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.