Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dear Turtle

When I was a small child, part of our property was wooded and a creek flowed through the woods, so I learned to tell the difference between box turtles and snapping turtles early on. I was four or five when I picked up a box turtle to play with, thereby launching into an experience that changed who I was and who I would become.

Dear Turtle,

Foe years, I was sure I had killed you; now, I am less certain, but I know that I may have. At least, I injured you, and I am and always have been--and hope I believe I always will be--so very sorry. I hope that you did live, that that bloody crack in your shell and the damage beneath healed and that you recovered and lived a long, happy life. I hope your descendants are still living in and around the same creek, in now-suburban New Jersey.

I understood as soon as my mother told me that you peed because you were afraid. I hope that you can understand that I dropped you then because I was startled, hurt, and confused. More than that, I hope you can understand that I picked you up with good intentions, not intending to hurt or frighten you. I can see now that it was wrong to seize you and carry you away and up the stairs, with no acquaintance no regard for your will or feelings. At the time, I didn't understand that; I was young and selfish with the me-centeredness selfishness of the young. Turtles delighted me, and when I saw you, I thought we would play together. I assumed that any hesitation you felt would vanish when you realized what a good playmate I was, and how much I liked you, and--God help me--how much you could trust me, and how much fun we could have together.

And, of course, I was wrong. You couldn't trust me; I dropped you and maybe killed you. And I didn't like you, not in any meaningful way; I found turtles pleasing, and I liked the idea of playing with you, liked the delight and entertainment you could bring me. I assumed I could bring you those things, too, and we could have fun together, my way--which is another way of saying that I didn't know you at all and didn't think of you as a separate, individual being or show you the respect of considering you at all.

And then, half-way up the stairs to the deck, you peed on my hands, and alarmed and confused, I dropped you. And you fell to the pavement below and landed on your back, and when I turned you over, you were bleeding from a crack in your shell. And I was so sad and sorry. I hadn't meant to hurt you--had wanted not to hurt you.

Crying, I took you to my mother for a Band-Aid. She said it wouldn't help, that Band-Aids weren't for turtles and one wouldn't make you better. But I insisted, because I knew that mothers and Band-Aids could make anything better, and the responsibility for the obviously serious harm I'd done you felt like an unbearable weight.

So she put a Band-Aid cross-wise over the crack in your shell, but to dismay, you still kept bleeding. I so very much wanted my mother to make you "all better," to "fix" my mistake or tell me how I might. But there you were, a living being quite apart and separate from me, feeling very real and separate pain and oozing blood. And my mother told me the best thing we could do for you was set you free into the woods.

As you crawled away out of sight, I asked my mother, somewhat desperately, if you would get better. She told me no. "It will probably die," she said.

I think she explained to me that some hurts can't be healed. I know she told me that a crack in a turtle's shell was very serious. Perhaps her intention was to use this calamity--probably small, to her--to teach me a little bit about death and how all things come to an end. I don't know, but I do know and respect that she seldom lied to me.

What I learned that day, though, wasn't something universal about death, but that you would probably die, and I had killed you. Your blood and your pain and your probable death were and are very painful to me. I felt my responsibility in all its enormity, unmediated by all the coping mechanisms we develop with age. As a child, it is easy for a time to believe in the words, "It was an accident; it's not your fault." But there was no absolution in those words any more; this was an accident, but it was very certainly my fault. You were a living creature, with feelings, and I had hurt you. And I knew, as certainly as I knew that I had done you such harm, that I never wanted to hurt another being like that.

What I learned that day was that I was responsible for my actions, that I could do great harm, that doing harm was painful to me because it was painful to other beings, and that I wanted never to do such harm again. Simply put, I learned deep lessons about compassion and responsibility.

And I learned, though I didn't realize until I started this letter to you that these were lessons of that day, that others--not just people I know or just other people, but all other beings, are fully separate and individual, filled with their own life and beauty and selfhood, capable of a full range of feelings, having their own needs, and wholly worthy of respect and kindness. And I learned that showing kindness and respect to others was a kindness to myself.

And I learned that all things are connected, that the life of a turtle who knew nothing about humans and their concerns was connected to the carelessness of a little girl and the height of the stairs designed by an architect and the concrete poured because of a decision the first homeowner made. And that the character and soul of a little girl were deeply connected to the life a turtle she had never seen before. That was the foundation for other lessons I would later learn, about the interconnectedness of life on a much larger scale and the ways we influence and influenced by events and people and beings we never imagined were tied up with our own lives.

You were my first concrete experience of the interconnected web of life that spirituality reverences and that science tells us is literally true, at the molecular level as well on the grander scale of the destruction of species we never knew existed, and that chaos theory demonstrates in yet another way. And you will always be a vivid reminder of the ways in which what we can do can affect others and the ways in which others can affect us, that we are responsible for our actions on scales large and small and responsive to the actions of others large and small. Chaos theory and scale itself may teach us that there are things we cannot control or predict, but you taught me that we should live mindfully of the effects we create, predict what we can, control our selfish and destructive impulses, because we are so profoundly, often invisibly, connected to so much.

I wouldn't not have learned or begun to learn the lessons of that day, not have had those insights, for anything. And yet, I can't express gratitude to you for having been my teacher, because don't feel gratitude. I feel deep sorrow and compassion for you, but I also feel anger that you had to pay such a high price for me to learn these things. If I could change what happened that day, I don't know if I would. Yes, I would, I would. I like to think that it was in my nature to learn these things at some point, but whether it was, whether I would have learned had I not hurt you, I would choose, if I could, not to have harmed you.

And had I learned another way, I am sure it would have been through causing pain to some other being. And that seems wrong to me--for you or any other living being to bear the price of my growth, for a lesson so valuable--so necessary--to come at the expense of another. It is that which makes me angry, that human nature seems to require the pain of others to cause the pain to the self that leads to growth and and awareness of others and the desire not to do harm.

I understand that we cannot grow or develop compassion without experiencing pain, and I have no complaint to make about that. May the memory of what I did to you remain painful, may the sorrow of that day stay with me forever, to keep those lessons sharp and clear and present. But one pain to which I am not yet reconciled is the pain of knowing that you to hurt and maybe die, though you were full of your own sacred life and your own doings and being when I picked you up and interrupted and maybe ended it all. I am grateful for what I learned, bit I am sad and sorry and ashamed about how I learned it. Perhaps I could not have learned it any other way, or perhaps I would have learned it had I never seen you. Either way, please know that I am sorry and wills always be sorry for the harm I did you.

Whether you can forgive me or not, please know that your experience on that day is an inextricable part of my life and of who I am, and that I will always think of you with sorrow, respect, and


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