The Salve of Beach Glass and Audiobooks

The closest thing I have to a spiritual practice is my evening walks on the shore of Lake Michigan, listening to audiobooks and hunting for beach glass. The best place to find the pieces of churned up disregard is in the pebbly sections where the water borders the land.

While there is occasionally a friend with me, I am often alone. I reach down among the stones and pluck up a cloudy piece of glass, dodging little waves. I pop it in my pocket. The sun setting behind the houses and apartments. My fingers damp and sandy.

Audiobooks and the occasional podcast go with me. The voices of the book along with the rhythm of my glass hunt drown out my ordinarily noisy brain. With my mind quiet, I can watch the terns with their black streaked heads dive for food, I can watch the storm clouds build over Lake Michigan with angry unnameable grace. Sometimes, for a moment, or an hour—beauty.

The late Irish poet John O’Donohue called beauty an “Invisible embrace.” He argues that beauty by its nature is both fleeting, not completely cage-able, and a necessity for a healthy soul. It comes and goes, that is what makes it so unique, glamour can be commodified, beauty cannot. It is why even the bests artist in the world  make lots and lots of work but only a few masterpieces.

I discovered that this fleeting beauty can also be a salve for the bruises inflicted by angry, fearful people, an imperfect mind, or lousy stroke of luck.

The first time I discovered this little moment of beauty was in May of 2018. The water had just warmed up enough that I could finally stick my toes in. Even though they were a ruddy by the time I walked home. Pinks and blues scattered through the frothy waves and the lyric advice from Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer whispered through my fraying earbuds.

The mix of words, sky, and water, filled me with a sense of wonder that I have never been able to duplicate on demand. Believe me, I have tried, on the same beach, at the same time of day, and even the same book, it never worked the same way again.

However, a mix of serendipity and persistence has lead to other moments where the same sense of magic fills me. It has happened while I was listening to Layli Long Soldier read her poems of the On Being Radio Project, where her poems speak of her father’s sobriety and of apologies half met. It happened when I watched summer heat ooze off the grass and listen to Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, where she talks about the magic of trees and the struggle of mental illness. I felt the mysterious wash of it come when hearing Cheryl Strayed call me “dear one” in her book Tiny Beautiful Things. I also felt my spirit catch the sails of a passing boat with the stories from Andrew Solomon’s Far and Away.

I walk to a different beach now. It is on the same lake, and there are still terns, riding summer drafts. It is in the city now, and there are more people, and the view looks different, but my heart is often mended after I walk.

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Gretchen Lida: Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Washington Independent Review of Books, and many others. She teaches composition in Illinois, lives in Wisconsin, sometimes lives on Nantucket Island and is still a Colorado Native.