Us Broken Shells


I beachcomb several times a week on what my bevy calls "our" beach at the end of Oliver Street. It is part meditation, part therapy, and part religion. My main focus is beach glass but I pick up other pieces of intriguing flotsam and jetsam like bits of driftwood and shells.

Last week I was beachcombing with Clem. We climbed up a rock that the seagulls and crows had been using to crack shells to eat the yummy little sea creatures inside. I picked up a few and showed my handful of shells to Clem.

"Why do you only pick up the broken ones?" she asked me.

There were many intact shells scattered at our feet - ones that the birds hadn't managed to break. Clem was right though, I never pick up whole shells to take home.

"I don't know." I shrugged. "I just do."

A few days later as I arranged my new finds on half a whitewashed oyster shell, I found myself contemplating unbroken and broken shells.

Whole shells may be pristine but they have no secrets. One is more or less interchangeable with any other. The broken ones, however, are endlessly unique.

One that I picked up is broken on the top so that I can peer down its inside and see the spiral helix that disappears into the most extraordinary deep purple colour. Another, sheered in half, shows a perfect cross-section of the interior architecture of the shell and the variety of other-worldly hues contained inside.

If there is a word to describe how I have been feeling in the past few days it is Broken.

Broken by the weight of uncertainty of the next year. Will I be approved for a transplant? Will I find a donor? If so, how the hell am I going to move to Toronto for several months to make this happen?

Broken by the thought of my upcoming appointment with my PSC specialist and memories of how the last one left me so emotionally shattered that it took me over a month to pick up the pieces.

Broken by having to repeat my tumour-marker blood test in a few weeks.

Broken that I can't seem to conjur up the faith that seems to come to others so easily.

Broken by feeling myself get sicker and less able to cope with it all.

Broken by the chronic lack of organ donors and the knowledge that people like me die needlessly waiting in vain for one to come available.

Broken by the constant itching and nausea and feeling like I have the flu every day.

Broken at just wanting to set down this burden but knowing that I can't.

Since sharing my story in my keynote speech at SIWC and here on my blog I have had many people contact me and tell me about how they too are broken. Life can break us in a myriad of ways; the death of a loved one, a critical health challenge, parenting a challenging child, a painful separation, mental illness, heartache, loneliness...I am beginning to think that getting broken is an unavoidable part of the human journey.

Even though I have been struggling too much with my own broken state to get back to even half of the incredible people who have shared their stories with me (mea culpa), I am moved by each and every one.

I wish they could see how beautiful I find them. They open up and show me their strength and faith and tenacity and hope and empathy and generosity and grace. They are like my broken shells, sublime in their broken-ness, with a lustre that would be invisible if they had remained intact.

It is often difficult to see the beauty in our own broken state, or to realize that the majority of people around us are also broken or have been broken in the past. I too am seduced by the images of perfection we are constantly served up by magazines (I mean you, Real Simple) and carefully curated websites and public profiles. I find myself thinking, my life should be like that.

Ultimately though, accepting our broken-ness and sharing it is far more compelling than a flawless exterior.

I was stuck on how to end this blog post until yesterday, when I received a message from a high school friend that I haven't seen in over twenty years:

"I wanted you to know that you have inspired me to do something that is out of my comfort zone. I am donating a kidney on Thursday to a father in Max's class. Keep promoting organ donation because your words are working miracles."

Celebrating our broken-ness leads to interconnectedness, and interconnectedness leads to miracles. So if you too are a broken shell, know that you are beautiful and brave. Also, know that your glow reaches farther than you could ever realize.