Channelling the Oyster

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October in Vermont this year was stunning: warm, with temperatures hovering around the 70s, and fairly dry. This year we also seem to have hit a sweet spot for taking nature outings with our girls: Our two oldest can hike on their own with a minimum of complaining; our baby can be toted around easily in the carrier. Georgia alternates between running headlong into the nearest puddle (or off of the steepest cliff), and needing to be carried — but one out of four ain’t bad.

So on a warm, sunny October weekend, when the foliage was at its peak, we headed west along Route 125 and crossed the Lake Champlain Bridge for a picnic at New York’s Crown Point Historic Site. Crown Point boasts the ruins of 18th century French and British forts, stunning views across Lake Champlain, and a small strip of beach littered with mussel shells.

Our girls went right for the beach, where they started a frenzied mussel shell collection effort. The goal was to find mussel shells that (1) were “angel wings” (two shells still attached on one side), and (2) contained pearls.

We found plenty of angel wings, but no pearls (freshwater mussels sometimes DO make pearls, but it’s a rare occurrence). The pearl hunt was inspired by a Magic Tree House book we’d recently read (#9, Dolphins at Daybreak, to be exact). These days, the Gong girls are all about the Magic Tree House series, in which Jack and his sister Annie travel through time and space in — you guessed it — a magic tree house. Each book includes facts about nature or history, and in this particular book we’d all learned how oysters make pearls.

I write “we’d all” learned, because although I’m sure at one point in my life I’d been told how pearls are made, I’d forgotten until I found myself reading about it to my girls.

So in case you, like me, haven’t contemplated the pearl-making process in a while, here it is:

Pearls are made when some foreign substance, like a grain of sand, gets in between an oyster’s two shells. In order to avoid irritation, the oyster coats the intruder with layers of a mineral called nacre; as those layers build up, a pearl is formed.

Is that the most awesome thing you’ve ever heard, or what?!? I don’t know why we aren’t using pearl-making as a metaphor for everything. I’ve heard over and over again how “A diamond is a lump of coal that made good under pressure.” But a pearl, a pearl is an irritant that became something beautiful.

I deal with irritants a lot lately, because I now have four girls who are very close in age. As an only child, this sibling thing is uncharted territory for me, so those of you with siblings may understand best when I say that these girls irritate each other all day long. And the darndest thing is, they really love each other; our house is filled with hugs and kisses and “You’re my best friend!” and generally good playing-together skills. Except that every five minutes, they hate each other: something gets grabbed, someone is hit, words like “stupid” start flying around. “I’m my OWN PERSON, Fiona!” Campbell shouts, whenever her big sister gets too bossy. “Campbell, I live in this house, too!” Georgia barks when Campbell pushes her around. “Nobody is LISTENING to ME!” Fiona wails when her sisters don’t toe the line.

The worst is when I don’t hear anything at all; that’s when I find two sisters locked in a silent death-grapple — a wrist grabbed here, a fistful of hair there — each determined to annihilate the other in order to get that My LIttle Pony (or doll, or piece of paper).

Just because you’re family doesn’t mean that you don’t irritate the heck out of each other. I’d reckon that unless your family was in some serious denial, then you know that it’s usually those in our family, the people who are closest to us, who are capable of irritating us the most. Like a grain of sand in an oyster, we can’t really get away from them. They’re between our shells, literally under our skin.

But an oyster handles that irritant not by scratching at it until it gets infected, not by trying to spit it out, not by ignoring it, but by covering it again and again with a beautiful, durable, shiny substance. The irritant doesn’t go away, but it’s transformed into something that’s not irritating anymore — something smooth and lovely.

This may be stretching it a little, but I think we can all channel oysters in how we handle the people who drive us nuts (they don’t even have to be family members). Only, instead of nacre, we can cover irritating people or their irritating behavior with love.

For instance, after 11 years of marriage Erick occasionally does things that irritate me. If I approach him about these things from a position of love — as opposed to frustration, anger, or even just passive-aggressive sighing — he’s much more open to hearing me. Even then, I’ll never be able to change every single thing about Erick that irritates me, but that’s where more love comes in: Without those things that drive me crazy, Erick wouldn’t be Erick. And I figure that, if suddenly Erick wasn’t around anymore, the things that irritated me the most (the water glasses left out, the cabinets left open, the socks on the floor) would be the very things I’d miss the most.

Similarly, whenever one of our daughters is driving me bonkers with whiny, fussy, defiant behavior, I’m learning that she’s the one who needs the love poured on. She may be acting about as lovable as an angry wasp, but if I grab her in a hug and act like I love her (whether or not I actually feel that way), it usually snaps the irritation out of both of us more quickly than if I yell or lecture or ignore.

The next time I feel that itch of irritation under my skin, I’ll try to act like an oyster; instead of scratching, I’ll coat it with some love. If I can get my daughters to do the same for their sisters, then we’ll be in business!

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