seashells like manna

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

 

I'm fully aware that this story might sound a little bit crazy. 

But gosh, it's one I won't be forgetting. 

One of my favorite things about relationships is the way in which you build your own language with another person. You create a lexicon of inside jokes and old memories, bandaged broken pieces and patterns that feel like home. It's unique and familiar and something that can't be replicated.

I think it's like that with God, too. 

I know a girl who swears that whenever she needs a little pick-me-up, she finds a ladybug - her and God, that's their thing. For another friend, it's a song. Everyone has a different story, and I love the specificity of it all, the intentionality. 

As for me, Jesus and I like to hang out in the seashells. 

I've always loved looking for shells, the product of growing up with a mother and grandmother who were shell-finding fiends. Most of my earliest memories of the beach involve walking with them, looking for shark's teeth and shells that sparkled in the light. But a few years back, I realized what a breath of fresh air they could be. 

I've never been good at slowing down, which comes as no surprise if you've been reading my words for any amount of time. I always want to keep moving, to keep going, to check as many tasks off the list as I can. But when it comes to finding the best shells, you can't do that. You've got to stay put, to dig in. It's when you take the time to look closer and to really sift through all of the broken pieces that you'll find the most beautiful ones. 

And so, when I was at my most shattered, Jesus plopped me in a bed of shells and let me sit in the sunlight and sift. And along the way, we made our own language out of it. 

Nowadays, my shell-hunting is a little less therapy and a little more of a treasure hunt again, but it's still one of the most calming places to land for me. 

If you ever find yourself wandering the Carolina shore looking for shells, you probably won't be the only one. We frequent a handful of sleepy towns along the coast, and more often than not I find myself falling into conversation with someone else spending their golden hour scanning for shark's teeth and sand dollars. Everyone has something specific they're on the hunt for, and it's fun to compare notes on the best spots for different finds. 

Me? I'm a sucker for anything tiny. I love the big, gorgeous shells as much as anyone, but I get the most excited when I stumble onto something tiny and perfect and beautiful, the kind of shell that you have to work extra-hard to land on. My favorites are the ones that I refer to as baby conchs - technically whelks, since conchs are found in more tropical regions, but that same classic, dramatic look.

They're rarer than most of the shells that I find myself bringing home, and I'm always excited when I stumble onto one. If I find a few over the course of a trip, I'm counting it a success.

A few days into the trip, my family and I went on a long walk down to the end of the island - my favorite spot. The tide was low, and there were shells scattered everywhere. My family has long since learned that, in these situations, the best plan is to abandon me to my own devices, and I ended up spending several hours wandering home by myself, traipsing up and down the beach. I hadn't thought to bring a bag with me, and soon I was cupping handfuls of shells in my palms before remembering that, for once, I did have pockets. I ended up stuffing them full, and along the way, I found several tiny, beautiful baby conchs. I couldn't believe my luck - it was the best kind of afternoon. 

As I finally began to make the trek back to our little blue house, I remember thinking to myself, Wouldn't it just be so sweet to find a baby conch every day while I'm here? Just one? That would be so fun. It wasn't really a prayer, not much more than a passing thought. 

But the next day, as I wandered down the beach in the opposite direction, I stumbled onto another one. 

Huh, I thought to myself. That's crazy. Two days in a row?

Then the next day, I found another. 

I froze. There's no way...

That's right, dear reader. By the time I was packing my bags to head back to my own corner of the south, I had found a baby conch shell every. single. day. 

More often than not, I found two. 

Sometimes they were the result of careful scanning, of sifting through a bed of broken shells until I landed on the perfect one. More often than not, they were just sitting atop the sand as I walked, as if they were waiting just for me. Whether the weather was gorgeous and we were out until the sun went down or rain or wind had us scrambling for cover, one always seemed to cross my path before the day was done. 

It was like a seaside manna, just for me. A daily ritual of intentionality, an inside joke wrapped in salt air. 

Our trip wrapped up on Saturday, and on our way out of town, we decided to check out a spot my mom had read about on Facebook - a hidden gem of a shell spot that we had somehow never known existed, despite visiting the island for years. We're never in a rush to leave the ocean, and what could it hurt to check it out? 

When we finally pulled ourselves away four hours later, I immediately texted a friend: I have seen the promised land.  

