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My favourite morning dog-walking path can be treacherous. In the winter it’s treacherous for me because of ice and snow. But in the summer it’s treacherous for the snails, because as careful as I try to be, I have crushed so many of them. On my noon walks, I can see their slimy trails glistening in the sun and I easily avoid these amazing little creatures who carry their homes on their backs. But my morning walks happen before the sun rises, and I just don’t see them. I feel the slight resistance of their shell under my foot, but before I’ve registered that sensation, I also feel the quick give, the gentle crack, and the silent squish.
My heart breaks a little every single time. I loathe myself for so accidentally and completely destroying something so small and so contained. I’ve often thought, I need to blog about these little creatures – to somehow give them back the life I’ve taken from them. But I never could think of an angle in.
Until my sister, Tracy, told me about Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. Marcel the Shell is a little hermit crab shell with an eye. And shoes. (So, not a snail, but close enough to a snail that Marcel seems like a little resurrection of my tiny victims). The film is a story about Marcel and his Italian grandmother, Connie, and their relationship to a documentary filmmaker. My sister was so enamoured with Marcel that she made her own replica of him and insisted that I watch the movie with my daughters as soon as possible.
It’s rare that Tracy recommends something so passionately, and so we watched it – ready to laugh (and we did!). But then we were crying. Because in the midst of their hilarious adventures, Marcel and Connie talk about and experience all the hard things.
At a critical point in the story, Marcel is resisting taking a risk – afraid of the possible outcome. Marcello, Connie says, let’s forget about being afraid. It may be good, it may be bad. But just take the adventure. Marcel takes a deep breath. A tear gathers, slips from his eye and lands on his shoe. He looks up at his grandmother. “But what if… what if everything changes? Again?” Marcello, oh. Connie says his name with tender love. “Yeah,” Marcel says and looks down. Connie stares at him with her aged eye. She knows something for certain. With confidence and a smile, she says, It will… Come here. And they lean into each other for a hug. Shell to shell.
Everything will change. Again. And again. And again.
A week after we watched this movie, my sister came to visit. We had the film on in the background as she and my daughters and I fussed with shells and clay and googly eyes and a glue gun, each making our own little shells with shoes on.
And then a month later, everything changed. My sister had a seizure while in the midst of a 5k run on Thanksgiving day. A cancerous tumour was discovered in her left frontal lobe. Our lives and homes felt as if they had been picked up and thrown onto a dark sidewalk with lots of dogs and boots.
As I packed my carry-on to travel to Minnesota to be with my sister, I grabbed a book that had been gifted to me recently: James K.A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time. The book is a perfect companion to Marcel the Shell and to My Current Life. In one of my favourite parts, Smith unpacks Martin Heidegger’s concept of “thrown possibility.” Life is constantly changing. We’re tossed about and thrown. Our environments shift and our horizons get reconfigured. Smith writes,
Ultimately, to entrust oneself to God is to trust that it is God who has thrown us into this… God’s grace does not lift us above the vicissitudes of time’s flow; rather, the God who appears in the fullness of time catches all that’s been thrown our way in an embrace that launches us into a future that could only be ours because we have lived this life that Christ redeems. (p. 60)
Our lives are thrown possibilities and all around us are thrown realities. God is the thrower and the catcher and the launcher of our ever-changing lives.
What if everything changes? Again? Oh, Heidi. It will!
And it is changing. In this very moment, everything is changing. The challenge and the call is to inhabit this time. I mustn’t be overwhelmed by the waves of it, as if time controls me – nor must I try to escape it and conquer it, as if I control time. No, I must inhabit my present – the fleeting gift that it is – with a rooted acknowledgement of my past and a curious confidence for my future. Smith quotes St. Augustine in his Confessions: “Perhaps it would be exact to say: there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come” (p. 101). Later Smith calls these three presents a chord that we must listen for: “To hear such harmony is a feat of ear and mind that holds together a ‘now’ that is pregnant with both memory and anticipation” (p. 115).
At the end of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Marcel ducks out of a party to spend some time in the laundry room by an open window. It’s a place where he feels close to his grandma, who is no longer with him (because everything changed).
I found myself coming down here more and more. Such a lovely smell from the dryer sheets. I like it because there is a window that is always opened a little crack there. I would stand there and sometimes I’d tell her things, ask for advice, or just let sound come out of my mouth. And one day I was just sitting and the wind blew in and it blew just over the top of my head in such a way… The wind blew over and it made a beautiful whistling sound. [He invites us to listen.] That’s going through my shell! It felt just like her to lead me to a place where I would experience something new and special. It connected me – how I felt like – to everything, because if I wasn’t there, the sound never would exist. And I felt like everything was in pieces, and then I stood there, and suddenly, we were one large instrument. I like to go there a lot because it reminds me that I’m not just one separate piece rattling around in this place but that I’m part of the whole. And that I truly enjoy the sound of myself connected to everything.
We are connected – our past present, our present present, our future present. We are connected – to one another and to the God who throws and catches and launches. And though things change – again and again (and sometimes for the worse) – there are things that simply change by growing in their steadfastness – becoming more true and more beautiful all the time.
This past Monday, Tracy had a five hour surgery to remove the tumour from her brain. In the days leading up to the surgery and throughout the hours of the surgery, all the fears for the potential outcomes coursed through my heart. She came through the surgery well. The surgeon believes he removed most, if not all, of the tumour. The first step of her treatment is complete.
I cannot wrap my mind around what we are going through. It is too much the “present of things present” for me to have a reflective perspective. But I will share this.
The morning after her surgery, Tracy sent me a video message. Her speech was slow, as she was just beginning to find her words again. But this is what she said:
I am grateful for you.
And I am very confident of our love for each other.
Things are changing. Again. And sometimes it feels absolutely horrifying – as if we were being accidentally and completely destroyed by a boot on a dark sidewalk. But as I listened to my sister’s gentle and slow words, I thought, isn’t it just like God to put us into a place where we can experience something new and special – like the fierce longing for more life? Isn’t it just like God to catch what’s been thrown our way and launch us into increasingly steadfast things – like gratitude and love?
What if everything changes? It will. Thanks be to God.
Header Image: Tracy’s Marcel looking out their window.