“Not really,” I tell her. The subject of turtles has been a recurring theme lately. I tell her this.
She smiles and nods. “Turtles are slow, steady and strong.” She gives me a tour of the center, showing me wonderful pieces of Oneida history and craft work. My gracious host tells me she is Turtle Clan. “Is there something you were looking for?”
“I am looking for a book on the teachings of Deganawidah and Hiawatha” (a Haudenosaunee prophet and his companion I admired from a book called, Travels in a Stone Canoe by Harvey Arden and Steve Wall). The center has what I am looking for.
I’m interested and I pick up a book on this and one on the Oneida creation story.
“It’s the turtle that grows and becomes the island of North America,” she says.
I tell her I have been reading and rereading a book by the humanitarian, wisdom-keeper Oren Lyons called, The Art of Being Human.
She smiles and we talk about the Onondaga man (he is also Turtle Clan) and his influences before I say my goodbyes.
Several months later, I am a guest at a Lenape Inter-tribal Winter Solstice gathering at the Eicher Indian Museum in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. We are in a large stone and log cabin that sits next to a meandering stream. It’s three in the morning, half way through singing the nearly six hour Walam Olum ( the Lenape creation story, which takes about six hours to sing in alternating verses of Lenape and English).
I am sitting against a wall surrounded by a sea of sleeping bags, pillows and people. The drum has been loud and consistent for the past three hours, reverberating off the walls drowning everything but the loud singing. I am told that the drum unifies us, brings all our heart beats together as one. As I look around the lake of people I believe this. We all move the same.
A paper is handed to me with the English translation to the story. I read and stop when a see the words, and the turtle became the foundation of the earth.
Turtles again! I stop singing and get up. I need to go outside and get some fresh air.
I work my way to the door and outside to the roaring fire used earlier for part of a blessing/forgiveness ceremony. It’s freezing; there is frost on the grass. I am not wearing a coat and my tee-shirt is wet with sweat from the heat of the building and excitement of the night. I’m standing next to the three foot flames shivering violently. I can’t go back inside yet. I really need to think about why turtles are prominent in my current life.
A tall, dark skinned man wrapped in a wool blanket walks over to my side. He unwraps his blanket and without asking throws it around me. “My name is Walking Bear.” He tells me and pauses a moment watching me. “You looked a little cold. Drum too loud?”
“I just needed a break,” I tell him. “Thank you for the blanket.” He nods.
“What do you know about turtles?” He asks me.
I turn and look into the flames, listening to it crackle and spit almost in rhythm of the drum inside. “Not a lot, why?”
“I saw you inside. Sometimes you reminded me of a turtle. Other times, this evening, you seem to have forgotten how to be a turtle.”
Remembering my conversation with the Oneida woman at the cultural center, I reply. “Turtles are slow, steady and strong.”
“Ah,” he responds. Turtles are very important in many native cultures for their ties to the creator and for being the foundations of mankind. If it weren’t for the courage of the turtle, you could say, we wouldn’t exist. What is your name?”
This all feels like an odd dream. “Deborah.” I keep looking into the flames.
“Ah,” he says again. “That’s Hebrew for the Busy Bee. You know a person can be too busy?”
I don’t agree. Since my near death experience I have spent almost every waking hour trying to show my return from the brink was worthy. I was given a second chance at life and I wasn’t going to waste a moment. I was told during my near death experience that once I was healed I would be engaged in a mission to help others.
For the past decade, I have been working extremely hard to force that healing. Terrified, I’d die again, only to find out it was all a mistake. They should have sent back someone else. This man does not know any of this. I keep quiet.
“I think you should seriously consider turtles.” He continues. “They can carry the horrors of the world on their backs and remain strong, attached to the creator who made them. You appear to have the turtle shell. As we stand here by the fire I can see it. I saw it off and on inside the gathering.” He pauses and I turn to look at him. I still don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
“ You’ve seen the creator, haven’t you?” He doesn’t know me, my near death experience, my work with trauma victims and my own hellish nightmares.
Someone calls him. He nods again at me and walks back toward the building.
I don’t see him the remainder of the event. I leave the blanket on a table inside the cabin when I leave after breakfast.
I start looking up turtle totems, turtle animal behaviors, turtle legends and drive my friends crazy. They keep telling me I have to slow down. I can’t, I think too much is at stake.
I don’t learn anything new. If anything I am the anti-turtle. I find the idea of becoming a turtle a waste of precious time. I thought there was some secret message from God in these events but I don’t see it.
Eicher Indian Museum, Ephrata, PA
I’m in Oriskany, New York on vacation with hubby in our RV. A large turtle walks onto the street in front of us and stops, looking up at us. It’s a turtle – RV standoff.
“That turtle has something to tell me!” I excitedly tell hubby. I grab my camera and jump out of the RV. I immediately lay out on the road in front of the RV eye to eye with the turtle. I don’t know if it’s a terrapin or a turtle and I don’t think it matters (I find out later, terrapin is an Indian word for little turtle).
