The Fragile Fortress

I am a history nerd. I love reading historical fiction, watching historically factual and fictional movies, and learning about all things that come from the past. I remember sitting in history classes in school and thinking, “I don’t want to learn this for a test, but if I could just sit here and read about this stuff to enjoy it, I would learn a lot more.” I love learning about how people lived and worked and loved and fought and survived in other periods of time and cultures. Ideally I would get paid to read and watch movies all day just to learn from history…but I digress.

I got a taste of this when my boyfriend and I spent a full day in St. Augustine, Florida. We both needed a “day away”, and it seemed like a fun place to spend time together while experiencing new things. We both wanted to visit the Castillo de San Marcos, a 450 year old fortress built by the Spanish during the 1600s. We also made a game-time decision to take a narrated trolley tour of the entire city and get off to see anything that looked interesting along the way. We ended up visiting one of America’s oldest jails, the site of the first Catholic mass held on North American soil, and Ponce de Leon’s perceived Fountain of Youth. In addition to tours and historical lessons, we also gained hours of conversations with each other about what life would have been like and how different the world is today.

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Panorama from the top of Castillo de San Marco

One piece of historic fact that stuck with me all that day and since is the material from which the Castillo de San Marcos was constructed. What appears to be solid stone is actually coquina, a material formed over thousands of years at the bottom of the ocean after small shells have been pressured into a limestone-like substance. The coquina was mined from the ocean floor near Anastasia Island and transferred to the site of the Castillo on barges. Once unloaded, the coquina had to be dried out and hand-formed into stone slabs. Over the course of 23 years, laborers formed and laid hundreds of coquina stones to build what is now the oldest masonry fort in the United States.

A light and porous substance, coquina could be seen as a poor choice to build a fortress intended to protect an entire city, but something crazy was discovered when the fort was attacked by French and British invaders. Because of its make-up, coquina walls didn’t crumble or shatter when bombarded with iron canon shells. The flexibility of the substance caused the impact to be absorbed or even deflected. One written account of an invading general said that shooting canons into the coquina was like trying to attack a block of cheese – it just didn’t break.

This had my brain firing on all cylinders. I started thinking about Brene Brown’s work on shame and how she talks about shame resilience vs. shame resistance. What makes some of us crumble in the face of trauma and shame, and others stand firm? Over the years I have absorbed, deflected, or crumbled under the weight of trauma in a variety of ways. Sometimes I put up a wall so that no one could impact me – good or bad. Sometimes I had no defenses, and I was incredibly hurt and even almost destroyed. Recently, I have learned how to absorb the shock of traumatic events and stories so that I am able to process what is happening and recognize the impact so that it doesn’t leave me crumbled on the ground. When shame hits, we need to know its impact so that we know how to defend ourselves.

The Castillo de San Marcos is literally built out of seashells – one of the most fragile bits of nature I can think of at the moment. Those seashells however, when baked and mixed with other natural elements, turned out to be the best defensive weapon against the most brutal attacks. You and I are not much different. We are built from fragile pieces that were never meant to be abused, shamed, mistreated, or attacked. But those things happen. And when we are attacked, there is always an impact. None of us can escape pain in this life. But depending on what form we have taken over the course of time, we will all respond to trauma and shame differently. Maybe it isn’t about building bigger, thicker walls. Maybe it’s about embracing our fragility and responding to the blows by using what we already have within us.

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