Beware of Swamp Bears!

Very early on a Sunday morning on a remote Florida highway, my husband and I noticed a road sign we’d never seen close to the coast before. It was a yellow, diamond-shaped caution sign with the silhouette of a bear in the center.

 

I was already on edge—it was hours before daybreak and the black waters of St. George Sound splashed ominously at my right as I hugged the coastline. The last thing I wanted to add to my anxiety was the threat that a giant black bear might come lumbering out into the road. (Although I guess you could argue it’s the bear you’re not looking for that you should worry about!)

 

We had dropped off three of our four kids at a beach house with relatives so we could continue to drive further inland in the direction of the soccer fields where our older son would be playing in Jacksonville, just shy of the Atlantic. It seemed like the sun would never come up, and we fought the fatigue we felt from the 10-hour drive we had made the day before. Attack of the Swamp Bear loomed large in my exhausted imagination.

 

There are seasons of life when you know what dangers lie ahead—the terrible twos of parenting a toddler or the unwelcome weight gain of middle age. Though these probable and assumed complications can be difficult to manage, they are steps in a natural series of events. You see them coming and expecting them sometimes makes them easier to survive. But what about those curveballs zooming in at 100 miles an hour out of the clear blue? The serious illnesses or relationship trauma? The Swamp Bears who attack before courteously putting out a warning sign first?

 

These are the moments when I’m reminded how little I can control. I pretend that I’m driving the whole thing—making decisions, making plans, making my case for my decisions and plans. In reality, the warning signs are actually inconsequential to the final outcome. Just having the information ahead of time doesn’t exempt us from trouble and surprises.

 

These deep thoughts were my morning ponderings as I watched the eastern sky go from black to charcoal. Clouds began to materialize as the sun lit them from its perch just below the horizon. Slowly the sky lightened to a cobalt blue and I could see more clearly. I shifted in my seat behind the wheel of our minivan, feeling a little more alert and grateful for constants, like a good, old-fashioned sunrise, that I can always count on.

 

“Thank you,” I whispered. I silently prayed for wisdom and patience in all of the burdens I’ve been lugging around with me for the last few months. The heavy ones that are old and should’ve been forgotten long ago, and the new ones I’ve picked up in the form of worry and doubt. I asked the Lord to protect us from these dangers that I know, the ones I’m currently aware of. Then I asked Him to save me from the Swamp Bears that I’ll never see coming.

Collecting seashells

Beach vacation objectives can vary greatly, person to person.

 

For some, the highlight is a sunset stroll along the shore.

For some, the highlight is eating lots of fresh seafood and key lime pie.

For some, the highlight is relaxing by crashing waves while you catch up on your leisure reading.

 

And then there are those people who go to the beach with the full intention of picking up beach trash, ocean rejects, discarded debris, used mobile homes—a.k.a. seashells.

I’ve seen these people at every beach I’ve visited along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This is how you’ll recognize them: Their eyes will be trained downward, and they’ll be awkwardly grasping a handful of a sandy objects. They will dig in the sand with their bare toes or the tips of their shoes until they unearth what they hope will be the largest, most beautiful find the sea can offer.

 

They will gasp slightly when they raise a big, smooth seashell—its underbelly pink and shiny with Mother-of-Pearl iridescence—to their eye level only to sadly sigh when they see its imperfections, the holes and the sharp edge on one side where it broke apart. They will look wistfully out at the ocean, past the relentless waves, and wonder where its other parts lie buried in the dark and sandy depths.

 

But they will determine that some of these marine discoveries are worth keeping, and the next stop for their treasure trove may be a plastic sand bucket or a Styrofoam cooler. But these collectors won’t be satisfied if the final resting place for their beach beauties is such a commonplace container. No. They have big dreams. Dreams of making seashell jewelry—earrings and pendants. Dreams of filling glass jars with seashells and hot gluing them on picture frames. Dreams that most likely won’t actually come true once the daily grind of not being on vacation sets in but dreams nonetheless.

 

How do I know so much about these beachcombers? Because I used to be one, that’s why. I once collected a bucket full of sand dollars to bring home and make into Christmas ornaments. They stank so bad that my mom made me keep them outside. I bleached them and dried them out until they were brittle and unusable. All that fishy smell and Clorox bleach for nothing.

 

Even though I discourage my own children from bringing seashells on the 8-hour car ride home with us, I still find myself looking for that perfect shell as I walk with them along the beach each day we are on vacation. I will often pick up those fan-shaped scallop shells or the conch shell masterpieces or the bowl-shaped clam shells or the architecturally-mesmerizing nautilus shells and carry them on our stroll.

 

I don’t keep them. Their existence holds no purpose for me in landlocked Murfreesboro. But there’s something magical about their weight my hand. For me, the beach means standing on the edge of something, one foot on the sand and one foot in the ocean. It means a horizon that goes on and on to reveal the most glorious sunsets. It means not hurrying. It means holding hands and not because you’re crossing the street.

And it means a bucket full of seashells that have no value apart from their commonplace remarkability. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. Loveliness often where you search it out.