I’ve always been a collector of sorts. Or better said, I have periods of blind focus on gathering particular things. A thing hunter. Fountain pens. Russian dolls. Miniature chairs. Miniatures of any kind. Even when I was really young, I was obsessed with Hagen-Renaker china animals. You know, the one with the little pond with the diving baby duck with its butt in the air? I wanted the whole set (hundreds) and would save my allowance to chip away at the numbered pieces from the Merry-Go-Round on Thayer Street. Not sure why I stopped; they still make them today. I have my stash somewhere…
Over time my collecting has morphed in content and in means of acquisition. These days I’m more of a “treasure” hunter, particularly at the beach, and especially in Eleuthera. My back has known the deepest, darkest tan from hours of snorkeling to find sand dollars or the elusive sea biscuit or butterfly wing shells. Those years were followed by many more of long walks combing dried seaweed at the high tide mark, looking for sea beans (we call them lucky beans): a range of different types of dried seeds that have made their way across the seas, presumably from Africa. Oh, and the dime size resin balls (if they are nurdles, they are BIG nurdles). Those are a very special kind of score! Needless to say, my neck was well-primed for the cell phone age from all that looking down as I walked.
In the most recent years, I’ve become driven in my quest to “rescue” sweet little sea urchin shells just off the shore in front of our house. Sometimes the water is so clear you can see them when looking down as you wade; mostly, though, I’ve returned to donning a mask and snorkel and slithering my way along the coastline trying to spot them as they get tossed around by the gentle break at the water’s edge. Honestly, I’ve tried to just go out for a swim, but I can’t seem to stop myself from grabbing the gear and going on a hunt.
That last fact says a lot, and I’ve been thinking about the obsessiveness of it. The reality is that I can’t pass by the equipment without grabbing it because I’m afraid if I don’t have it with me when I go for a dip that I am going to miss THE shell. Or THE fish. Or THE perfect conditions. Dang you, FOMO, as the kids say. I am plagued by a Fear Of Missing Out.
It’s fair to say that I’ve battled this condition all my life. Clearly as a collector (if there’s something out there that I’m obsessed with, then I have to get it) but also socially, physically, intellectually, academically, and romantically. Okay, and probably in every other way, too. Case in point, I’ve done things I had no business doing – like jumping off the cliff at South Point, shelling out $1,000 for a writing implement, or copying off of someone’s test in school – just so I would be on the “right” side of an outcome. It isn’t so much about missing out on experiencing the fun or success or achievement or ownership that others have (although that, too, comes with a whole different set of challenges); it’s more like playing a never-ending mind game with fate.
What if I’m supposed to find this thing now? Or experience that feeling there? Or am somehow responsible for bringing together a complete set? If even a quick thought about “it” – whatever the it du moment is – darts through my mind, I feel compelled to react. Ever forgotten to put your seatbelt on only to realize it right before your arrival? Some might say screw it, I’m basically there. Me? I have to put the belt on right then, if only to take it off seconds later when parked. This is my version of FOMO: fear of missing the opportunity that fate has in store. In the case of the seatbelt, it’s about being saved by my belt in the crash that would happen if I didn’t put it on when I thought about it. Given this spin, it probably makes more sense to call it a Fear Of Missing Opportunity.
Right now it is feeling particularly clear that my happiest self is when I am floating on the surface of the crystal clear Caribbean water out in front of the house here in Eleuthera, mask and snorkel on, enjoying the feeling of total solitude. Except for random flicks of seaweed, the occasional shell, and the wayward school of fish, there is nothing under that water but miles of undulating pink sand and turquoise reflection as far as the incessantly fogging lens will allow you to see. And with my ears just below the surface, it’s silent, save for my snorkeled breath. Sometimes I swim. Other times I gently kick, frog-leg style. But mostly I float along with the current, doing a slow doggie paddle, hands at the ready for the occasional object inspection or collection. I can do it for hours on end.
(As an aside, every time I’m out there – and I mean every single time – I think of the beautiful love scene in Children of a Lesser God, which silently takes place underwater between a hearing William Hurt and a deaf Marlee Matlin. Such power.)
As blissful and idyllic as this all seems and as happy as it makes me, I’m noticing that even while I’m in this heavenly state of peace, FOMO has its grip on me. My neck has been feeling stiff, and it wasn’t hard to get to the root cause. When I’m out there, I jerk my head a lot, in every direction, constantly looking for treasures and doing everything in my power to be sure I don’t miss anything as I make my way along the coast. Miles and miles of mesmerizing tranquility, and I’m giving myself whiplash out of fear of missing a shell sighting.
Now, I do know that if I simply move in a straight line, with my head in a constant position, there’s plenty of terrain for me to explore, and definitely more than my brain has the capacity to take in. I also know that when I lurch this way and that, I’m actually missing what’s right below (not to mention, apparently, punishing my body). It’s a zero-sum game, and I’m not playing it very well.
Consequently, I’ve started self-coaching in the water, literally speaking sentences to myself over and over. “Look straight ahead and down.” “Enjoy what you’re seeing, and don’t worry about what might be off to the side.” “If you’re always on the hunt, you are not experiencing what’s right in front of you.”
Pearls of living-in-the-now wisdom surging through my being as I revel in the gloriousness of my happy place.
My cynical, intellectual self is inclined to brush off the zennish mumbo-jumbo, but I can’t deny their truth. I’m even given signs to prove it. Yesterday, in fact, while dutifully honoring the beauty of what was exactly in front of me, the eminently coachable woman that I am, a big, beautiful, butterfly-wing shell presented her angelic self. Just sitting there in the middle of a particularly undisturbed stretch of sand, sparkling her colorful wings for me to see. Take that, living in the now!
When I allow these kinds of moments in, I can’t deny their effect, which I wish I would remember when I am at my most resistant. That glorious shell is a powerful reminder of the beauty that is right in front of me if I allow myself to see it. And that it’s okay that I will never, ever be able to find, see, collect or possess everything. That I don’t need to. Shocking I know, but being helped to remember that breaks the obsessive spell that feels pervasive in my life.
And I love taking it a step further. If I were to find every sea urchin in the ocean, then what anyway? For one, I’d be done, which feels desperately sad. Secondly, no one else would be able to get to experience the same joy I feel when discovering the little treasures. And even if no one ever does, I like feeling as though I’m leaving the room for the possibility that someone will.
To me, this kind of openheartedness only comes when I get out of my self-focused, logical, and defensive head. Away from obsession and toward possibility. When I let myself feel these thoughts, I get deeper and more sustainable joy than adding to any collection. Oh, how I wish I stayed in that heart space all the time.
When I’m feeling particularly heady and my thoughts are dominated by the micromanagement of being, I feel insatiably drawn to Eleuthera. It’s been that way for years and years. The familiarity, the homeyness, the joyful palette of colors… they all play a part for sure. But it’s because things like butterfly shells happen to me here. I allow them to. I welcome them. Intellectual reason and rationalization fade away and space is made for the warmest feelings in my heart. You know what they say – or should say – when butterfly shells happen, everything feels right in the world.
“When you’re always on the hunt, you’re not experiencing what’s right in front of you.”