I am sitting quietly, book in hand on a Sunday afternoon when my bride walks into the room and asks, “Will you put on a suit and come downstairs?”
“The kids want you to perform a wedding for the hermit crabs.”
Needing further clarification, I ask, “Will there be cake?”
She smiles and offers a non-committal, “Kinda.”
Intrigued by the exotic sounding Kinda Cake, I put on a suit and head downstairs.
Our living room has been transformed into a sanctuary. Construction paper hearts line the walls. An isle marked by blankets leads to an altar erected on top of an old buffet.
The groom (Hermie) stands perfectly still with a small doll jacket taped to the back of his shell. The equally motionless bride (Shelly), is wrapped in a scrap of red felt fastened with a green button. My daughter and her best friend are wearing dresses, and my son is wearing a tie.
So, I decide to go all in, too.
I cue up the wedding march on my phone and orchestrate the processional. At the altar, I improvise a ceremony that includes lame dad-puns (“…as long as you both shell live…”), silly vows and even sillier dancing.
When it comes to performing the duties of a crustacean clergyman, I’m a revelation.
With good reason.
This is not my first hermit crab wedding.
Every marriage (including my own) begins with a ceremony between two people who are hiding parts of themselves inside of shells. These shells grow over the course of our lives to protect and conceal deep and vulnerable parts of us from harm. Over time, we become really good at pretending like the stuff inside the shell isn’t there.
What’s inside the shells we carry?
Our shells hide our unmet childhood longings.
From childhood, we carry within us a deep longing to feel safe. A desire to be known and accepted for who we are. We want to feel that we are good. And wanted. We want to know that our presence matters. And that there will be someone to care for us when we are hurting. We want to know that it is okay to make mistakes. And that it is okay to have our own unique thoughts, feelings and identity.
And our shells hide the wounds from our past.
We are wired to remember painful experiences so that we can avoid them in the future. We remember that stove tops are hot. And that bees sting. We remember situations in which we feel humiliated, rejected, shamed or abandoned. And we develop ways of protecting ourselves against them ever happening again.
We stop touching stove tops so we don’t get burned.
We stop petting bees so we don’t get stung.
We stop expressing ourselves so we won’t feel humiliated.
We become super-nice so we won’t be rejected.
We become sarcastic and walled off so we can deflect shame.
We become caretakers so we won’t be abandoned.
Every wedding is a hermit crab wedding.
When we fall in love, we aren’t really falling in love. We are falling in idealization and infatuation and imagination—we imagine our beloved possesses qualities that will fulfill us. This is a wonderful phase. And an exhausting one. And it always passes.
As a relationship progresses and a commitment is made, clues to the parts we have hidden within our shells begin to emerge:
Reactions that aren’t proportional to the situation, aka “freak outs.”
Bouts of moodiness and emotional distance, aka “I’m fine.”
Control, aka “How much did you spend?”
Although these changes feel like cracks beginning to develop in the relationship, they are often a sign that a safe environment has been created for the hidden parts of ourselves to emerge. The good news is that we carry something else inside our shells beyond childhood longings and wounds from the past.
We carry potential.
When we open up to someone who loves us, we have the potential to…
…face the longing and wounded child inside of us.
…grow into a better version of ourselves.
…connect with sources of creativity, spontaneity and empathy within us.
…heal and transcend wounds from the past.
…live outside of our self-protective defenses.
…know and to be known by another vulnerable soul and to try to figure out life together.
Why would anyone want to work that hard?
Because six months after enjoying Kinda Cake (which turned out to be a mixture of Cheerios and fruit snacks served in Dixie cups), my daughter walks into the room, eyes wide and filled with tears.
Later that afternoon, I perform a hermit crab funeral.
There are no puns or silliness. There is no dancing. Memories are shared and kind words are spoken. A smooth headstone is chosen and inscribed with a Sharpie:
Our lives matter, and they are brief.
This is your time to live and love with the deepest parts of your soul. Don’t keep them hidden from those you love, till death do you part.
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David and his wife live in the western suburbs on Chicago with their two children, who David says “fill my days with laughter, excitement and a significant amount of property damage.”
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