It was absolutely spectacular. One of the widest beaches I've ever seen, with huge beds of shells everywhere you turned. People would pass holding giant conchs in hand, or walking slow, keeping their eyes on the surf and all it brought in with each crashing wave. 

As you can imagine, I was lost to the world in a matter of minutes, my drawstring pack slung over my shoulder, a grocery bag in hand for more fragile finds. I think that I could have stayed there forever. 

And in those four hours, I found more baby conchs than I could count. 

I lost track completely. They showed up everywhere I turned. I could barely take two steps before stumbling upon another, crouching back down on the sand a mere foot away from where I'd found one moments before. It was more than a little mind-blowing, and entirely magical. 

Everyone has certain lies that they're prone to falling prey to. It's something that's come up a lot in conversations with friends lately - the way our own minds trick us into believing things that couldn't be further from the truth. One of mine that's popped up more often than I'd care to admit over the past several years has been that I've been forgotten by God. Left behind. And while I'm grounded enough to know logically that I'm being irrational, it's still a feeling that has to be fought all the same. 

So to experience something so sweet, so intentional on a thousand different levels - it's special and meaningful and centering in the best possible way. 

The thing about God that blows me away is that it was one of those things that wouldn't mean much of anything to anyone else. To most people, shells are just...well, shells. They're pretty, and it's fun to stumble onto a unique one, but at the end of the day, they probably won't give them much thought. But for me - that's my language. It's what will catch my attention.

So, for me, it was a reminder - something tangible - that even when it feels like my world is in disarray, I haven't been left by the side of the road. A reminder of goodness, and kindness, and of abundance. And as the week went on, every time I would catch that familiar spiral shape out of the corner of my eye, I had to laugh. Okay, God, I'd think. I get it. I see you.

And so this week, as I unpack and regroup and fall back into routine once more, I'll brush the sand off of my finds and line them up on the edges of my bookshelves where I can see them. I'll bring a little of the ocean into my everyday rhythms - and keep that reminder close.


I don't know what May has held for you so far, my friends, but I hope that if nothing else, you're reminded of just how known and cared for you are by Him - and that you see that intentionality come through every single day, even through something as small as seashells that feel like manna.

the little blue house by the sea

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

 


The last time I was here, the world was burning. 

At least, that’s how I began the poem that I wrote over the weekend, a tangle of words long coming. I’m still in North Carolina, still letting the salt air fill my lungs and the crash of the waves lull me to sleep at night. I love my hometown, and in many ways I’m wildly attached to it, but if I ever were to move, it would be here – the safest place I know. 

I’ve traipsed up and down the North Carolina coast several times over the course of the past year, but the specific spot where we’ve taken up camp over the past week and a half is a particularly special one. The last time that we were here was eighteen months ago, nearly to the day. For two weeks in the late fall, we ran away to a little blue house by the sea. We were battered and bruised, and we needed a refuge. 

I don’t know that I’ve ever written about those two weeks, not really. Maybe because to write about them would mean writing about 2020 and trying to put words to the way that it wrecked me. 

By the time that late October rolled around with her fiery sunsets and falling leaves, I was a shell of myself. Grief had yanked me inside out, and I was all shaky hands and tired heart. I’d pegged everything – and I truly mean everything – on this escape. It was an unreasonable amount of weight to put on two weeks, but I was desperate. It was the only lifeline I had in sight. 

I cried the night we arrived. It was the last way I expected to begin the trip, but it was one of those moments where the tiniest of disasters triggered a flood of the weight of the world. I just remember the exhaustion of it, the hopelessness. It was nothing new and that was the worst part of all. 

Over the next two weeks, the world burned on, but I felt like – for a moment – I was able to pop out from underneath the smoke. The pandemic raged on, and the election had the country in turmoil, and my heart was no less broken. But at the same time, I was in a bubble – spending time with family and listening to Zoom classes while I slathered on sunscreen and taking long walks in the cold November air. And in the tiniest of ways, I found myself feeling like mending wasn’t entirely impossible. 

We rarely stay at the same properties twice – rentals vary from year to year, and you never know how prices and availability will shift. But somehow I find myself writing this letter from the little blue house once more, curled up in the bedroom at the end of the hall. I have the most vivid memory of writing a Tuesday Letter in this very spot, about seashells and breathing and noticing the good. It’s déjà vu in the truest sense.

