On Saturday, I got stuck in the Philadelphia airport for a little while, and so I went wandering off to find one of my Chicagoan friends, who was supposed to be leaving from the D terminal about 90 minutes before my rescheduled flight was due to go. Wandering around his boarding area, I heard snippets of Academic Mayhem-related conversation ("I interviewed at..." "Oh yeah? I heard they were..." "Nah, I mean..." and so on), and I realized how tricky it can be to try to find even a very good friend in a crowded boarding area, when he's not expecting you to turn up. After a few minutes, I decided that he probably hadn't even arrived at the airport yet (and I was right about that), and so I turned to head back toward my own terminal.
But then I was arrested by three cases of shells.
At the end of Philadelphia's D terminal is an exhibition of specimens from the Academy of Natural Sciences, which holds the second largest catalogued collection of shells in the world. They have around 12 million shells in all. To my mind, this exhibition is a supremely well-placed thing. It's entirely unexpected--who puts something like this in an airport? And yet it's a random and utterly desirable place to let one's eye dart and dive for even a few minutes. I have other reasons to feel glad that I got myself stranded in the airport for a couple of hours, but the shells are right in there, too.
For a girl who grew up inland, I developed an intense and abiding love of shells early in life. Then again, it's possible that everyone develops this particular love; until recently, I thought that I was one of a relatively small group of people who'd had childhood experiences with geodes, but it seems that many people were introduced to them at some point or another. (That won't keep me from writing about them.)
My first neighbors in East Amherst had a wonderful conch shell that told me the ocean long before I could remember ever having seen it. My father ate steamers at the bar that served the best chicken wings I ever ate; when he and my mother would come back from nights out with visiting friends, back when they were all the age that I am now, he'd always bring me clamshells. Every once in awhile, I'd get a pair still hinged together.
On the last day of this year's Academic Mayhem, just before I liberated my suitcase from the hotel, I strode back to the Reading Terminal Market to get some last pictures--revisiting the honey bears, for instance, and looking to see what else there was to see. In one of the fishcases was a prefiguration of what I found at the airport:
This combination of images and recollections makes me remember that, somewhere back in Gambier, I have a tiny box (made for me by my beloved Brooklynite four years ago), papered over in blues and decorated with tiny lilies and other watery flora, that contains a tiny, translucent, still-hinged pair of bivalve shells that I found on the beach below the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, at the end of Academic Mayhem the year it was in San Diego. My upstate New Yorker friend and I had rented a white Ford and driven it up the coast like mad things; for once, I was grateful to have spent the fall learning key defensive driving skills while getting to school and to the grocery store in Rochester. And at the end of our escapade, there was the Pacific Ocean, laid out to infinity before us, just at the brink of sundown. As we walked the beach, finding sandpipers and other flocking birds, I happened upon this perfect piece of white fragility. I cupped my palms around it and somehow kept it safe all the way back to the midwest, all the way back to Rochester, all the way to now.
That whole shell's lucidity reminded me of the slight iridescence that sheened the insides of my childhood's clamshells. The case of shells in Philadelphia, in turn, made me think of the many assemblages of shells I owned as a child, including one shallow box, perhaps 8"x10", that held, among other things (like olive shells), a shell that looked as though it contained a pair of front teeth set in slightly bloody gums.
So many of the details of those kinds of finds and gatherings are gone from me now. I spent part of the evening trying to figure out where in this house my red mesh bag of geodes might be, and so far it's made no signs of being willing or able to materialize where I might find it. Gathering these materials together again is not so different from my original process of collecting them: I get frustrated because I can't resolve the specific things I seek out of all the things and thoughts that have encompassed and grounded them.
So: thank goodness for the shells that simply materialize when I least expect them.