The gift Shelby gave me

April 7, 2014 in Inspiration


Every now and then, a moment stops me in my tracks.

Life trundles on around here: kids, studies, work, laundry, friends, family, adventures, guests, cooking, cleaning, packing, unpacking, continent hopping, we go about our lives as quietly as possible. Sometimes I write, sharing bits and pieces with the ten people I know read our blog: grandparents, friends, that backpacker we picked up along a lonely road and fed crackers to while we drove. It always surprises me when other people find us and reach out, as they do, and every time it’s a blessing and an honor to be included in someone’s story and given the opportunity to encourage a person towards his dream.

1897808_10152080090233528_9152653669584041429_nI smiled, when I pulled back the cardboard box tops, to see a lime green envelope laying on top of the box: inscribed on the outside, in curvy teenage girl script:

From: your vagabonding student
To: my vagabonding teacher

I chuckled: It must be from Shelby.

I’ve known Shelby’s mother, in a round about way, for several years now. We both belong to the same mama’s group on Facebook. To qualify for membership you must have, at some point in your life, had four children under four years old. I barely qualify. Many of these families have seven or more children. Shelby is the oldest of nine. About two and a half months ago her mom sent me a note, asking if I’d have a chat with her daughter who was stressing out over the snarls in her plans for her first big international trip: She was going to China for five weeks.

Some seventeen year old girls might roll their eyes at a stranger-middle aged friend of their mother’s trying to help prepare for a trip. Not Shelby. She dove in with both feet and a million questions. She was palpably relieved when I assured her that she was not doing anything “wrong,” that the prelaunch sequence never goes perfectly smoothly, visa dramas are du jour, and a serious case of the nerves on your first leap is to be expected. I found in this girl a kindred spirit. She reminds me of my daughter in some ways. She reminds me of me in others.

I sent her a gift before she left:

A copy of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to The Art of Long-Term World Travel; a book that resonated with me at it’s publication 11 years ago and still does, over a decade later; I inscribed in the front one of my favourite Don Blanding poems.

I also sent her a shell. It’s one I picked up on Tobacco Caye in Belize. My friend George, a crusty old salt, transformed it from a ho-hum monovalve in my hand into a treasure by cutting it in half and revealing the hidden magic: a green lining that only the creature who made it would ever see. He waxed it for me, drilled a little hole and strung it on a black cord, all the while enduring the taunts of his friends as he and I sat outside his little shack and chatted while he worked. I’ve carried that shell in my backpack for four years, all the way around the world and back. It seemed a fitting gift for a girl from Pennsylvania who was about to cross continents for the first time and who would, undoubtedly, discover the magic hidden within herself as well.

George, Tabacco Caye

When she sent her first pictures from China, wide eyed and grinning from ear to ear, I noticed my shell hanging around her neck.

That made me happy.

Shelby & friends- China

She sent me postcards. This blessed my socks off. We send a LOT of postcards, but receive very few (mostly because fixed addresses are hard to come by!) I save them all.

 I lived vicariously through her posts and her mother’s updates. I silently cheered for her as she stretched her comfort zones, became brave enough to teach English to students older than she was, was brought to her knees by the children, and celebrated her 18th birthday with chopsticks in hand. Her journey was breathtaking. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.

Yesterday, I received a box in the mail.

Inside the envelope was a hot pink and lime green card, hand written:

Dear Jenn,

So, while I was in Dalian I went to the Golden Beach and saw an elderly woman sitting at the edge of the road. She was dirty and looked very poor. The only things I could see next to her were these large sea shells. I wanted to help her in some way, so I walked over. I was extremely excited when I saw smaller objects for sale and pointed to these handmade necklaces. I ended up paying 5 UN for one. I could have gotten it for cheaper, but she needed the extra 2-3 UN. Hope you like it! A shell for a shell.

Love you, Shelbs


Beneath the card, carefully wrapped in bubble plastic, I found the necklace: cowrie shells and hand painted red beads with wooden beads for spacers, strung on red cord. I held in my hands and smiled… while I cried.

I receive a lot of notes from people, and more than a few gifts, tokens of appreciation or connection; each one a treasure. But this one, Shelby’s offering, reminded me of all of the best things about travel and why community matters so much.

  • That she would think of me, standing on a beach I may never see, on the far side of the world is a gift she might not understand yet.
  • That my little bit of encouragement to her to keep fighting the visa rodeo and persevere with the mountain of details that feel overwhelming mattered to her enough to send a hand written note and a hand chosen gift will keep me going for a long time.
  • That she had the presence to recognize, at her young age, that the best way to help an old woman was to spend into the local economy in a way that creates work and empowers, and that she had the good sense to understand the value difference in that extra 2-3 UN made me very proud of her, indeed.
  • She understood that she could have “gotten it for cheaper” but she also understands that generosity is another kind of gift. She has been well raised.

I didn’t know, when I was sitting, barefoot, outside George’s hut, holding pieces of tools for him while he worked, that the gift he was giving me was actually for Shelby (who’d have been about 13 at the time.) It was a treasure to me, a piece of George’s soul, a piece of an island I love and return to, one of the talismans of person and place that I am known for collecting about myself. It wasn’t a small thing for me to pass it on to Shelby, but I had a sense that she would “get it,” that she would understand. I wasn’t wrong.

Thank you, Miss Shelby, for being you, for including me in your adventures, for thinking of me on a far away beach, for treasuring my little gift and exchanging it for something that means even more. I will carry it with me in all of my future journeys and your card will be pressed between the leaves of my journal and my heart.

Tacy, thank you for raising such a bright spark. I know, first hand, the labour of love that it is to nurture a human soul to almost-maturity. Thank you for raising your daughter to be a lover, a giver, a fighter, an adventurer, and a generous spirit. It’s not a small gift that you’ve given the world.