Being here again has been weird and wild and wonderful. I love this place, love this house, this part of the island. I would be so content to stay here forever. And at the same time, being back is the strangest feeling, laced with bittersweetness.

I don’t always know how to equate the girl I was then to the girl I am now. I still hold so many of the broken pieces of that November, but the edges aren’t as sharp now. They clink around and cause a ruckus every now and then, but they’ve been sanded down; they don’t make me bleed. They’re sea glass, softened by the beating waves. And I wish that I could tell her that, the girl from eighteen months ago. I wish I could tell her that she wouldn’t bleed forever. I don’t think that she would believe me – I can nearly guarantee she wouldn’t. But maybe a bit of it would stick. Just a bit. 

And over the past nine days of being here, that’s been the thought that I haven’t been able to get out of my head – I’m okay in a way that I didn’t know I could be eighteen months ago. In some ways, that I didn’t know I could be eight months ago, or six months ago. 

It felt impossible until it didn’t, and I think that’s the thing that I keep coming back to, the reason that I’m utterly spilling my guts on this page. For so long, it felt so impossible. And there was no pinpoint moment where the world turned around, nothing that I can hold to the light or put on a pedestal to sing the praises of or capture as a mental photograph. This isn’t your survival guide to getting out of the woods, because if I’m being honest, there was no grand system to it for me. That’s not to say there weren’t certain things that helped – there absolutely were, and maybe I’ll write about them one day. But I’m not your poster girl for finding yourself again through cross country moves or ten-step cleanses. My road was rocky and strange and disorganized. But it wasn't a dead end the way that I thought it would be. 

The thing that encouraged me most was when I sat across from someone who said, "Hey. I was there, too. But I made it out. You will too." 

I can't tell you what your road will look like. But I can sit across the table from you at a coffee shop or sit on your bedroom floor, leaned up against the wall, and tell you that I made it out. That you will, too. And that's the reason I wanted to write these words. Not to fill a page with answers, because lord knows I don't have those. But to climb down next to you in the trench and tell you that I get it. To tell you that you can crawl out, bit by bit. To tell you that it might happen before you even realize you've done it. 

And I think I keep looking for something profound to say about it all, when perhaps the most profound thing is simply this: whether you can see it now or not, there will come a day when you're more okay than you thought you could be. 

I can't wait to celebrate that day with you when it comes. 

joy is not made to be a crumb

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

I realized several years ago that I was living in fear of plenty.

I'd never even heard of having a scarcity mindset until God slapped me across the face with "abundance" as my word for 2019 one early January night, a seemingly out-of-nowhere declaration that would end up defining those twelve months for me in so many ways. 

Scarcity and abundance are a weird tug of war to find yourself in the middle of - worrying that you're always going to run out, while simultaneously being afraid that when you finally get "it" - whatever "it" may be in your life - that it will be the last time things are good, as if you've used up your last wild card in Uno and all that's left is getting slapped with Draw 4's for the rest of your days. 

You can unpack the two for ages, but at the root, it comes down to fear - of instability, of loss, of hoping for something you can't have. And it's not an easy mindset to untangle yourself from, no matter how often you beat it back.

Oftentimes, I've found that it's in the most beautiful moments that it shows up the loudest. Whether it's the result of seasons of loss or simply cynicism, I can't say, but joy always seems to carry a bittersweet flavor with it - the knowledge of an ending, or of anticipated change. Sometimes, I think we can find it easier to leave space there instead - to not allow ourselves to step fully into the joy in an attempt to avoid some of the loss that could come with it. 

There's a vulnerability that comes with joy. It requires a bit of release, a little more openness than we're used to or comfortable with. Joy requires us to let go, to uncurl our fingers in order to be able to fully grasp it. 

It's beautiful, and it's meaningful, and it doesn't always feel safe. 

April is National Poetry Month, and as such, I've been trying to surround myself with even more poetry than usual for the past few weeks. Mary Oliver will always be one of my all-time favorite poets, and over the weekend, I was reminded on more than one occasion of her words: "Joy is not made to be a crumb."

She writes:

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty

of lives and whole towns destroyed or about

to be. We are not wise, and not very often

kind. And much can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this

is its way of fighting back, that sometimes

something happens better than all the riches

or power in the world. It could be anything,

but very likely you notice it in the instant

when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the

case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid

of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Sometimes, allowing yourself to step fully into joy can be the most rebellious decision that you can make. But joy - as Mary Oliver so aptly said - is not made to be a crumb. No, joy is meant to creep into all of the cracks and crevices; not to graze, but to fill. 

