Lessons From a Turtle
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…
Read the full essay at The Baltimore Fishbowl
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 earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale and her master’s from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. She teaches English at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland. Chaos Theories is her first book.