Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons. Ruth Ann Schabacker
A multitude of small delights constitute happiness. Charles Baudelaire
You never know what will wash up on the coast, what treasures will sweep into shore with the incoming tide, what will be left behind as it recedes. It is a daily adventure to scrounge a beach at low tide. We didn’t take this adventure for granted when we were kids, my siblings and I, that twice each day the Fish House Cove beach just steps away from our cottage home was exposed and ready for our exploration. We knew there always was something new, something we hadn’t noticed before — a broken piece of pottery, the rubber seal from a canning jar, a scallop shell or a hermit crab, a long-stemmed fan of rubbery kelp, a lobster trap or buoy washed in with a storm, a sea-smoothed piece of beach glass. And we scrambled down the flat stone steps to our own private treasure chest of a beach and we collected our shells and colored glass and polished stones in pails and canvas bags and we lined them up for display on the picnic table that sat outside our front porch steps. These gifts, washed in with the sea, were a part of our summertime lives and we accepted them graciously. And when the tides shifted and the winds blew off the coastal land, we threw our own gifts back into the cove with hopes that they, too, would find their way to some distant shore and some other boy or girl.
We really did this, my siblings and I, tossed the beach glass and favorite stones and lobster claws and plastic toy cars into the water, and, one time, my younger brother and I wrote a note on paper torn from our mother’s list pad with our names and address and a plea to please write us back and we folded it carefully, stuffed it in an empty plastic bottle that once had held our mother’s Prell shampoo, threw it out into the cove and watched it bob away with the off-shore breeze. We believed in the power of the sea, and the sea, so filled with a wild richness, didn’t disappoint us. Weeks after sending our message off in a bottle, we received our reply. Not from another boy or girl, but from a Grandma, from Saratoga Springs, New York, who summered more than one hundred miles south of our mid-coastal Maine property and had discovered our gift washed up on a wide expanse of beach in front of her cottage. And the Grandma and I, we became fast pen pal friends, and remained so for over twenty years.
I have been a beach-comber, a tide pool explorer, a mermaid swimming in a cove — I have been a lover of the sea my whole life and I treasure its treasures, and yet, until a few weeks ago, I had never heard the word, “flotsam,” a word that describes these treasures that wash up on the shore. Flotsam. I like the sound of it. At a writing workshop I facilitated at Joy Center in late February, we were talking about words and a power beyond words, and wordless books. And that’s when a woman who is a mother of small children mentioned the book Flotsam by David Wiesner. “You’d love this book, Helen!” she said. And that evening, I scribbled the word on our flip chart and we wrote about “flotsam” and, the next day on three different planes, I carried this word and the magic of the sea and a longing for this book out west with me over the plains and the mountains to the panhandle of Idaho, to a week-long stay with my kids and my grandkids.
And I want to tell you that the sea breezes blow across this vast continent of land and lakes, that I could feel them, the onshore winds, the treasures that the sea leaves when the tides turn, even as we, my family and I “beach-combed” in ways different than we would have on the coastal shore. But our gifts were as rich as the ones I gleaned at Fish House Cove when I was a child. And we placed these gifts in our metaphoric canvas bags and pails, the meals we shared, the playtimes at parks and city squares, the jumping over cracks in sidewalks and traipsing on trails through forests of those ever-so-tall western cedar and pines. There were the alone times with each of the grandkids, the package delivered by a tiny mail truck right to the door of baby Addie’s house while her parents were out and the dogs barking and Addie and I excited with all the commotion; there were the everyday smoothies that Viren and I sucked down with straws at the local co-op and the night that he and I spent in the motel alone. It was all treasure, and flotsam was on my mind, the word and the book. I told my kids about it. I told the next door neighbor, too, as she walked by our table when we were eating lunch at the Co-op on Day Two of my visit. “We’re going to the bookstore,” I said. “We’re looking for Flotsam,” I added. And that’s what we did, we beach-combed the bookstore in the center of their small college town, collected gifts for each of the kids, and I talked to the owner about Flotsam. She knew the book; it had won the Caldecott Medal, was beautifully done. She didn’t have it in stock, but she did look up the word for me, broadened my definition. Flotsam, the treasures that float into shore. Flotsam.
And that evening, three days after the workshop at Joy Center, we brought our new books to the home of one of my son’s and we settled into the bustle of family with small kids and dogs, the dogs that had been barking earlier that day. It had been in the morning and my son and daughter-in-law were out riding their bikes and the two dogs had been asleep in their crates in the loft, until they heard it, the teeny-tiny mail truck that might have been out of the pages of a children’s book if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, bumpity-bumping up the driveway. I had plopped baby Addie on my hip, had opened the door as the chipper mailman handed me a package. It had been addressed to me. I remembered that now as we prepared our dinner hours later. “What’s in the package?” I asked. “We have no idea,” they replied. “Open it!” And so I did. I opened it, this package addressed to me. And my mouth, it hung open. I felt like Viren must have felt when he had opened his Christmas present a few months earlier and it had been a storm trooper mask. “I couldn’t believe it!!!” he had said when remembering how surprised he was. And now, I couldn’t believe it either. There it was, delivered to me in a teeny tiny mail truck in Moscow, Idaho, this gorgeous hardcover book. Flotsam. None of us could believe it.
And this could be the end of the story. It’s a good ending, that this world is a place filled with such moments, moments when something floats into shore — or is delivered by a mail truck — something that makes your heart sing with wonder, something that you didn’t expect, but maybe wanted really badly. But I also want to tell you that Flotsam itself is a treasure, that the book is a magical story portrayed in gorgeous full pages of beautiful paintings, a never-ending journey that takes you deep, into the sea and beyond, connects you with eternity. And maybe that’s how I want to end this story, that there really is no ending to the power of the sea and to the treasures that come our way with the daily tides.