Wash the glass, dust the rocks

Finding control where there is none

Labor Day weekend stopped being “the last gasp of summer” for me once I started freelancing. After taking most of the summer off (whether intentionally or by default through a lack of work), I’d often reach the end of August in a low-key (or high-grade) financial panic. And then, just like that, right around Labor Day, people would start paying attention to their jobs and the calendar again and the work would begin to roll in. It felt stressful and a bit overindulgent to go away for yet another weekend at that point, especially when I could be making money. Even if it was just to go camping. Even when it was just to sleep on dirt.

The back-to-work energy of Labor Day weekend (irony) also seems to set off my back-to-school desire to buckle down. And because I’m a boring adult, to also ultra-organize and deep clean. I don’t intentionally plan for it, it just seems to naturally happen, like my own personal migration.

But now with a book launch less than a month away, it’s all intensified. It feels more like nesting. Like finding yourself, for some reason, on all fours with a big pregnant belly, cleaning the baseboards with a toothbrush. It’s not for “some” reason of course, it’s for a very specific reason. To try to exert control when you feel like you’re about to lose all of it. To impose order somewhere when you’re afraid there’s about to be none. To get everything in ship-shape for the shit storm ahead. Brush, brush, dust.

It started out innocently enough this past Friday, engaging in a level of deep cleaning that makes you feel somehow like a good person. Productive. Someone who Has It Together. Sweeping under the couch, vacuuming the cobwebs, putting the seasonal things away, that sort of thing. But at some point my brain was like, you know what? Not deep enough.

Throughout our house, but mostly upstairs scattered across bookshelves and dressers and tables, is what I call our Accidental Natural History Museum. To me it’s the simplest, most beautiful, best collection we’ve amassed. We’ve lived in Vermont for a little over eighteen years now, I got pregnant the fall of our first year here. So these jars packed with white-veined smooth stones, green and blue and clear sea glass, feathers and shells, pine cones and drift wood, dandelion puffs and butterfly wings, are also the history of our family.

Half of this collection is contained in lidded jars or glass boxes. Smart, in other words. A little wipey-wipey with some glass cleaner on the outside and done. But the other half is in open-mouthed jars, vintage trifle bowls and vases, ceramic planters. To put it another way, they’re dust traps. How do you dust things in an open-mouthed jar? Answer: You can’t.

I spent hours, an entire Sunday afternoon, swishing sea glass and drift wood and shells through water, watching the dust float to the surface then spill out into the sink. I carefully rinsed big broken sand dollars and a bleached white fragment of a conch shell, the sand that still clung to them from Maine or Sanibel Island, years ago, swirling down into the sink and joining the dust. Butterfly wings and feathers and dandelion puffs were sequestered in plastic containers, like goldfish waiting for their tank to be cleaned. I washed out their jars with hot soapy water, setting them to dry on a field of old dish towels.

Once you start a task like this, there’s no turning back, because you will not want to do it again for a good long while. I’m in a tedious hell of my own making I thought more than once. But as I committed to the bit, surrendering to the task ahead, it became almost meditative. It forced a mental pause while keeping me physically occupied. It felt like holding memories, actually cupping them in my wet hands. I can’t place and trace everything my family has collected over the years, but it’s surprising how much I can.

A rainbow of smooth stones from Race Point Beach in Provincetown, from the first long road trip I took with my kids. The best trip, just the three of us for the first week. God I miss it. I miss that freedom. I lightly rubbed the hot pink and Kraft mac-and-cheese orange shells scooped up from Sanibel Island. It was the first time we ever went somewhere warm for February break, vowing to come back every year, then never returning. The piles of sea glass (some not smooth at all, and therefore more like sea trash) found in the wake of summer storms, possibly a hurricane, I can’t remember now. Washes of it only bubbled up that one summer, on the same Maine beach I’d returned to my entire life. A beach where I’d previously found no more than one or two tiny bits of glass. We looked and combed and held glass by the handfuls that summer, and I kept repeating to my kids in that way parents refuse to stop making a point, you don’t understand — this never happens. I felt rich.

These things are beautiful, though. They’re easy to love. What stood out to me more this time, after all these years of looking at this little accidental museum inside my own house, is the huge bowl of crap shells. These are the shells (and rocks) that my kids grabbed when they were very little, on our first trips to beaches, in Maine and probably Rhode Island too. A wedding in the Hamptons, camping in Vermont, anywhere where things could be selected and saved from the ground.

Over time, as we get older, we refine our parameters of what’s worth keeping. What we’ll allow ourselves to pick up and stuff in our pockets. A penny? Mmmm, pass. A quarter? Maybe. How we assign value changes. What we believe is worthy shifts. Shells must be intact, they must be special, they must not be broken or have weird stuff going on with them. They must be good. But little kids don’t have those parameters. (That’s also why they love us so much, us who are broken and have weird stuff going on with us and who sometimes are not even remotely intact.)

At some point I know I got more wily (more ruthless, less sentimental) with these piles of giant clam shells and mussels, dead crabs and random sticks, right at the source. “Dead things can’t come home with us” is an evergreen rule that starts at the beach. Whenever you see a random pile of shells on the beach, far from the water, guaranteed it’s from a family with little kids on checkout day. I know I’ve been tempted to thin out some of these shells and rocks when I’ve done this tedious rinsing ritual before. But this part of our collection reminds me of a time when my kids thought everything they could find and see and touch was rare and beautiful. No judgement. Everything worth keeping. Everything worth loving. And I had to hold my tongue. Reserve my own judgement. Consider that maybe I didn’t know what other people should like or do.

I rinsed dozens of boat shells and big common clam shells. Broken and pocked moon shells and random brownish-gray rocks and put them in a pile next to the beautiful sea glass, the rainbow stones, and the driftwood to dry.

I remembered the times when we’d walk the beach together and their buckets and my hands and pockets and empty coffee cup would be overflowing with shells, driftwood chunks, a feather or two. Bit by bit I was learning you can’t control other people, even on the small stuff (sometimes, especially on the small stuff.) It was the beginning of me accepting that they were going to think and like and do what they wanted. They were not me, I am not them.

I ended the weekend, Monday afternoon, by clearing the counter of everything that had been rinsed, every jar and vase that had been dried. I filled a vase with towering stalks of fading cosmos and pale green hydrangeas. I haven’t fully reassembled the museum yet. My bathroom is being remodeled and a toilet is just straight-up chilling in my hallway. It’s a bit on-the-nose as reminders of a looming shit storm go. But I wake up to flowers in my line of sight and jars scattered across my dresser with all of these regular treasures, awaiting their places. It’s all I can control right now. And I can’t even control that.

Because it was never about the shells. It was never about the rocks at all.

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My next book BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY is out October 5th! You can preorder it here. Or you can preorder a SIGNED copy here.

You can find my copywriting and creative direction work here. You can find my writing-writing work here. You can find me on Twitter. You can find me on Instagram. Please do not find me in real life, I’m busy washing old shells and slowly (rapidly?) losing my mind.

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Kimberly Harrington

Kimberly Harrington

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BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY (out 10/5) and AMATEUR HOUR | The New York Times, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Cut | kimberlyharrington.me