A Hermit Crab Story, and Barbara Kingsolver’s “High Tide at Tucson”

My kids often had hermit crabs, especially in the summer when we made trips to the beach where we found them for sale in wire cages at tacky beach shops; and after the requisite “please mom’s,” they wrenched slender pinched claws from the wire cage to drop the crabs into take-out boxes like the ones we ate our lo-mien from. Sometimes we purchased a few extra shells, painted neon colors, so the kids could leave them out in the aquarium as promising new homes for their crabs. We could always tell when a crab was about to move because it stayed in its old shell long enough for its body to spill out of it, like it didn’t know how silly it looked with its usually private body parts swelling out of the shell’s narrow opening.

My favorite hermit crab name was “Hairdo,” which my daughter aptly chose for the crab whose shell was a beehive shape in a swirl reminiscent of an old-fashioned bun. One time Hairdo escaped and went missing for weeks in my daughter’s room, but miraculously was found one morning, scooting across my daughter’s rug, pointed in the direction of an open potato chip bag.

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I once tried to use a hermit crab as a centering metaphor in an essay, and it didn’t work in the usual ways that too-obvious symbols fail us. The crab that tries on different homes, abandoning one to migrate to another, taking up a new shell like we take on new identities, was too predictable to hold up.

But Barbara Kingsolver makes the metaphor work in High Tide in Tucson. When she struggles – like the sentence: When I was twenty-two, I donned the shell of a tiny yellow Renault and drove with all I owned from Kentucky to Tucson. – she just pushes a bit too hard to force the analogies, like I continuously did in my failed essay.

What makes Kingsolver’s hermit crab metaphors work is her integration of the 1954 research on the way intertidal oysters adapted to their environments; even in the absence of an ocean tide, they carried out their lives in the “same cyclic unison.”  Moving away from family, settling in Tucson, finding a way to make the rhythms of that new place in the desert familiar and home-like – all of these comparisons work to connect Kingsolver’s moving experiences to the hermit crab that stowed away to Tucson in her luggage.

What I love is how she folds her “losses” and “gifts” into a single paragraph later in the essay: a “knife in the stomach” alongside a “column of blue butterflies rising” from a monastery. Grief and joy collapsed. And afterwards she writes about her bold confrontation with the strangers who tried to rob her, insisting she wasn’t brave or lucky at all; that this was “only the way life goes” (269). She blindly does what anyone would do in those moments of fear and grief, joy and beauty: she “fought off the knife,” “mourned” the lost baby and marriage, and “bore witness” to beauty.

Living, Kingsolver tells us in this essay, means doing whatever it takes to survive.

Earlier this month my cousin’s 18-year-old son was killed in a car accident. She lives in Texas, another sort of desert, one I’ve never wanted to visit, and the only access I have to her grief is on Facebook. Her son, a wiry dark haired boy I’d never met, was a senior in high school, only “120 pounds soaking wet,” my aunt told me on the phone last week, and ironically or tragically or miraculously, depending on how you read this truth, had accidentally made a baby with his girlfriend, due in only a few weeks. The couple had been in that hard place of trying to calibrate to the tide of a new life they had somehow stowed away to: the girl living with my cousin and her husband because her family had disowned her, my cousin’s son, James, dropping every class except the two he needed to graduate so that he could find a job repairing computers. When James died on a rainy highway a few weeks ago, he and his girlfriend were living in that necessary moment of “raw, green passion for survival” (272).

Now James’ parents, the cousin I haven’t seen since she was a twelve-year old, stringy-haired skateboarding girl, and James’ brother and father and cousins, his olive-skinned girlfriend with her heavy belly, that boy inside her, must go on living.

Kingsolver says when something extraordinary shows up in your life in the middle of the night, you give it a name and make it the best home you can. And that’s what they will do for James’ infant boy, the baby who showed up unexpected and unwanted, but who will help my cousin cross the “wide gulf” from survival to joy.

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