I beg in a whisper. “Turtle, please help me. Everywhere I go people talk to me about turtles. I’m seeing turtles everywhere. My college mascot was a turtle! What’s going on?”
Of course he didn’t answer. I shot a couple pictures. I watch and wait for a long time (in my opinion) while he watches me. I don’t know what I think will happen.
The turtle finally, turns around and walks off, continuing his journey across the street each step deliberately placed and slow. I keep watching to make sure he was safe. It was a bit anti-climatic.
It’s now the end of the summer and I’m in Corning, New York to give a presentation on the choices we make in our daily lives. I have a dear friend, another presenter with me sharing a room at the hotel.
This is the first time I’ve been in front of an audience in over twenty five years. I used to be a performer. For nearly fifteen years my life revolved around countless hours of practices, rehearsals and performances. Trying to be perfect on a consistent basis was paramount for my performances, keeping haunted memories at bay and the illusion that everything was grand.
This presentation has no rehearsals. I have minimal ideas how to say what I need to say. I’m freaking in the hotel room. I’m talking fast and non-stop, moving quickly, bumping into furniture, waving my arms around like a fool and feel like I’m going to die of a panic attack.
My friend turns to me and demands. “Holy crap! Go run a warm wash cloth over your face to calm down. You’re driving me crazy!”
I’m mortified and crushed. Obediently, I go into the bathroom and pick up a wash cloth from the sink counter. A little turtle charm falls out.
I stare in awe at this silver charm with tears in my eyes. It’s a miracle. It’s exactly the reminder I need. Slow down!
I rush back to the bedroom waving the charm by the little ringlet at the turtle’s nose. “Do you see this?” I ask. “How in the world did the cleaning staff know I needed a turtle? How did the turtle find its way into the wash cloth? I know what I have to do, I have to slow down!” I exclaim and throw myself on the bed. “I can’t believe the creator sent me a turtle!”
My friend comes over, picks up a pillow and smacks me upside the head. “Did it ever occur to you that I put the turtle in the wash cloth?” I look up at her. No, it hadn’t “Did it ever occur to you that I knew what you needed and I was the one performing the miracle? No, you didn’t No, you think it’s the cleaning lady, it’s the creator, its Tony the Tiger! Who would better know your needs then me and I have news for you, I’m not wearing gossamer wings.” She moves around the room flapping her arms as wings but still looking exasperated.
She’s angry, I’m calm, the turtle went in my pocket and the presentation went off without a hitch. After I’m finished, I look over at her and smile, pleased with myself. She looks back, flaps her arms and sticks her neck out like a chicken pecking. I blush.
Had I been moving too quickly, I would have missed that. What a disaster that would have been.
“Slow down and pay attention,” says the turtle. Yes sir.
Months later, I’m at work and long ago forgotten about my turtles. I’m exhausted, can’t sleep, drinking multiple, massive cups of coffee and chasing them down with energy drinks to keep going. I’m taking on more projects and responsibilities and attempting to do all of it to the max humanly possible. I’m forgetting important dates and how to scramble eggs. I’m sick all the time and my nerves are shot. I no longer think there is a God.
It hits me; I can’t do this work anymore. I start interviewing people for my replacement. An ex-Roman Catholic priest who came out of the closet, left the priesthood to help others is my replacement. He doesn’t need the money. He saw the ad in the paper and was called to be here.
The last two weeks of my employment I’m supposed to train him. Instead he trains me. He gives me a crash course on spirituality, self-care, and making positive changes. He taught me volumes and I taught him pages.
On my last day, he shows up with two gifts. One is a self-made cross stitch picture, which says; To help another person is to touch the heart of God. The other is an Oneida creation story print of….. the turtle as the backbone of the earth.
We’ve never talked about turtles to my recollection.
“You have a turtle shell, kiddo,” he says. “ You’ve heard the rest. You need to make it yours. Find your inner turtle. You really don’t have a choice. I can’t stress that enough.”
We say our goodbyes. I leave. He leaves about two weeks later saying he no longer needs to be there.
It takes me four more years to understand that I am the anti-turtle, always speeding about, taking on the world.
I’m an over-achiever, dedicated, altruistic and determined. I’ve been this way my whole life. What’s the problem?
The problem is the human body is not designed to handle all the adrenaline it takes to do those things. The ex-priest was right. Despite all the turtle coaxing from the universe, I kept going until there was no choice. Forced to slow down from chronic exhaustion and an immunological disorder, I wait like a turtle in doctor’s offices, hospitals and pharmacy lines.
I often wonder, had I listened to the message of the turtle years ago, where would I be? I can’t go backward. Slowing down has allowed me to hear the natural rhythms of life and spirit. There is so much of the human experience I was missing in my hurried behaviors.
“Slow down and be like a turtle,” the man said. Something we all should do.