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shifting shorelines

Messages from a Wiser Self

The sea is a good listener. Maybe this is why people trouble to find a shell or piece of driftwood and bend to etch a message on its shore. Each message, carved into the soft flesh of tide-washed sand, reminds me of a Rorschach, revealing what lies within the heart at that very moment. I call these messages sand writings, and I often pause to read them, wondering about the lives of the people who authored them.

Who are they, I wonder? Are they young, old, madly in love, or looking for love? Is this their first visit to this island, or have they, like me, been walking this beach for decades?

One thing seems certain. We all are drawn to the sea.

I’m strolling south, now, toward one of these sand writings. I noticed it yesterday from my kitchen window, but I couldn’t make out the words, even with the binoculars, which I keep within an arm’s reach of the window. I am most curious as to why the morning beach plow has spared it. I often watch the plow humming along the shore, raking the sand smooth and readying our strand of beach for another day. Occasionally, the plow spares a particularly exceptional sandcastle, but I have never seen it curve a clawed path around a sand writing.

It did the same today; that’s two days in a row.

I have put off practicing my harp to see why the plow did this. Plus, taking a walk for whatever reason is medicine for my soul. A morning walk beneath the spectacle of sky, painted with the brushstrokes of dawn, is like a tuning key for the psyche.

I happen to know a little about tuning keys. I bought one last year along with a Celtic harp. Long an admirer, the idea to actually buy a harp was ignited during a visit to the Old Library of Trinity College in Dublin. As I stood admiring an encased, exquisitely carved eight-hundred-year-old harp in the book-laden shelves of the Long Room, I decided, then and there, to join the bards and take harp lessons.

Unfortunately, a bard I will never be.

I am much better at harp tuning, twisting my tuning key to sharpen or flatten a harp string until the tuner’s needle hovers in the green zone. Translating the hieroglyphic black notes in my music book into a song on my twenty-six-string harp often eludes me. Still, I persevere, but only because I have reframed my efforts.

Instead of referring to my lessons as harp practice, I now call them harp prayer. Instead of fretting about proficiency, I focus on intention. This new paradigm allows me to imagine that each plucked quivering harp string, no matter how off-key or off-tempo, releases a vibration of love and prayer into the world. It’s the least I can do, actually, for all that has been given me. Which is why, when I return from this walk, I will wrap my arms about my harp and pray for a while.

I have come, now, to the place where the morning plow curved around the sand writing. I stop to read the etched words in the sand. They are not the usual fare of love initials, or a birthday wish, or where someone is from. I see why the driver curved carefully around the words. They strike a profound chord of loss.





I stand there, quietly absorbing the grief in the words, wondering whose hand authored them—most likely a father, grieving his lost child. Whatever the case, this sandy epitaph cuts deeply. I am struck by the glorious sunrise juxtaposed against this sorrow and loss. How can the human heart reconcile such opposites?

I am no stranger to grief. Few of us are. Recently, I lost my adult sister to pancreatic cancer, my young, vibrant brother-in-law to a raging infection, and, years before that, my twelve-year-old brother to brain cancer, my two-year-old brother to an accidental overdose of my mother’s sleeping pills, my mother to a drug overdose when she was forty, and my biological father to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

I rarely pour all of these losses into a single cup, but, this morning, here they are, spilling over the sides, as I imagine a dad writing a note to his lost son. I can picture Cory’s dad at the edge of the shore, his silhouette bending and rising, as he lays bare the words of his heart, etched into the sand.

The sea listens, the sky brightens, and the driver of a morning plow pays his respects.


What I have learned about loss, I would tell my younger self, is that you really never lose it. It will be with you always, sometimes quietly tucked away in the background, sometimes stomach-punching present in the foreground. Loss breaks us open, and the only way to absorb it is to allow it to take up residence inside us, let it howl at times, give it permission to carve new hollows, but never let it permanently exclude joy. This is why we must grow and expand—no matter how painful the hollowing and expansion might be.


Dynamite whatever bedrock needed to find a place to hold your losses, but never evict joy. It is possible for loss and joy to dwell together in the same heart; they can live on the same street. And, if ever invited in, joy can sometimes fill the hollows loss carves. Savor every beautiful moment you experience—your pink sunrises, your walks along the shoreline, your daughter hugging your neck, your cats purring on your lap, your husband giving you a thumbs-up, your sisters’ laughter, everything that causes you to sigh and ache. For that ache is where joy and sorrow meet.


After my walk, I retrieve my harp from its stand and cradle it between my knees. Bracketing my fingers on the strings C, E, and G, I begin to play “Morning Has Broken.” I imagine my halting notes are prayers, filling hollowed places. I play for the people in my life who are struggling and hurting; I play for the people who are gone; I play for the world’s brokenness; and, today, most especially, today, I play for Cory’s grief-stricken family.

Shifting Shorelines Book, by Terry Helwig

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