The immaculate shoreline of the Keweenaw has all but erased my memory of the noisy, crowded beaches I grew up on. But one thing I remember vividly from those beaches is finding a sand dollar.
It was small, about the actual size of a silver dollar, and very much the color of actual sand. I was small, eight years old at the most, and not even looking for it.
I don’t know if anyone ever told me that sand dollars were precious or rare. But I’d seen the way my dad kept one eye out for them whenever we walked down the beach. He’d even found one, once or twice, and held it aloft in delicately pinched fingers, and cleaned it as carefully as a pocket watch after we brought it home. So when that grey star volunteered itself up from the sand, the whole world focused around me as I picked it up, holding it the way I’d seen my dad do it.
I knew what an honor it conferred on me to have found it. I felt so proud that I’d found it all by myself, with nobody to point it out or tell me where to look.
Years later, I was walking around the tide pools in Malibu with a gang of college friends. One of the girls got excited because she found a bit of sea glass, a soft-edged shard of cloudy cobalt blue.
I had never heard of sea glass, and asked what it was. One of the guys, who had grown up surfing near there, said it was sand that had been struck by lightning, chemically altered by the salt so that it took on a color, polished over centuries of silt. Something like that, anyway. I totally believed him, and was ready to spend the rest of the day looking for sea glass.
The guy, to his credit, only let it go for a second or two before admitting he was pulling my leg. Sea glass was just bits of broken bottles, their colors clouded by salt water; their edges ground down by sand.
I remembered being so disappointed, not because I’d been the butt of a joke, but because sea glass wasn’t a thing—no story to savor, no treasure to look for.
One of the first things we learned after moving to the Keweenaw was to be on the lookout for agates. Ay-guts, as the locals say it. Formed when granular chalcedony and quartz fill the cracks in solidifying lava, they appear as layers of ruby, orange, gold, bronze and milky white, with a waxy translucence that makes them glow. The small ones, chipped away from a bigger specimen, have just one color, maybe two, with a bit of the outer rock casing on the side. The biggest ones are fully encased in rock, recognizable only by the wavelike fractures on its outer layer or by its extra weight to size ratio. Slicing them open is like finding a sunset trapped in a stone.
It sounds like agates should be easy to find, but they’re not. From 4pm until 10pm, while the late summer sunlight hits the shore, all the pebbles on the lakeshore look like treasures. They are jade green, strawberry pink flecked with black that looks like two types of ice cream melted together, grey-blue, and translucent white, and purple flecked with orange, and any number of waxy, sunset-colored agate imposters—feldspar, jasper, banded flint, carnelian.
In the beginning, I collected these imposters until my pockets sagged. But when I brought them back to the house, I saw that they lose their luster once they’re dry. The only way to get it back is to polish them in a rock tumbler. Until then, I resigned myself to having a lot of piles of muted grayish pebbles on our shelves and windowsills. Better those, I thought, than the agates that we can’t find.
One summer evening, we were on the beach with our friend George when he bent down and straightened again with a thimble-sized squarish stone in his hand, waxy and pink with a wave of parallel hair-fine lines running through it. We were astonished by his casual pleasure; he was amused by our astonishment. He told us he finds them all the time. In proof, he took a few paces down the shore and came back with a handful.
This was all Bryan needed to get really good, really fast, at agate hunting. He and George would trade photos of their evening haul, taking great delight in making the other one envious. But I could never find one. We’d pass a beach in our car and Bryan would say, “Do you mind if we hop out for a minute to look for agates?” and we’d end up spending 45 minutes there. He’d lie on his side like a Roman at a feast, just how the tourists do, pawing through the sand with his fingertips, shifting his position with the sunlight.
I’d like to say that while he hunted, I was contemplating the water, opening my third eye to the sun, or something. God knows what I was doing instead. Checking emails, I’m sure. Calculating uncertainties like a dog worrying a bone. Wasting time by trying to save it up for later.
Every now and then, I’d pick up what I thought was an agate, but someone would say, “No, see, it doesn’t have the striping” or the waxy look or the little pockmarks. People would tell me, “Just look for the rocks that look different from the rest.” To me, they all looked different. Sifting through the beach’s colorful chaos for one specific type of pebble seemed tedious, if not futile.
I feel the same way about writing since we moved here. This place fills my head with a wonderful chaos of inspiration, but when I set out to write about one particular thing—the way the waves curl, the sight of loons drifting into a sunset fog, the baleful glare of a bald eagle, the violence of a storm—the words in my head run together like sand.