And when it feels safer to just allow yourself the crumb - when it feels terrifying to allow yourself more than you can pinch between your forefinger and your thumb - I think that's the biggest sign of all that it's time to stop hesitating and jump. 

Because maybe she's right - maybe things can't be redeemed, at least not the way that you hoped they would be.

But maybe there's still possibility here.

And maybe recognizing that possibility is the first step to finding the fistfuls of joy that you've been too afraid to grab hold of. 

What would life look like if you weren't afraid of joy, of its plenty? What would change if, when unexpected moments of joy hit...you let them?  

What would change in your world?

What would change in you? 

Joy is a gift, friends. A wonderful, exhilarating, sometimes terrifying gift, and I hope that this week, you find yourself embracing it with everything you've got. I hope that, amidst all of the heaviness and darkness that the world tries to throw at you, hope and joy can be your sparks in the fight. 

Because there's too much beauty left in the world for you to let joy be a crumb.

Happy Tuesday, friends. Go read a poem, or hug your humans, or let the sun wash over your face. Listen to your favorite song and text someone to tell them you love them and eat some dark chocolate, just because. 

May you find more joy along the way than you thought was possible. 

Thankfulness Thursday II

Thursday, November 25, 2021


Hi friends - Happy Thanksgiving. :-)

Thanksgiving is always a quiet one over here, and that's exactly how I like it. I've been slammed as of late with all of the chaos of graduation (only two weeks away! what?!), and have been so looking forward to a quieter pace, even just for a day. 

The trees are more and more bare every time that I drive through the mountains, and I feel as though I'm living in an in-between, not here nor there. November always feels like that, I think, but even more so this year, with so much on the verge of changing and becoming new. I haven't decided if I like that yet. 

But for now, it's Thanksgiving, and my world is calm. And that is perfectly fine with me. :-)

-----

Last year, for one of my Thankfulness Thursday posts, I wrote about moments of oblivion amidst the chaos that was 2020. Oblivion wasn't quite the right word - because let's be honest, we were all too aware of just about everything last year. But amidst the mess, there were moments in which the world didn't feel quite so terrible - moments where the hard wasn't quite so consuming. I wrote that those moments were what I wanted to remember of the year - not the moments of worry or hurt or exhaustion, but the moments of peace, of joy, of normalcy. 

I'd be lying if I said that I've managed to rewire my view of 2020 enough to look back on it with fondness - the 2020 Christmas ornament that I banned from my grandmother's Christmas tree can speak to that. (But come on, you can't tell me that thing would be a good omen for the holiday season. You just can't.) It remains a year that I would be all too happy to forget, no question about it. But looking back on the words that I wrote last year, there were so many moments that I'm grateful for, even if they felt far too few and far between. I don't know if a single post has ever transported me back to a litany of moments so quickly. 

I can't say I quite have the words for 2021 yet. I'm grateful that it's been lighter than 2020 was, but gosh it's been a rough one all the same. Still, I want to remember the good. I want to remember just how much  has been to be grateful for, even amidst it all. And so, a new tradition begins - of hanging on to those sweet moments of peace and oblivion, no matter where they're found. 

-----

The new year begins. We're tired and we're sad and we're worn, but we blast Taylor Swift and start new traditions, and ring in the new year on the floor with a jigsaw puzzle. We hold on to hope. 

-----

My mom and I road trip, just the two of us. The day is hard, but we drive into the sunset and play all of our favorite songs, and I think I could live in this moment.

-----

Early February holds a morning that's just about perfect. The sun is shining, and my mom and sister and I go on a museum adventure. It's a gift in about a thousand ways. 

-----

We play games with my grandparents and everything feels right again.

-----

It's early, early March, but it's eighty degrees, and secretly I think the south knows I need it. (God knew I needed it.) I read in the sun. We get the best news that day, and I refuse to believe it's not related.

-----

Spring comes again. I don't know why I always doubt it. 

-----

My kids my kids my kids. God, I love my kids. It's not oblivion, no, but it's joy. They gave me a shirt so that I'd remember them, but how could I ever forget?

-----

It's April and I find myself in the same coffee shop as Hannah Brencher. How is life real?

