The other day, after a round of stormy weather, I took a walk along the beach at low tide. All kinds of things had been coughed up by the sea: old lobster traps, soda cans, bits of rope and plastic, quantities of seaweed, and a few large mussels, what we used to call horse mussels. I wondered if they were edible. So I took them home and did what we do now when faced with mystery — I googled.
Apparently horse mussels were edible, although considered inferior to the smaller varieties. I promptly steamed them up, and found them inferior in no way — they were delicious. When I peeled the last orange body from its shell, I found a couple of pearls embedded in the opalescent lining. This surprised me — I thought only oysters could make pearls.
The process has always moved me as a metaphor, especially after I learned that the root of mollusk was the same as my name, and means soft. I did feel “soft” growing up — easily hurt, incapable of withstanding bullying with as much aplomb as my sister and brother. But the alchemy gave me hope: that everything irritating or wounding could be transformed in a way that rendered it not merely harmless, but beautiful. To me this is one of the functions of both art and spiritual practice.
I was shuffling these reflections as I chewed the last mussel and felt myself bite down on something crunchy. I eased the half-masticated body out of my mouth and examined it. Buried in its flesh were several pearls, which I carefully extricated and dropped in their shell. Shades of pink, grey, white, black. All different sizes, none of them large. Eighteen in total.
Amazed, I returned to Google, where I learned that only freshwater mussels are capable of creating pearls, not sea mussels like these. So the pearls before me were impossible. Which made them even more beautiful.
I’ve always wondered about the word redemption. I remember some teachers cast final exams as a chance to “redeem yourselves”. This seemed cheap — that one could make up for an entire semester of slacking with a carafe of coffee and one long night.
The images that whispered to me of redemption were fresh paint and falling snow. And cities viewed at night from above — none of the grime or subway smells, just darkness and dazzle, the first making possible the second.
I don’t like to think of redemption in terms of points, calculations of profit and loss. I prefer to think of it as the way things that haven’t happened yet reshape the things that have: history never being final, consequences unfurling into infinity. Which means all judgments are nearsighted and arbitrary.
What do you think? Comments are working again, so comment away!
[Image Ian Vollmer]