It wasn’t until Little Bear came along that I found my first agate. We were down on the beach, trying to get him settled down for bed by the water. I can admit that the settling down might be more for me than for him. Life with a baby is so chaotic. Every single day is its own special collection of problems to solve, goals to prioritize, and milestones to notice (if you’re lucky). Will you have time to both fall asleep and stay that way, or make a meal and eat it before your body collapses from exhaustion? And will your frayed nerves and foggy brain let you notice, and remember, the first lightning bolt of recognition in his eyes, or the brush of his soft hand across your face while he nurses? Will you ever take a long hot shower again? Does his life mean the death of your lifelong ambitions?
Before having a baby, I had freedom to indulge my belief that all that stood between me and my creative work was getting everything else out of the way. Now, disabused of that notion by the frenetic pace of baby life, I run to the water to escape the specter of my discarded dreams.
On a bracing late spring day, cold enough to make you grateful for the hand of sunlight on your neck, the tossing waves roar loud enough to drown the wailing of my self-reproach. With Little Bear strapped to me in his sling, kicking his sturdy legs and chattering opinions to the lake, I trudged along the water’s edge. The fathomless blue of the water hurt my itching eyes—my gaze fell listlessly to the hissing pebbles under my feet.
And then I saw it: a jagged, waxy, ruby-colored fragment on the ground, glowing with an inner fire. I knew it right away; I didn’t have to ask anyone.
We took a few steps down the beach, and I find another. And then another. I went back to the house that night with four agates in my hand.
It turns out George’s brag wasn’t empty. The beach is full of agates, and every time my boy and I come down for a walk, I find one, usually several. Sometimes they’re the size of breadcrumbs. Sometimes they’re bigger, the size of beads or marbles. Gold ones, red ones, pink ones, one time a perfectly round frosted one with a little rose glowing out of the end. Nobody I know has ever seen one like that before.
Our beach ends where McGunn Creek runs out into the lake, and the two bodies of water create a spine of counter-waves. Once we arrive there, I don’t know what else to do. These days it seems like things are always left undone—there’s so much to do, notice, appreciate, honor. Daily life, even with all its wonders, often seems like nothing more than a series of problems to solve.
Five sand hill cranes fly over my head—I hear their deceptively distant call, but only catch the back of their formation as it disappears behind the trees.
Sometimes I wish I could get away from everything here. I want to flee from these beautiful woods, so I can write about them without being confronted with all that I’m missing. I wish I could get away from my beautiful boy, so I could dream about him with the love he deserves. I’m constantly distracted by all the things that I can’t seem to say, all the ways that I’m failing to be as good of a mother as I want him to have.
We begin the return journey, the fingers of my right hand locked in Little Bear’s grip, and the left side fingers clicking the six agates we’ve collected on our way. The lake whispers wavelessly, its seersucker surface so ripply that it seems not to be moving at all. A man in waders trudges knee-deep toward us, swishing a net in the water for minnows—one of the many illegal activities that just about everyone engages in. As Little Bear trumpets at him, I touch the side of his face, feeling it work hard to form the beginning of words. I run my fingers through the cornsilk blonde of his downy hair, running them parallel along his occipital bones and dipping into the soft hollow between them until I find the top of his spine. He loves to be stroked there, and falls quiet and still for a moment, feeling my fingers washing back and forth along the ridge of his shoulders, still so much more skin than bone. He cranes backward to meet my eyes, his gaze showing how much better he understands me than I do him.
Nine out of ten agate discoveries will be hotly debated by fellow hunters. But the one thing that everyone agrees is that you find more agates by not looking for them. This could be competitive subterfuge, but I’ve found it to be true. Agates volunteer themselves to the anxious and distracted mind. They are an unsought reward that teaches you to stop looking for the wrong thing, and just pay attention.
This place doesn’t need a writer to make it glorious or immortal. And anyway, you can’t immortalize something you haven’t experienced. Living here, I’ve observed and even enjoyed, but I haven’t sat still long enough for it to get into my bones. How foolish to fall in love with something just because of what I think I can do with it. When did I give up on living, and decide to settle for memory?
The jar on the windowsill is filled with agates I don’t remember collecting. The sunset caught in their bronze bands creates a little red star, tiny but commanding. I hold my boy in my aching arms, and the agates hold my attention, and I suddenly think, “Oh, this is why they call nature Mother.”