On New Beginnings and Finding Home
Animal Stories from All-Creatures.org

FROM Ashley Capps [shared with her permission]
January 2020

I saw what appeared to be a dozen little shells dancing around, with doe-eyed hermit crabs frantically climbing and clamoring over one another...

hermit crabs
Hermit crabs exchanging shells...

Once in my life I witnessed a hermit crab shell exchange in person. These were free-living hermit crabs, in the ocean, and at the time I didn't know quite what I was seeing: it looked like some sort of crustacean frat party or circus.

It was late summer of 2012, and I stood calf-deep in the clear sea of Puget Sound, trying, as I had tried so many times before, to summon the courage to leave a marriage in which I was drowning. I was far from home, in Port Townsend, Washington, to teach a poetry workshop for two weeks. During my free time, I took walks along the beach, staring out at the Pacific Ocean, trying to will into existence the strength I needed to start a new life.

On one of these walks, I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants-legs, and waded into the water. It felt so calming to close my eyes and feel the sun infuse my eyelids. When I opened them again and looked down, I saw what appeared to be a dozen little shells dancing around, with doe-eyed hermit crabs frantically climbing and clamoring over one another. Or at least they resembled hermit crabs; without the telltale shells (themselves the former homes of snails) ensconcing their vulnerable bulb ends, they looked more like a cross between a hearing aid and a piece of gnocchi.

In a matter of minutes, the little party was over, and the crabs, safely embedded in their new hermitages, swiftly dispersed at my feet. It was only later, after researching descriptors of the tiny spectacle, that I learned what I'd actually witnessed: an ancient transaction of collective faith that the ritual of stripping off one's armor, and stepping out of one's only hard-won home, could at the judicious moment lead to a better life.

New beginnings, for all their promise, aren't always easy; and for all their newness, many are built on the bones of ghosts. As Faulkner famously wrote, The past is never dead; it is not even past.

That I had not yet managed to leave my marriage— in which I myself was becoming a ghost— had been a failure of imagination I pretended was hope, and clung to like a life raft; in reality it was fear, and the stone that sank me deeper.

As I took my New Year's walk today, I thought about that afternoon with the hermit crabs, how utterly lost and literally at sea I felt then, and of the two more lost years I stayed in that marriage without the courage or confidence to imagine myself okay on my own. And when I got home from my walk, I looked up this video and smiled at what a bizarre, bumbling spectacle it all is, this trying to belong, and to feel safe and happy.

"My home made of smoke," writes the poet Dean Young, "tiny spider made of punctuation..." "What happens when your head splits open/ and the bird flies out, its two notes deranged?"

"Further out to be brought further back."

I wish you courage in this New Year, and a sense of feeling at home in this world and in your life; most especially if that means finding the courage to be your own home.


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