The wisdom of tortoises

2008-10-29 00:00

About a year ago I started collecting tortoises. The first one was a completely unconscious decision. It was a carved stone tortoise I found at a flea market. Its smooth, shiny surface which the artist had lovingly carved out of a piece of soapstone attracted me. I kept that tortoise on my desk for months, stroking its comforting surface in an unconscious way whenever I felt the path I’d chosen was a little too steep.

My next tortoise was more of a conscious buy. I saw a beautiful crafted miniature at a garden centre and bought it immediately. It would look good next to the soapstone one. The next was a delicate fellow made of beads and wire which I discovered at yet another flea market. The tortoise family was then joined by a cloth and birdseed tortoise named “Crash” by my daughter who bought it for me. I was even given a silver and garnet tortoise pendant by an ob-servant someone who noticed the staunch parade of tortoises growing in my writing shed. Then I discovered a family of three blue-and-white clay tortoises packed away in a box. A friend had made them for me many years ago. I realised that my random buys had simply fitted into something that had been an unconscious theme in my life for some time.

I had given a little thought to the significance of these little creatures’ steady progress into my life. Once in a lecture, someone commented on my pendant. I told her that I was very much like the tortoise: soft and vulnerable on the inside but with a shell so hardy that I could survive the most vicious blows the brutal world of the arts could give me. I’d also felt an affinity with the tortoise’s slow but steady path. It has taken me longer than most to get to my desired goal but I have no doubt that I will get there in the end.

But the wisdom of the tortoise was brought to mind even more strongly after routine surgery which went spectacularly wrong a few months ago. Spending over six weeks unable to get out of bed for more than a few minutes gave me a great deal of time to think. I realised that I have set myself unusually high goals to achieve in this lifetime and it is taking quite a while to reach these goals. After almost two months of contemplation I realised that since the early loss of three members of my immediate family, I have chosen to prioritise the needs of my family and friends, sometimes to the detriment of my own work.

It hasn’t been easy working from home over the years so that I can be available when others need me. I have often been very frustrated not being able to devote myself single-mindedly to a task as many others in my field are able to. But during my recent fairly spectacular collapse, the flip side of my life’s choice was revealed. These friends and family rallied around to carry me through the terrifying weeks when I arm-wrestled death. My husband and parents put me first, cooking meals, fetching children, buying vitamins and treats to keep me from despair. Friends lent me classic DVD collections, brought audio books and posted documentary film festival DVDS. Aunts, uncles and friends brought flowers and visited night and day to keep depression at bay. I was humbled by their outpouring of kindnesses.

It was then I realised what the tortoise really symbolised for me. I may be carrying my friends and family on my back as a house of sorts on my journey. But this same house provides me with security and comfort to protect my sensitive and vulnerable side from being destroyed by outrageous fortune. So when I get knocked down by slings and arrows and even medical disasters, my shell of support holds me together.

I’ve always thought that tortoises look a lot like Madiba. Who would have thought they’d be so wise as well?

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