Let’s go to sleep with clear­er heads
And hearts too big to fit our beds
And maybe we won’t feel so alone
Before we turn to stone

~Turn to Stone, Ingrid Michaelson

For the last 28 years, I’ve spent the sec­ond week of July at Holden Beach, North Carolina, with my husband’s large, rau­cous fam­i­ly. Always the first one up, my tra­di­tion is a walk to the pier in the pre-dawn hours. I sit on the sand and watch the sun­rise, then walk home with the ris­ing sun warm­ing my back and high­light­ing the best shells from the morn­ing tide. 

The tide here is chop­py enough that the beach-comb­ing isn’t ide­al; the shells are churned so aggres­sive­ly that it’s rare to find any­thing per­fect­ly intact. Finding a flaw­less shell is a rar­efied endeav­or. Finding a per­fect olive or whelk is a serendip­i­tous omen. Discovering a shark’s tooth or an unbro­ken sand dol­lar hap­pens so sel­dom­ly that, when it does occur, you find your­self cast­ing glances about, cer­tain that angels must be nearby.

Today, on my first ear­ly morn­ing beach walk of the year, I found an exquis­ite rock that looked like a fat sand dol­lar, a first for me. Soon I saw anoth­er, then anoth­er. Puzzled, I asked a man fish­ing in the surf what he knew about them. He told me that they were sea bis­cuits, or fos­silized skele­tons of echin­o­derms from the Jurassic or Pleistocene eras. Basically, I had found a sea urchin that, over about 400 mil­lion years, turned to stone. Last win­ter, Holden Beach dredged the deep ocean floor to build a larg­er beach, unearthing these pet­ri­fied beau­ties in the process.

I imag­ine this lit­tle crea­ture scoot­ing across the ocean floor, shov­el­ing tiny crus­tacean lar­vae and algae into its mouth. And then, seem­ing­ly in a blink of an eye, mil­lions of years pass — and some mid­dle-aged woman is scoop­ing it up and tak­ing it to a house mere miles from Kentucky’s Claiborne Farms, the sto­ried farm that foaled Seabiscuit, the 1938 race­horse of the Year and the world’s most beloved ath­lete dur­ing the Great Depression. 

Time is both elas­tic and lim­it­ing. Everything changes, mor­tal­i­ty looms. In ear­li­er cen­turies, edu­cat­ed Europeans fol­lowed a rit­u­al called memen­to mori, a Latin phrase mean­ing remem­ber you will die. They kept visu­al reminders – like skulls or wilt­ing flow­ers – on their desks as a reminder of death’s inevitability. 

It might feel morose, but whether sud­den­ly and trag­i­cal­ly or peace­ful­ly at the end of a long life, we will all even­tu­al­ly close our eyes, nev­er to reopen them. Like the sea bis­cuit, it all ends in stone. Beauty, suc­cess, youth­ful­ness, fame, and wealth are all ephemer­al, fleet­ing earth­ly plea­sures, cur­so­ry gold that tar­nish­es all too quick­ly. Remembering that we’re decay­ing asks us to cel­e­brate the imme­di­a­cy of our lives, to keep our pri­or­i­ties straight. At most, a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions might remem­ber the ways in which our lives mat­tered. Or that they nev­er real­ly mat­tered at all. 

Rather than griev­ing that, let it inspire us to make the most of the time we have now. 

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at