“Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.”

— Loren Eiseley

What is it about the ocean that calls us home?  As I’ve said before (A Gift From the Sea), there is something magical for me that takes place as I walk along the shoreline.  Perhaps it is the whooshing sound of the surf that takes us back to our days in the womb and all at once connects us with our past and with the possibility of new beginnings.  Maybe it is simply the experience of being in a place so vast that our own place in it — along with our troubles — shrinks by comparison.  All I know is that my times spent at the beach have offered me perspective on many different occasions.  Come away with me today to another Gift from the Sea.

It was September 1980, and it had been seven months since my son Brett had died in a car/pedestrian accident.  More than 200 days had passed — some difficult and some even worse — as I grieved the loss of my child.  September brought me a whole new experience of pain as I watched all of his friends, now nearly a year older, prepare to start a new year at school.  Second grade.  Brett would never go to second grade.  He would never  read a chapter book or write a story.  There were no new sneakers to be bought, no fresh haircut to be had for the first day.  He had already had his last first day of school.  I would like to say that I was aware enough of my own needs that I went to the beach to seek perspective; but the truth is that I made the trip because I needed to run away from my own emotions.  I went without any anticipation of good or healing things.  I simply wanted to be alone.

The September beach in New Jersey was drizzly and cold.  The day was cloudy, and any hope of sunny warmth was lost in the dampness that blew over the surf and made me feel clammy and half alive.  I was angry — angry that my son would never grow up, angry that I resented other people’s children for still being around, angry that even the beach would not offer me a bit of light and a few degrees of warmth at a time when I needed it so badly.  I felt very abandoned and completely alone.  I couldn’t even raise my eyes to see the sky above me, so I just walked along in the edge of the surf in my canvas sneakers, kicking at the piles of seaweed and trash that defined the distance the last wave had traveled before receding and being drawn back into the ocean.  I don’t think I can remember another time when I felt so weighed down and could only focus on debris in the midst of the beauty of the ocean.

I walked and I kicked and I kicked some more and walked some more.  I’m really not sure how far I had gone when I drew back my foot and sent a clump of seaweed flying.  Just as I was ready to walk on, I saw something lying amid the strands of plant life — a tiny starfish, no more than half an inch in diameter.  It stopped me dead in my tracks; and I stooped down, sitting on my haunches, and began to sift through the remaining seaweed.  I pulled up my shirttail, and began to collect them — nearly 100 perfect, tiny little stars that lay underneath the rubble on a cloudy day.  I never had seen starfish on the New Jersey beach before.  Maybe they always are there and I pass them by because I’m taken by the sky to a height too high for them to be visible.  Maybe they never are there, and they appeared that day because I really needed a miracle to see me through to the days that lay ahead.

I don’t need to know the truth about starfish life on the Jersey shore.  What matters to me is that they were there at the time when I needed them most.  For the first time in weeks, I found myself honestly smiling.  I realized as I sat there with a shirttail full of stars that sometimes when we are looking for huge miracles that elude our grasp, we can miss the tiny ones that lie at our feet.  This sounds so simple when I say it today; but on that day, thirty years ago, it was a revelation.  I packed up my treasure and headed to the car with plenty to think about on my ride home.  I washed the little stars, dried them, and stored them in two little plastic boxes that once had held straight pins for sewing.  I placed them in my desk drawer where they would be handy if I needed to take them out and be reminded of their magic.

Thirty years later, the stars are gone.  Over time, I have shared them — one at a time — with people who entered my life at times when they needed a miracle.  I hope that taking one with them may have helped them to see the small miracles that lit their path instead of feeling abandoned and alone while looking for a large one.  I had thought that I would keep just one little star as a reminder of that day; but the day came when I needed one to give to someone who was feeling the way I had felt when I kicked the seaweed and re-discovered my sense of wonder.  And so the last little starfish made its way out of the box and into the pocket of the latest person who needed its magic.  Now I have an empty plastic box with one hinge slightly broken from all the times it has opened and closed over years and years.  When I look at it, I can imagine it full of stars; and it reminds me of all the times when the miracle was passed on to other people.  The real gift is the empty box, because it reminds me that I did go on after that dark day on the beach.  It also reminds me that miracles are never ours to possess and keep.  They are to be shared and to be held only in our memories and in our hearts — like little boys and tiny starfish.