Finding a New Shell
When I look at the photo of my 17 year old self, I barely recognise the person in the photo.
It’s not because I’ve had a huge physical transformation, although the years have weathered me, rather it’s the person within the skin that I can barely remember. The most profound transformation has been an internal one.
One of the deepest shifts happened over a year-long international exchange to Malaysia when I was 17. I guess these days it might be called a gap year, a strange term really, for a year that was anything but a void. In fact the experiences, friends, and self-discovery of that year that has shaped me more than any other singular year in my life.
I was brought up in a strong Lutheran household, and found myself in a Muslim country, living with a practising Buddhist family.
I grew up in an almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon community, and found myself immersed within dynamic Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures.
I came from a town with a population of 200 and found myself in a city with a population of 1.5 million people.
Those first few weeks and months in Kuala Lumpur, I struggled to identify anything that was familiar to me at all. Once, in a bout of homesickness, I remember trying to cook a pavlova. Within half an hour of it being out of the oven, the humidity had rendered it a soggy mess — a representation of my own collapsing sense of my identity and confidence.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I married the person who wrote to me each and every week that I was in Malaysia. He was after all, one of only a handful of people who took time to stay in touch, to listen to my shifting perspective on the world and observe my slow and steady transformation. He was the person who crossed that threshold from childhood to adulthood with me, and he continues to cross thresholds with me as we move through life together.
What my 17-year-old self also couldn’t have anticipated at the time, was that while I was changing and growing, people were also changing and growing back in Australia. They were starting university, leaving home, making new friends. When I got home, I felt almost as lost at home as I had in those first weeks in Malaysia.
Of all the transitions that I have made in my life, this one was the starkest. There have been many internal shifts since, and I don’t know if it’s age, parenthood, or perhaps the expectations left by a religious upbringing, but the gaping lack of both private and public opportunities to mark these transitions in our lives, has become more and more obvious to me in the last 6 or 7 years.
Maybe it’s because I’ve moved through some pretty significant ones during this time; the birth of my children, the death of dear friends and family members and the privilege of entering mid-life. I’ve also observed my parents retire, my children take their first steps, then quite suddenly walk through the gates to their first day of school. I’ve watched my siblings try and understand and support their teenage children as the try to prepare them for adulthood, and friends move through separation and divorce.
Some of these milestone are obvious, and some are less obvious — some, feel particularly personal and potent, others feel broader, more expansive, but all of them have the potential to change us — in big and small ways.
While we inevitably must cross each threshold alone, the role of the observer, the individual or community acknowledgement cannot be underestimated. We need people in our lives to acknowledge the change in us, the strength in us, the adaptability in us.
I only recently discovered how hermit crabs change their shells. In order for them to grow, they sporadically move out of their old shells, and move into something that provides them with space to grow.
This process begins when an empty shell washes up on a beach — an infrequent occurrence in many environments. Soon enough, a crab discovers it. It’s a big deal, but it needs to be just the right size for this particular crab — if it’s not, the crab will nestle in close to the empty shell and wait. In time, other crabs of varying sizes join it, until eventually there is a row of hermit crabs lined up perfectly from largest to smallest.
At this point, the largest crab, who will make its home in the newly discovered shell begins a kind of crustacean choreography, lifting itself out of its cramped abode and carefully placing its tail into the new home. This sparks a chain reaction as the next crab in line moves into the recently abandoned shell, and so on and so on until the final crab is in its new shell, leaving the smallest shell discarded on the beach.
It’s a mesmerising and somewhat precarious process, because while the crabs are equipped with some impressive front claws, their tails are soft and fleshy, and in this moment of potential growth, totally exposed. As each crab lifts itself from one shell to another, they reveal the most naked and vulnerable part of them selves.
We were born saying goodbye
to what we love,
we were born
in a beautiful reluctance,
not quite ready
to breathe in this new world,
we are here and we are not,
we are present while still not
wanting to admit we have arrived.
Excerpt from Cleave by David Whyte
Despite a name that suggests the opposite — hermit crabs need each other. Without their community, or their willingness to be vulnerable, hermit crabs can’t grow.
Like hermit crabs, we won’t grow to our fullest potential in one space, but we also can’t move into a new space without some risk, without being prepared to let go of the old shells that have been our safe spaces, and our homes.
Our transitions aren’t always as physically obvious as a hermit crab’s and the thresholds that we cross can sometimes be harder to identify. But if we don’t find a way, to mark, or in the very least to acknowledge that we are all passing through these thresholds, then we risk being stuck in a shell that is far too small, or even worse, stunting our own possibility. We run the risk of catching up with a friend of 20 years and not realising the transformation that has taken place, in them or in us.
To be a part of someone’s transition requires a closer level of attention. And it’s not just our friends that we should be paying attention to, we need to be paying attention to ourselves too. Lest we wake up one day standing in a car dealership buying a red sportscar and not quite knowing who we are, or what we want.
All of us are somewhere on the journey from birth to death, and of course the routes that we will take are wildly different, but what makes the thresholds of such importance is that they have the potential to bind us together.
Joining together at these threshold moments is about reminding ourselves that we are not alone, that this shared journey of life connects us to one another, and that we can, and should take a moment to look at each other along the way and celebrate the milestones that shape us. That we should give each other the space and time to grow into someone new.
What threshold are you at right now? How is it changing you, and who are you inviting to cross it with you?