I linger at the enclosure surrounding the African spurred tortoise. I want one to make eye contact with me. Jack kicks at his stroller, ready to move on to see the two rhinoceroses around the corner. I push the stroller aimlessly back and forth, small bands of sweat beginning to form in the creases of my skin where I am expanding – it seems minute by minute – to make room for our second child. I keep looking at the four tortoises in the enclosure, silently crushing the weak grass under their ancient feet, their heads edging out past their shells ever so tentatively, sometimes barely even enough to see their dark, watchful eyes.
I have loved turtles for a long time. When we pass them on our walks by the Brazos river and I see them sunning themselves on a log I call out “Hello, ancient ones!” Sometimes I am sure this prompts them to dive into the water. Other times I seem not to disturb them at all, and they pile one on top of the other, a precarious cascade of shells.
I love their silence, the millions of years they’ve treaded the water and the grass. I love watching them slip from a log into the water or slowly venture to eat a piece of fruit thrown in by a caretaker. The African spurred tortoise might live up to 150 years; the Galapagos tortoise up towards 200. I cannot imagine so much life; I cannot imagine how much it must weigh, how it would feel. I wonder if their shells are markers of this longevity. I wonder if they carry the weight of such long living with them.
I don’t know hardly anything about turtle memories; I know that mine fails spectacularly. I think about this as I sit on my couch, realizing that I am yet again afraid of the coming semester. How will I do it all or be enough. The worries are scratched and wobbly, a record that’s been played too long and too often. I’m tired of this narrative, aren’t you? Not just the narrative that whispers to us that we really aren’t and really can’t (after all, just who did we think we are). But I’m tired of the story about that story, I’m tired of running through the week fighting off dragons that might never breathe fire, and parading my sword around as a badge of honor.
The turtles move so slowly through the world, and their living stretches out farther than my own. Why am I racing? What am I trying to catch up to? Who do I think is about to leave me behind if I stop to take in a lungful of wind off the Brazos and call out to the ancient, quiet ones below?
In Deuteronomy 6, Israel is told: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
I need to hold again in my hands, on my forehead, this great task, this one aim. I need to become a tortoise, and carry the commandment on my back – I need it to weigh me down again, to slow each movement and hour and day.
There is no one I need to catch up to, nothing I might lose, no way I will be left behind. If I am quieter, if I move less rapidly, if I take these words into my heart and bind them to me – perhaps then I will be quiet enough to remember the Lord my God. Then I will move slowly enough to see Jesus.