Marcel (the Shell)
Through a gentle film about loss and restoration, I reconnected to the world.
A person’s life may be a lonely thing by nature, but it is not isolated. To that life, other lives are linked.
A week ago, I went for a long walk with a professor friend, and he said something interesting to me.
“I believe in the afterlife,” he commented.
“In the usual sense?” I asked.
“No. I believe in an afterlife of energy—an interconnectedness that I can’t define but have sometimes experienced. I don’t think we disappear when we die. I think we return to a great field of energy that connects everything in the universe. We come from it and we return to it when we die. It connects us all.”
My connection to the world has been much on my mind lately, as Enzo’s loss sinks deeper into my consciousness with each passing month. On the one hand, it would be easy—very easy, in fact—to detach from everything public and spend the rest of my days reading and writing, consoled only by family and a few close friends. I would not have to speak or listen to another stranger, and I could devote my remaining time to remembering my son and grieving his loss. On the other hand, there is the foundation I am working to create in Enzo’s name and its goal of helping others complete the journey that he cannot—an endeavor that forces me to connect to the world, to talk to strangers, and to ask people I do not know to donate or otherwise help to honor my dead boy.
On one path I withdraw from humanity, which can be cruel and indifferent, to the solitude of contemplation and remembrance. On the other path, I strive, against the odds, to keep my son’s memory and good deeds alive. I wish that taking the second path were the easier choice, but it is not. I am by nature an introvert, and I am at peace in solitude. My inclination is to bar the door and let the world go on its way. What’s more, connecting to the world takes energy, which I have in short supply these days. I have learned in the past five months the harsh physical toll that losing a child takes on my body. The mental effort required just to get through a day without breaking down can be immense, and it often leaves me physically and mentally exhausted. Moving through an ordinary day can drain my capacity to think, and, at day’s end, often all I long to do is to shut down my mind and make still the images and words that swirl within it.
We have lived quite enough for others: let us live at least this tail-end of life for ourselves. Let us bring our thoughts and reflections back to ourselves and to our own well-being. Preparing securely for own withdrawal is no light matter: it gives us enough trouble without introducing other concerns. Since God grants us leave to make things ready for our departure, let us prepare for it; let us pack our bags and take leave of our company in good time; let us disentangle ourselves from those violent traps which pledge us to other things and which distance us from ourselves. We must unknot those bonds and, from this day forth, love this or that but marry nothing but ourselves. That is to say, let the rest be ours, but not so glued and joined to us that it cannot be pulled off without tearing away a piece of ourselves, skin and all. The greatest thing in the world is to know how to live to yourself.
Since I wrote my last essay on opportunities lost, I turned in the manuscript for my new book, and, over the course of the next few days, I sensed myself retreating from others and looking inward, perhaps in response to the world moving on from Enzo’s death, which it must do. I was in this state, my mind drifting on the currents of solitary contemplation, when I happened to watch a film entitled Marcel the Shell—the story of Marcel, a talkative little seashell with one eye and a pair of pink shoes, who lives with his grandmother Connie.
The two share an empty house that once belonged to a young couple. Over the years, the owners had collected many other seashells, and these (along with other ordinary items) had become the large, happy community to which Marcel and Connie belonged. Misfortune befell them, however, during the commotion of the couple’s final argument: the departing boyfriend threw Marcel’s and Connie’s beloved friends into his suitcase and disappeared for places unknown.
From that moment on, Marcel and Connie lived alone in the house, which was rented to strangers online, resulting in a steady stream of visitors. One day, a documentarian named Dean, his heart broken by the failure of his own long-term relationship, rents the house and discovers Marcel. Dean begins to film the seashell’s story, posting videos online that soon make Marcel an internet sensation. His newfound fame eventually catches the attention of Leslie Stahl, the star of Marcel and Connie's favorite television show, “60 Minutes.” To Marcel and Connie’s delight, Stahl asks to interview Marcel, and their meeting becomes the climactic moment of the film. I will not spoil this moment for you. But I will mention the film’s final scene, in which Marcel looks out a window and recalls to Dean that it was Connie who told him to come here and listen to the wind:
It’s so just like her to lead me to a place where I would experience something new and special.
It connected me, 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 I then stood there and suddenly we were one large instrument.
I like to go there a lot, because it reminds me that I am not just one separate piece rattling around in this place, but that I’m part of a whole; and I truly enjoy the sound of myself connected to everything.
It is a lovely film—a moving story about a “child” discovering that life can bring both great wonder and great loss. Most of all, it struck me as a film about heartbreak and healing— how we can lose something, or someone, at the very moment that we gain something else. Watching the movie end, I connected Marcel’s “wind” to my learned friend’s “energy,” considering that both had said the same thing to me: we are not alone, even when we think we are; we exist united in some way to all humanity past, present, and future. Moreover, this energy—this wind— flows through all of us in unique and marvelous ways, which we can sense—if we but pause to do so.
Contemplating this conception of human connectivity, I thought back to the previous day when I had met a stranger for lunch to talk about Enzo’s foundation. A successful businessman and philanthropist, this person had no reason to speak to me other than that we have a mutual friend. Yet he came, sat with me, and listened to Enzo’s story and what I hoped to accomplish. It was a generous and gracious gesture: the simple kindness of one human being to another, and it moved me to recall the act, after listening to Marcel’s words.
There is a memorable scene in the film when Marcel is debating taking the risk of changing his life for the chance to reconnect with the wider world.
“But what if everything changes again?” he anxiously asks his grandmother.
Nanna Connie, knowing that her end would come but that life would continue, replies simply, “It will.” Indeed, at one moment in the film, Connie recites Philip Larkin's “The Trees,” a short poem that sums up what she is trying to communicate to Marcel:
The trees are coming into leaf Like something almost being said; The recent buds relax and spread, Their greenness is a kind of grief. Is it that they are born again And we grow old? No, they die too, Their yearly trick of looking new Is written down in rings of grain. Yet still the unresting castles thresh In fullgrown thickness every May. Last year is dead, they seem to say, Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
They are right, of course, and though I may wish to hide from the world, I cannot let that happen. As Connie said, the world must and will change, and while I live I must also change with it. There will be moments of solitude when I will prepare for my “own withdrawal,” but there must also be moments when the world is embraced, when life is reaffirmed, and when whatever I still have to share is given freely to friend and stranger alike. Ironically, it was a movie about a shell—a symbol of self-protection and seclusion—that reminded me that solitude has a place in life but it should never be life.
At the Friday lunch, I wore a pair of shoes decorated with the art of Keith Haring, the graffiti artist whom Enzo greatly admired. I mentioned to my companion that Enzo was wearing a similar pair on the day he was killed. Sadly, we never retrieved them, for they must have been destroyed in the accident. For my birthday in September, I explained, his mother gave me a pair of the same shoes, and I wear them wherever I go seeking support for his foundation. I do this, I added, because doing so reminds me that I walk in Enzo’s shoes only because he cannot. It is not my work that I carry on. It is my son’s.
That next evening, as I watched the film’s credits end, its name appeared one final time on the screen. As I read it, I smiled, for the film’s full title is Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. How appropriate, I thought, that I—the man who would rather curl up in my shell—now puts on a pair of colorful shoes and heads out to tell the world Enzo’s story. I must force myself to be like Marcel, I thought, and embrace the new life that is to come. It is a timeless lesson retold through the story of a gentle creature that, despite the loss of the one person he loved most, is strong enough to face the world to which he is, by winds and dreams, forever joined.
It is the lesson of a little shell with shoes on, a seashell named Marcel, a name that, I reminded myself as the screen faded to black, happens to be Enzo’s middle name.