Leave a Shell Behind

by Patricia Williamson; illustration by Walker Walls-Tarver

I have always been a collector. Of seashells and glass, of pinecones and books. As a kid, I had a ravenous appetite for things that could be held, gathered and stowed away. When I grew older and my hands grew with me, I wanted bigger things to grasp on to. Tangible items could no longer satisfy my hunger so I began collecting people, and as I collected people I collected homes. My hands have never been big enough to pick up all that I wish to carry, so I’ve learned to be choosy. I’ll never pass by the most beautiful things; however, a collector cannot only look for aesthetic perfection, but seek the unusual, the unkempt, the breath-taking. Perfect shells with soft pink underbellies, weather-worn shells with missing halves. The house on the beach with my own private balcony, a canvas tent with a spider problem. 

A collector knows you cannot only take–you must also leave something behind. When I was collecting shells I left only my footprints on the beach behind me. Collecting places has required that I leave behind something bigger. The most importantpart of picking something up, I’ve learned, is putting something else back down. 

Last spring on a quick trip home to Massachusetts, over a breakfast of Oreo milkshakes and over-cooked eggs, a friend of eight years told me she’d be moving out of her house on Old Road. that fall. I cried until our otherwise unconcerned waitress was staring and Sara was consoling me, when I should have been consoling her. It wasn’t fair. So much of me was tied to her house. I had passed out on the floor of that house after Sara plunged a needle through my ear, I ran barefoot through that house until I was screaming with joy. The walls of that house knew all my secrets. It wasn’t fair.

Many of my homes are places I’ve never lived—an ice rink where I hit some immoveable forces, the summer camp where I made some of the strongest friendships I’ve ever had, the beach where I discovered the power of togetherness. None of these places look the same or serve the same purpose for me, but they fit together as pieces of myself. When I knew I would be leaving Old Road. for the last time, despite carrying a great past out the door with me, I was quite aware that some part of that past could never be reclaimed.

I crave the feeling of connectedness. I aim to love every person I meet and every place I go. Usually I love a place much more if I love someone in that place; I am most drawn to places that I have an emotional connection to, both in space and in the people who occupy that space. Wherever I live with my family is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I aim to feel as at home as I do with my family wherever I go. For the most part, my search has been a successful one, but there have been places I was expecting to connect with but the connection never came. 

Last fall, I lived with a family in Germany for a few months. I came into the situation expecting to have a new place to tie myself to on the other side of the globe. I had heard stories of friends who had nothing but positive experiences abroad, and I waited for the same thing for myself but never truly found it. I spent my days on the phone with family and friends back home, wishing I could be surrounded by the people I loved. The rare moments when I felt fully comfortable and the closest to home were moments when I least expected: drunk on the steps of a church in Prague at two in the morning, alone with a stranger looking at art in Amsterdam, lost in Vienna with Southern European tourists. These moments were the ones that felt the most like mine, and interestingly enough, the ones I didn’t share with anyone once I got home.

I’m not sure why I don’t connect with some places and latch onto others. All I am certain of is that when it is done, it must be on my own terms. Although all my collections are high volume, they are far from haphazard. The places I return to repeatedly draw me in with great force, but my search is far from over. I’ve been back to the same stretch of beach looking for a rock or shell to end my search, but I know I’ll never really find that perfect specimen. In the meantime, I’ll take as much as I can, give as much as I know and grow the best I can.