-----

Performance night. Once again there's no oblivion to it, but one night I'm joined by a friend I haven't seen in ages, and the next I sit on the floor next to my favorite person. I wish I could hold onto them forever, but in this moment I'm just glad I'm here.

-----

The roads are winding and unfamiliar, but before I know it, I'm in Georgia hugging Hailey and it's so sweet and so wild, I can't quite wrap my head around it. When I get home that night, there are cars wrapped down my driveway and so many of my favorite humans are on my back porch, talking and laughing, and it is so, so good.

-----

We dance in the sun.

-----

Two weeks at the sea. The ocean always tries to heal my heart, bit by bit. I sit on the porch and stare at the sunset until there isn't a drop of light left, tiny flecks of seashells and sand still stuck to my skin.

-----

"I booked my flight."

-----

There's nothing I love more than the late summer air. We sit under the lights in my best friends backyard and laugh with people who've been there for it all.

-----

June sounds like the rustle of picnic blankets and the snap of a camera lens. We explore our own city, because why not?

-----

Atlanta. There will never be words. We run around the city and laugh over the stupidest things and soak in every last second of being together. It's summertime picnics and good music and staying in Hanne's hotel room until ungodly hours because we just don't want to say goodbye.

-----

I turn twenty-one and feel more loved than I knew was possible. All I can think as I drift off to sleep: may we all be so lucky.

-----

Book sales and cream puffs and my sweet grandma's birthday. I teach my first dance classes since May just a few days later and leave that night to the prettiest sunset.

-----

My last first day. It's strange to be back, but this time, my sister is with me. We run into old friends and face the season of new.

-----

I have never been so grateful to hear my phone's text chime.

-----

September holds weekends at the lake and the most precious downtown day and picnics with Mary Shelley. The crepe myrtles are still in bloom, and I snap a photo for Keira. 

-----

The weeks blur, but they're sweet. Dancing in the car and eyeball parties in literature, movie kidnappings and lots of Come From Away.

-----

We celebrate my grandparents' sixtieth anniversary with a last-minute beach retreat. We walk, and I savor every sunrise.

-----

Broadway is back. It's the very first night and our city is alive. I've never seen this many people at the theater before, and the electricity makes me want to weep. No one cares about the masks or the checks - we're just here to watch Orpheus bring the world to life once more.

-----

The fall afternoons are gentle. I sit on the swing with the same book I've been trying to finish all semester and watch people pass as they crunch through the fallen leaves. The light is golden as I drive home through the winding roads, and music from the playlist my friends sent pumps through my speakers and into my heart.

-----

Some people just feel like home, and she's one of them. We sit on her porch for hours, and I end up in her kitchen until late into the night. And I'm nothing but grateful. 

-----

The light is perfect as I spin through the field. I hear the click of the camera and can't believe there are just a few weeks left. 

-----

It's freezing and I couldn't care less. I laugh with three of my dearest friends for the first time in three and a half years, and I think to myself how lucky I am to have people who loved me at nine and still love me today. How lucky we are, the four of us, to have each other.

-----

Thanksgiving. We're together. What else could I ever ask for?

-----

I am so easily discouraged when I think back on the past year. But oh, how much gratitude I hold for it. 

I'm grateful that when it comes to moments from the past year, this post really only scratches the surface.

I'm grateful for rest, and for art, and for light. 

I'm grateful for laughter - because isn't it just the most beautiful thing?  

I'm grateful for new beginnings, even when they're the last thing that I want. I'm grateful that the sun always rises in the morning, and that life can, too.

I'm grateful for connection, and for community. Life is always, always, always more beautiful when I'm with my people. I'm grateful for the friendships that span decades, and for the friendships that span months, and I'm grateful for the people who've come into my life through this space - wildly, wildly grateful. You all have held me up, time and time again, and I feel forever in your debt for that.

I'm grateful for a God who holds me, even when I'm crazy enough to think He's not. I'm grateful that He loves me even when my brain is a mess, and that He keeps reminding me, over and over again. 

I'm grateful that we're here. That I'm here. That you're here. That my people are alright. For health, and for home. The world's still spinning. We're all here. And that will always be more than enough. 

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. Thanks for sticking around for another year of Thankfulness Thursdays - they've been a joy. Grateful for each and every one of you every day. 

-----

Thankfulness Thursday Friends 



CopyRight Grace Anne Johnson 2021 © | Theme Designed By Hello Manhattan