Wednesday, September 8, 2010


While outside knitting I saw a precious thing on the table: the exquisite shell of a spider, a perfect mold of its body, head and legs. Black and white lace it was, a half inch long and not heavy enough to tip most scales. Beautiful, I thought. I knitted a row, looked up again and it was gone, blown somewhere by a slight breeze. I looked on the deck, even got down on my hands and knees, and could not find it. The fairyland carapace of that spider was gone.

That got me thinking about exoskeletons, the chitonous cases that wrap insects, crustaceans and spiders. I found that "chiton," the semitransparent horny substance that makes up the exoskeleton, comes from a word that means "tunic." So this tunic of hard material protects a bug, a crab, a spider from the dangers of existence. Like the knight's armor, the exoskeleton ensures that the soft, vital organs of the creature won't be punctured or slashed or crushed or pulverized.

That's a great system, don't you think? All except for one thing: what happens as the creature grows? Exoskeletons don't come in "One Size Fits All." So the creature has to go through a very, very risky phase: it has to shed the old shell, assume a position of complete vulnerability, and patiently await the completion of the new, larger, more comfy shell. Lots could happen during that wait. Dangers abound.

I'm thinking we go through the same kind of shelling, shedding, shrinking, shuddering, shelling again. We develop thick tunics of indifference and avoidance to persons and situations that could harm us. We allow emotional chiton to shield us from the barbs of the mean-spirited. We hunker down in our comfortable carapaces, ducking from the unfamiliar, staying with the known. This is a good system...until we start growing.

I remember the exoskeletons I've shed. A remarkable one involved a discovery in my third year of college: I was shocked to learn that people were interested in knowing what my thoughts were, without having to preface those thoughts with an introduction of who I was connected to: whose child, wife, sister, mother I was. It was truly a revelation that my ideas were valued, without a connection to other persons. With that unveiling came a huge responsibility: my ideas had to count. They had to mean something. I couldn't just spout the thoughts of others, but had to take time to absorb writers' and speakers' tenets, synthesize them, and build my own set of ideas. It was a daunting prospect, but one that has brought me joy for decades. The chiton of mimicry was off; I had to think, boldly, for myself!

Other shells have come off reluctantly, painfully. Morphing from the fairy-tale wife/mom, living happily ever after, to the single mom raising a child alone, paying 47% of her gross income for rent each month, going without a car for six months...that transformation was not one I asked for. But the growth that came with such a change was incredible. I learned, in my new single mom exoskeleton, how to budget, find free fun, and build a tight bond with my daughter. I learned to share lessons of focus, frugality, and confidence, as the chiton in this shell toughened and protected.

Decades later, when my husband died, I had to leave the comfort of that wonderful carapace of wife. Oh my goodness, did I NOT want to leave that shell. It was a spectacular safe haven, filled with laughter, adventure, kindness, and love. But his death tossed my exoskeleton to the wind. A shuddering shape of vulnerability, I had to grow a new shell. On some days the task was devestatingly difficult, like the day the 100 year rain flooded the lower level of the house and plugged the storm drains in the driveway. The image of me ankle-deep in water, sobbing as intensely as I was scooping water and debris out of the storm drain grate, cursing my husband for deserting me, is an image I'll never forget. The storm toughened me. Within days, I took a knife to the soggy carpet that sulked in half of the house's lower level. I cut it in six-foot strips, rolled it and put each roll into the truck. Did the same with the sopping carpet pad. Took it all to the dump. Got rid of that mess and grew some new armour at the same time.

I did not want to leave that shell, but had no choice. Now I'm stronger for all that, encased in a new exoskeleton that will guard me for awhile. Then I'll struggle again, as the chitonous tunic drops and I face new challenges. Like the insect, the crab, and the spider, I will move on. I'll leave the old shell behind and hunker down in a grander carapace for the days to come.

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