For much of my life, I operated with an exterior persona that functioned as a strong shell. At different times, this shell looked like a studious high school student, a schleppily-dressed college student, a hot girlfriend, a nerdy computer consultant, a driven business school student, a put-together management consultant, and so on.
Those roles, not how I actually felt or who I actually was, primarily dictated how I would present myself in just about any situation.
It worked well. I surrounded myself with people who had their own beautiful shells as well, and we reinforced each other’s image and our views of the world.
Every so often, though, something horrible would happen to one of them and their shell would crack open. Sometimes it was an unplanned pregnancy, or the sudden death of a loved one, or loss of a job. It might have been a really bad break-up or the need to live off the grid for awhile.
These kinds of things not only tried to get me to change how I viewed the world, but often broke my friends’ shells open. And though I felt badly for them, all I could see was the crack in their shell. I couldn’t get past that.
Of course, my own shell cracked occasionally, but I always seemed to grab a piece that felt big enough to hide behind. Then I could pretend that everything was fine while I frantically rebuilt. Likely, everyone else could see I was hiding behind part of a broken shell, but they were polite and pretended to go along with my charade, as my sense of identity and well-being was tied to that fragment of a shell.
Then events happened to completely shatter my shell, leaving only tiny pieces. None were big enough to hide behind. Even if a large piece were lying around, I didn’t have the strength to sift through the rubble to find it, much less lift and hide behind it.
Without a shell, it was just me, exposed.
I felt soft and naked and vulnerable. I was disoriented and scared, and I literally hid from people.
Then something shocking happened that still leaves me in awe: People didn’t run. They didn’t even turn their heads. They acknowledged the broken shell without pity, AND they saw me. They even saw good things in me. Often, those were the exact things that I spent a lifetime trying to hide.
Through their eyes, I started to see myself.
With their help, I learned to live without my shell.
Not that I don’t have one at all. I still don’t like people to see me when I experience the “ugly” side of cancer and cancer treatments. I don’t like them to see me drugged, or vomiting, or in pain. I don’t like people to see the changes that cancer causes in my body. I mostly only go out when I am feeling well and can present a healthy front.
However, I recently realized that I myself can now see past the cracked or broken shell of another. Through the jagged edges, their bright light shines out, so bright that I don’t even see the broken pieces.
I am so grateful to everyone who showed me, through their actions in my life, how to do this. And I am so grateful for all the beautiful people who let me be part of their lives. Thank you.
Amazing insights and beautifully written as always. Thank you.
Thanks so much Ginny! Hope your trip is going well!
Thank you for continuing to inspire us with your wonderful, raw, vulnerable and real observations of life, Marie. As always, my prayers are with you tomorrow as you resume chemo. And I am so grateful that you are leaving such a legacy with your journal. Your continued learning on how “to let the joy shine through” no matter what you are dealing with is such a gift. No matter when your journey ends in this life, the beauty of your life lessons will live on forever. You are precious.
Thank you, Don, and for all your exuberant support! It is truly contagious.
Marie, you are one of the friends I value most in my life. You have been my inspiration and my role model and comportment mentor since that great project in our nation’s Capital (well, sort of – if I ran into Bob A. tomorrow, the old warped humor would rise to the surface instantaneously). Betcha didn’t know that, huh? Anyway, my flower garden is full of blooms to share with gladness and a grin. Love you!
Carol, I love that we are still so connected after so many years, and I love that we can continue to be. You are all heart (and a lot of humor too) and thank you for the flowers always. And your friendship, for sure. Love you.
So inspirational, your words are! I live in your city and was wondering if there’s a way to contact you–or you could contact me sometime. I think you may have access to the e-mail I just provided.
Thank you for this beautiful piece. Your writing is a true gift to all of us. I am sending all my positive thoughts and prayers your way. And big hugs for your beautiful sons. I miss seeing J’s monkey bar antics on the playground! Thank you for sharing all of your wonderful insights and for the inspiring way you lead your life.
Thank you Sarina!!!!
I’m pretty sure I’m still playing the shell game.
I love your beautiful shell, Mary.
“I still don’t like people to see me when I experience the “ugly” side of cancer and cancer treatments. I don’t like them to see me drugged, or vomiting, or in pain. I don’t like people to see the changes that cancer causes in my body.” Something to consider: You don’t like seeing it either. Maybe as you accept yourself, you won’t mind what people see.
Good point, Judy! I’m clearly not ready to accept that part of me yet. 🙂
I think it’s difficult to realize you don’t have to embrace the cancer to embrace all of yourself. Life is messy, and you are lovable no matter what.
you nailed this one! you’re inside my heart this morning. xo
Hello. I’m Julian’s art teacher. He is a beautiful boy. I’m thinking of you and praying for you. Your words and insights are a gift. You are a beautiful person…so strong without your shell.
Kathleen, Thanks so much for taking care of my little boy! I feel so lucky that he has you for his art teacher – you are fun and strong and funny and have a great perspective. Thank you for your prayers and also for reading – so fun to see you here. And thank you for your very kind words. Enjoy the rest of the school year!
So beautiful. Thank you.
Wow- beautifully written. I will carry the shell analogy with me. You exude love, shell or no shell
You are so sweet Marcela. Thank you!
oh Marie! jan
As I’ve told you before, the times in your Mary Tyler Moore apartment were the BEST!