“Be still and look straight down at your feet,” she said. “Look for black and shiny,” he said. They are teaching me how to find shark teeth along this quiet stretch of beach on a cool clear day. I am having a hard time.
There are, I soon realize, a couple of reasons for my difficulties. First, it is my tendency to keep my eyes on the ocean, not the beach. I am inclined to walk with my chin tilted up toward the sky at an angle, much like that of the waves. I am generally more interested in what is happening out there, between me and the horizon.
The second difficulty is that when I do lower my head to scan the ground what I see are sand dollars and moon shells. Or, more accurately, pieces of sand dollars and parts of moon shells. The less-than-perfect, not quite whole, fractured pieces of beauty that litter the sand. They jump out at me like the one unripened tomato in the basket or the face of someone I love in a crowd.
Nevertheless, I am a willing student. I want to find shark teeth. And so I walk on like an old woman – shuffling, barely lifting my feet, head rolled forward from my shoulders, staring down while all around me seagulls call and waves roll.
The few other people on the beach are far behind us now. We have wandered a long way. It is time to turn around and head back. Inside my plastic bag is one perfect olive shell, the broken knobby end of a whelk, a couple of scallops, and two tiny shells I will later identify as Florida augers. There is even a small starfish, so newly washed up on the beach, so recently dead that it is still red, red like brick, red like blood, red like alligator tears.
There are even three or four tiny shark teeth sympathetically donated to my cache by the children, but none of my own finding. I don't count the one I nearly stepped on, the one I picked up only after having been prompted, “Look down at your feet.”
I am not disappointed. It has been a lovely day. Sand under my feet, wind in my hair, sun on my face. People I love sharing it all. Failure at becoming a shark tooth finder, failure at becoming something I clearly am not, no longer bothers me.
Though I have no talent for it, golf fascinates me. Unlike any other sport, the singularity of the athlete is on constant display. There is never anyone to blame for mistakes but oneself, no teammate who failed to carry her load, no referee who can be blamed for his bad call. It has two elements, the long game and the short game. In the long game, power and distance are rewarded; in the short game, finesse and accuracy make all the difference. A good golfer can excel at one and be just okay at the other. A great golfer has to master both.
I am thinking about that later, when the children have gone to bed and the grown-ups sit in the dim glow of lamplight engaging in what Ursula LeGuin called “the beauty and terror of conversation.” We are remembering the past, questioning the future. We are talking of ourselves and how we confront the challenges of life. I hear myself saying, “I play the long game.”
And I realize then why it is so hard for me to find shark teeth, to look down, to direct my attention to the single spot where I stand. It is easy, when you stare long enough at one spot, think long enough about one option, hold long enough to one opinion, to believe that that is all there is. It is easy to get stuck, be disappointed, lose heart when what you see never changes. It is easy to think you are a great golfer when Putt-Putt is all you’ve ever played.
I am okay with never being good at finding shark teeth. I am good at watching the horizon. I am the girl who can see far down the beach. I am the girl who is patient. My game is the long game.