There are thousands of pieces of broken glass in my basement, but not a single one could cut you. Each is soft-edged and frosted, the alchemy of saltwater and churning tides, smoothed by silt, rocks and time. They are handfuls of history. I know my sea glass well. I can often look at pieces and recall their origins--turquoise nuggets that roll like marbles in my hand from Little Misery Island in Salem, Massachusetts, collected on a hot summer day while my cousins whooped and splashed and aunts sipped Diet Coke. A ceramic shard stamped with a London maker’s mark washed ashore in Rockport, Massachusetts, ballast from a sandbar shipwreck a few miles offshore.
I first started collecting sea glass when I was six. My father showed me how coveted cobalt blues masqueraded as mussel shells and smooth browns camouflaged as pebbles. He wouldn’t let me keep anything that was too sharp. If I could see through it, I tossed it back to “keep cooking.”
Once I started collecting, I couldn’t be stopped. A legend in my family, I was known for hauling home Ziploc bags full of glass after every trip to the beach. What started as a novel pastime evolved as I became curious about the sources of my collection: patterned china, bottle stoppers, oxidized 19th century lavender glass. I went from beach to bookshelves to uncover the origins of each piece. Humble browns from beer bottles and 20th century bleach jugs. A pale pink gem from a piece of decorative tableware. Both exquisite. To this day, whenever I set foot on the shore, I eye the rubble line--that jumble of rocks, sun-dried seaweed threads, and chipped bits of shell--searching for the telltale glimmer of a shard. I am a mudlark, researcher, archivist, collating pieces of material history and fragments of stories until my back aches and my bare feet burn on the white-hot stones.
Collecting is a fraught endeavor. History is rife with ransackers and raiders who decimated cultures, labeled people as oddities in the name of science, and laid claim to artifacts that were not their own. I strive to be more than a collector. Sea glass has nurtured in me an ethos to respect and cherish every object, person, and story I encounter. Each tells a tale if you take time to be curious, caring and attentive. I keep copies of journals and magazines, issues layered with the odds and ends of human experience. I piece together stories of forgotten people from faded, fragile documents discovered in dimly lit archives. I file mental and scribbled notes about people I know, from a voodoo queen in New Orleans, to my grandfather, a Vietnam veteran, to my best friend, the eldest daughter of undocumented immigrants. All of it is fragments. All of it is treasure. Life is enriched by multiple perspectives, where each person is a unique piece of sea glass, and I, as a conscientious observer, bear witness to the complexity of collected fragments.
There is a type of sea glass called bonfire glass, an amalgamation of colored shards, shore debris, and ash, melted and reformed in a beach fire and later smoothed at sea. All sea glass tells a story, but bonfire glass carries the physical markings of its encounters. It is forged from the stories of others--ash, sand, fire, and glass of different hues. Bonfire glass is what I’m becoming.
I continue to meld people and experiences into the molten glass of myself, hoping to use my instincts as a mudlark and researcher to call others to carefully observe the world’s complexities. I still delight in the search and marvel at each found treasure, knowing the pursuit of sea glass has instilled in me an ethical understanding of people and change through time. My joy and childlike wonder for little bits of broken glass carry me forward like a wave breaking at the rubble line.