When I was very little – maybe 3 or 4 – someone took me to see the giant tortoises. It could have been my mom, my mom and dad, my aunt and uncle, or even my mom and my step-dad. I don’t remember who was there. All I remember is the Southern California heat emanating from hard, earth-shaped shells, gray thick tortoise heads and necks, leathery and wrinkled; I remember the long arms and legs, their claws huge and scaly, the deep, gentle, ancient presence emanating from a huge body, dark eyes. I remember intentional movements, a profound expansion of time all around these beings.
Someone placed me on top of one tortoise, because that’s what we were there for, that’s what one did at this place – ride the tortoises. Like so many of my ancestors, these beings had been kidnapped and removed from their homelands, and would live out their long, long lives performing as entertainment for humans. Looking back, I know this. But in that moment, even before my hands touched the carapace, before my short legs straddled the incomprehensible age of that creature made of time, I was absolutely mesmerized, in love, enthralled, smitten, awe-struck. All of that and more.
That was the day I received my gift. I know it was. The strength of the turtle passed into my small body; consciously, perhaps, or just the great being’s simple shedding of its own abundance. I carried away with me a small bundle of patience and perspective that burrowed into my gut and my spine and my heart, kept me alive through the shit storm that became the rest of my childhood.
Until that moment, I had been vulnerable, open, suffering. My mother would say of me, “Oh, that’s just the way she is. Look at her cross-eyed and she bursts into tears.” I had no skin, no filter between myself and pain. Watching a little boy spanked viciously by his father at a park, I would sob as if I were being beaten.
So it was a gift to me that after that visit with the tortoise, I had a shell, a place within myself into which I withdrew and could withstand all blows, all losses. I still knew hurt, I still knew wounds. But this far, and no more: as if the knives of neglect, abandonment and grief could not penetrate that protective space.
And as I grew, so the shell grew, until gradually, at the age of fifty-two, it entirely encompasses my body. Now I don’t carry the turtle within me; I carry myself within me, and I am becoming the tortoise.