Lessons from a Turtle

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image via ecology.com
image via ecology.com

Award-winning poet Elizabeth Hazen reflects on her ambitious life thus far — the winning, the losing, the waiting it out.

Once at the National Zoo, I watched a pair of giant tortoises copulating, the sound that emanated from their habitat like a sleeper’s distress in the midst of a confusing dream. My son wondered what the matter was. All of the children wondered, the older ones with a slight blush of awareness. The adults chuckled nervously, parents scooting their children along to the next exhibit. Meanwhile I stared with the fascination of a scientist, the brazenness of a paparazzo. How those enormous, armored bodies could fit together—how even turtles could evince pleasure without words! Somehow this was a comfort to me, though simultaneously I was conflicted by my voyeurism and my relentless obsession with things I do not understand.

The obvious awesomeness of the order Chelonian is its anatomy: hard carapace on top, softer plastron over the belly, a head that retracts at will. A turtle’s shell alone contains 60 different bones; these bones, all connected, are covered with scutes, which are a form of skin. My skin could be as thin as newsprint with all that armor to protect me, and the perennial choice between fight and flight would be irrelevant if, like the turtle, I could simply hunker down, becoming a part of the landscape.

Turtles are paradoxical. Their cumbersomeness is their grace. If you don’t believe me, watch the way a turtle moves, so in tune with its protracted pace. Its anatomy prohibits impatience; I am envious of this most of all. Patience has always eluded me. In lines at the grocery store, my face fixes itself in a scowl; traffic sends me into raging panic; and my eight-year-old son has more tolerance for waiting rooms than I. In my 20s I felt certain I would publish a book before I was 30; now well into my 30s, I have given up on numbers. I remind myself daily how little is within my control–all that is in my power is to keep going, keep writing, keep waiting. I watch the wild success of so many of my peers from the safe distance of cyberspace, and each year the sting lessens as I remember the virtues of slowness, steadiness. I tell myself that, like the turtle in Aesop’s tale, I will meet that finish line if I just keep plodding.

Like me, my parents are turtle-obsessed, which is at least part of the reason I write this now. They have made it their mission to pull over whenever they see a turtle in the road, and to move the creature out of harm’s way. Their first pet was a box turtle they fed raw meat because that’s what people were told to do back then; this is likely what killed him. His funeral was a single, ceremonial flush. This shared memory has evolved and become a file of memories with turtles of every variety: the sea turtles they swam with in Hawaii, the baby snapper they rescued on the beach at the Bay, the piles of red-eared sliders basking on logs in the C & O Canal. They plop themselves in the water at random intervals, the small splash barely upsetting the landscape. My father, who is loath to comment on the cuteness of babies and kittens, gushes about how adorable turtles are. At my parents’ house, there are turtles everywhere: lawn ornaments, dishes, salt and pepper shakers, fossilized carapaces, an antique tortoiseshell box so old and delicate its only function is to catch the light from my mother’s office window. They even have a collection of stuffed-animal turtles arranged on the headboard of their bed. Keen observers themselves, my parents’ love of turtles makes sense. What other creature can be so unobtrusively present, such a stalwart manifestation of our connection to the world and, simultaneously, our separateness?

We all need a motif to string our narratives together, we all need symbols to connect the various anecdotes that make up a life. Such repetition is a balm on the sting of loss, addiction, accident. Such repetition allows tragedy to coexist with the giddy pleasures of flirtation, Chinese takeout, unexpectedly hearing a favorite song; and with the banalities of the daily routine that bear little resemblance to what our younger selves imagined. Such unexpected patterns give meaning and order to what is otherwise a predictably chaotic existence. For the motif to bear such scrutiny, to offer so many metaphors for our own lives, is just icing.

Recently the father of one of my son’s friends told me a story about a turtle. In 1948 a little boy found a box turtle in the backyard of his house in Rodgers Forge. He took the turtle inside and, knowing his parents would not allow him to keep it, hid the turtle under his bed. After a few days, his father found it and told the boy it would die if it wasn’t set free. Instead, the father suggested to the boy, why not carve your initials into the shell so that you will recognize the turtle if you see him again? The boy did as his father said, making his mark and releasing the turtle into the yard. Years passed and the boy grew up. He forgot about the turtle. He had a family of his own. In the fall of 1991 he was raking the yard of his childhood home. Forty-plus years after releasing the box turtle, there it was, initials branding the shell.

Why does this story move me? It isn’t much of a story, and it might not even be true. Yet as I listened, I felt something akin to faith. The symmetry, the serendipity–but also the predictability–of the narrative that gave me great comfort, suggested that sometimes, as in Aesop’s tale, a story ends exactly as you think it should.


Elizabeth Hazen is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, The Normal School, and other journals. She teaches English at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland.

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  1. We have a friend who discovered his box turtle on a Friday in the late 1950’s. Fifty-some years on, “Friday” is still alive. Great piece, Ms. Hazen.

  2. It seems we have something in common; I too have stared at turtles copulating, old, sea creatures who didn’t leave our pier for three days. You took me back. Thanks for that. Wonderful writing, Liz.

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