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Kathy Bradley - Life from a conch shell

    The best gift is one that is unexpected or one that is particularly suited to the recipient. When a single gift is both, it makes the heart sing.
    This past Sunday I was walking with a friend down the long, wide beach on Jekyll Island. There were few others out in the breezy afternoon — a handful of bird watchers who, when asked what they were hoping to see, replied, “Anything that flies,” and a middle-aged couple walking five lean and leggy greyhounds.
    The sky was flat and the palest of blues. The tide had ebbed, leaving an unusual number of horseshoe crab shells and the usual surfeit of trembling jellyfish scattered across the sand. Cumberland Island, just a few miles south, seemed almost touchable in the clear spring light.
    We headed south intending to meet up with Judy, my friend’s friend, a transplanted Californian with a specific passion for horses and a general appreciation of all things outdoors. As we walked, we talked of ordinary things — her cats, my dog, road trips we might take one day, the fact that I’d forgotten to put on sunscreen.
    We caught up with Judy at the southernmost part of the island where a school of dolphins was churning up the water like an old-fashioned egg beater. Diving and rolling and circling each other like children playing chase, the dolphins moved as a group, with the current, oblivious to their role as entertainers to the people on shore.
    “I found something for you,” Judy told me and strode up the dunes where she had left the treasure. She came back with a perfect conch shell. Complete. Unbroken. I’d never seen one so unblemished, so whole. At least not outside a shell shop.
    Sand clung to the winding spires of the ocean-scarred outside. Inside, the shell was glassy smooth and pink like lip gloss. It filled my hand exactly.
    Judy explained that she’d seen just a little of it sticking out of the sand and that, when she started digging and realized how deeply it was buried, she suspected it might be whole. “The further down in the sand it’s buried,” she told us, “the better chance there is that it’s unbroken.”
    When I got home I put my shell up on the mantel at the foot of some candlesticks. There were a handful of other shells already there — a couple of palm-sized scallops, another conch, all of them half- or quarter-shells only, all of them missing parts of themselves. And I remembered what Judy had said about being buried.
    Is it possible that the only way to stay whole is to stay buried? And is staying buried anyway to live? The truth is that my conch shell — without any cracks, without any holes, without any absent pieces — was empty.
    The snail that had lived there had been washed out by the ocean’s waves or eaten in somebody’s fritter. The container was still beautiful, but the life was gone.
    Last week, the news was full of the senseless, heartbreaking deaths of two young women — popular college students, good citizens, well-loved daughters. In each case there was a question about what she was doing in a particular place at a particular time. A reasonable question. An unavoidable question. And, ultimately, probably an unanswerable question.
    I have another question: Had either of the beautiful co-ed’s been somewhere else, would she have been guaranteed another day? Had either spent all her days on a security-camera’ed, razor-wired, soldier-guarded campus would she have been protected from all the evil that resides in the world? Had either stayed buried in the sand she would have been just like my conch shell — beautiful, unbroken and empty.
    Life is about opportunity and risk. Life is about the willingness to open the mind and the heart. Life is about being filled with generosity and curiosity and love. Life is not an empty shell.

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