then there was the year I saw a whale. A whale! Swimming with a pod of dolphins, just off shore. The sight was so astonishing, it brought me to my knees, stung my eyes with tears. Seaside Proverb: You never know what miracle hides beneath the surface, waiting to breach the waters and play in the sun.
This year, as I wandered Virginia Beach, I searched for sea shells again. All my life, I’ve had the tendency to seek “perfect” shells. I used to define perfection as whole and unchipped. I sought shells whose colors were still fresh. This time, though, I searched only for broken shells. Perhaps the memory of Sea Dragon drove me toward a new and different quest. Perhaps something a friend told me long ago had at last settled in my heart as truth. Nothing is perfect, she’d confided, until it’s been cracked at least once.
I found many broken shells along the shore. Diverse images hid inside their irregular shapes. Depending on the angle at which I held each one, I could see different things. A butterfly, for example. Or a crane spreading her wings against a cloudy sky. I saw red-tinged waves falling upon a jagged shore. I saw a lace wing, and a pair of angels.
And I saw the Dollbabies, each woman a beautifully sculpted soul bearing the marks of her unique journey. Like the shells along Virginia Beach, we’ve all been caught in the riptides of life, thrown out to sea or pounded against the rocks. When our chipped selves return to shore, we take comfort in each other’s presence. We mourn the old dreams that were beaten away. We contemplate new possibilities revealed by our transformation. Each time the sea drags us back, we become more than we were: More enraged, more courageous, more outspoken, more compassionate. We grow more capable of loving one another and ourselves because experience has taught us what love really means.
I don’t have a moral for this story, no satisfying denouement. If it were in my power, I’d take away every agony my friends have ever suffered, every loss or disappointment we carry in our hearts. I’d restore all our spirits to their original pristine states. Then I’d set everyone in a safe place, far away from the whimsical and cruel power of that great sea. I like to believe I would do all this without a second thought, without looking back. And yet…
This past spring I walked barefoot in the sand along the beach. I collected only sea shells that had been broken and sculpted by the waves. Only the shells that bore marks of a larger journey seemed authentic to me. Everything else felt less than perfect.