April 2018

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Last week in Silver Sneakers exercise class, our substitute leader Charlesetta directed us to stick our necks out like a turtle sticking its neck out of its shell in order to stretch the backs of our neck muscles. This is a good metaphor for where I am now, after a couple of weeks of spinning in grief for losses from my brain tumors and their treatments.

As I have struggled, I have pulled myself into my shell. I tucked legs, tail and head into my protective armor. Now that I seem be out of the whirl of storm waters and to have found a temporary resting place, I am sticking my head out of my shell and looking around to see if the world is safe again.

According to the Stanford Binet Personality tests, this is how I deal with anxiety. If I remember correctly, I am an INTP. We are a rare breed, we INTPs, making up only 1% of the population. (My tumors were also a rare breed, and I also have symptoms that my naturopath calls "rare and peculiar.")

We INTPs are introverts and abstract thinkers. We can be obsessive about accuracy in language. I remember reading that we should be teachers and that we should not be writers. (uh oh.)

I can't remember for sure if my last letter was a P or a J, but I do remember that my most extreme personality trait was being an introvert instead of an extrovert. I like to pull myself into my shell and figure things out before I engage in the world.

I have a pair of earrings with the Native American design of a turtle on them. Years ago, a man who seemed to be Native told me that I must be a turtle, that a turtle is at home everywhere because the turtle takes its home with it. At the time, I didn't think that was me, so I merely nodded politely, but I've wondered about it ever since, and perhaps this stranger saw something in me that I did not see in myself.

I do carry an awfully heavy backpack, and others and I have puzzled over why I insist on carrying my load. Though I ask for lots of help, I will not accept help with my backpack. Curious. Perhaps I think my backpack is my shell: it is my burden, and it protects me.

As an adolescent, I went to Camp Seafarer, a sailing camp for girls, every summer. I loved to sail the little Sunfishes, small boats with their hulls close to the water. I liked to feel the water drifting over the hull, to feel the rush of wind, and to duck as the boom flung itself from one side to the other when I would jibe. If I capsized the Sunfish, which I did from time to time, it was easy to right as long as it stayed on its side. If a sailboat turned upside down, its mast pointing to the river bottom, its hull floating on the water like a turtle shell, it was difficult to right. We called this turtling.

I have been turtling over the past couple of weeks. I have been like a sailboat with its mast pointing at the river bottom, like a turtle on its back. I have been unable to right myself and have needed help.

Last year, when I was writing with some friends, the person providing the prompt asked, "If you were an animal, what animal would you be?" I rolled my eyes (internally: I generally have good manners.) I was obviously a cat, an independent being that hunted when it wanted to and napped in the sun when it felt like it. I might let someone pet me, and I might purr, but I didn't feel like affection I hid in plain day. 

The assignment was so easy that I decided to imagine myself as another animal. I imagined myself as a dolphin: "2) I am a dolphin. I swim in the ocean with the sharks, but I don’t get too grim when they bare their teeth. I tell them jokes and hope that some day they will laugh. They never do."

I still had some time left, so I tried again. This time, I was a turtle. I wrote:

3) I am a turtle. I carry my house, which I call a backpack, on my shoulders. I move slowly. If there is a bright light, I bob my head in its direction. I will not rush.

I was born wrinkled, old before my time began.

When I hatched, I dug myself out of a sandy hole and flippered my little shell over hot sand mounds to the ocean’s shore, watched over by sentimental tourists and frigate birds. I do not want to be a frigate bird snack. I have not yet lived long, but I know that I do not want to die yet. I work for life.

I want to go to the home where I belong, an ocean of warm and cool currents, friendly starfish and blob-like jellyfish. An ocean where I can go unnoticed.

I carry my home wherever I go. My shell is my home and my shell is my shield, too.  When I feel shy or uncertain, I pull my head in unapologetically. I am a rock.

You will not know me. You will know only my shell.

After writing, I remembered that I had played this imagination game 25 years ago when a friend who is now a psychiatrist told me about an exercise in which you ask someone three times what kind of animal they would be. Each answer gave some insight into the person, which I think was:

What kind of animal are you?
1.   How you see yourself.
2.   How others see you.
3.   How you truly are.

So I saw myself as a cat, but I was not truly a cat. I imagined that others saw me as a dolphin. Really, though, I was--and am--a turtle. Because I now know that sea turtles  can’t pull their heads and legs into their shells, I realize I am a pond turtle. Perhaps I thought of myself as a big turtle in a small pond, and I set out to travel in the ocean.

Lately, I have traveled through rough seas, and though the storm has settled for now, my shell is a little cracked. I am more vulnerable than I used to be. Though this crack is not life-threatening, and I continue to go about my days in much the same way as I did before, this crack will not heal. I am forever a little broken. 

I don’t know what to do with my brokenness. Perhaps like Nemo, I should just keep swimmin’, but I think for now I need to heal. I need to join my buddy turtles in their line on a log in a pond and soak in the sun’s warmth.

I understand the metaphor, but I don’t know how to do that. Perhaps this is my learning for now. I do yoga each day, as I have for the last twenty years. (I have renamed “Child’s pose,” a healing pose where I curl into myself, my shins flat against the mat and my back arched over it like a turtle’s shell, “turtle pose.”) I read poetry and remember the lines that come to me in difficult moments. (“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I go by going where I have to go.”) I took a meditation class a couple of weeks ago and am meditating each morning (just for ten minutes—I’m not ready to be one of those guys in the high mountain caves who meditate all day). I’m reading articles and poems and books that you are sending me. I am breathing and being: that’s all I know to do.

If you, too, are struggling, I invite you to join me on my log in the sun. You and I need to give ourselves the place and time to heal.


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