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My Turtle Shell

 

It’s so hard to stay focused on my own journey, and recognize my own accomplishments, when I’m too aware of how other people are racing ahead of me. I want to congratulate myself for taking the synagogue school teaching job, and for performing with the choir, and for self-publishing my novel, and graduating with a Master’s degree in Social Work and earning my social work license. But instead I’m berating myself for all of the things I can’t do.

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“Want some help with that?”

I am getting by, and functioning to the limits of my current capacity. I know that. I’m not setting the world on fire (as I’d hoped), but I am sending out resumes for social work jobs, and submitting essays to literary magazines. I am writing (though never as much as I think I should), and I am prepping for synagogue school classes as if I were teaching full-time instead of two hours a week. I am studying my languages, and practicing ukulele, and doing my breathing exercises, and trying to exercise my body when I can. But I feel like a failure on a constant basis. I am always trying, and, it seems, never succeeding.

 

People still look at me funny when I say I’m only looking for part-time work, because I seem fine, to them. I feel guilty for “imagining” that I am still struggling in any way, as if I’m choosing to suffer longer than is reasonable, and I should choose not to suffer anymore. I don’t know how to do that, but people keep saying it’s a choice and that I’m making the wrong one.

And yet, I saw a picture on Facebook a few weeks ago, of a turtle who had been in an accident and lost most of his shell, and he resonated for me. The headline of the story was that someone had built the turtle a new shell, with a 3D printer, and painted it in beautiful designs and colors; and with his new shell, the turtle was able to go back to living his very slow, very long life, with his safety and dignity intact. And I realized that I am just like that turtle. I’ve been rebuilding my shell for the past twenty-five years. I don’t know if it never really grew in the first place, or if the one I had was so battered and bruised that it barely lasted into my teen years. And my shell still isn’t whole, and it’s definitely not painted and decorated to my liking, but after twenty-five years, instead of walking around naked and unprotected from predators, I have most of a shell to cover me.

turtle with 3d shell

The 3D shell

I still feel the rain too quickly, and I still take in too much of what other people say to me; I still bruise too easily, and recover too slowly, but I take more risks now. I can even go outside on a rainy day and do a slow little dance between the rain drops.

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“Dancing!”

I’d like to think that, even at my slow pace, I am living my life with dignity, and feeling safe enough to do things in my own unique way. And maybe, someday, I’ll finish growing my shell and even decorate it in a way that celebrates my long, slow, full life.

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“Slow is good.”

 

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

My Mezuzah

 

A mezuzah is a totem, a sort of anti-goblin device slash symbol of Jewish identity that Jewish people are supposed to place on our doorways. The mezuzah itself is a rolled up parchment inside of a decorative case and the parchment comes from the bible and basically reminds us to love God, and believe in God, and keep the commandments, and pass it all on to our children.

It's pink!

It’s pink!

You’re supposed to kiss the mezuzah – or kiss your fingers and then touch the mezuzah – every time you enter or leave the room, but I don’t have the patience for that. I have my one mezuzah at the front door, and I notice it when I walk in, and it gives me a feeling of familiarity. I happen to think my mezuzah is pretty.

The only other thing we have in front of the apartment door is a red welcome mat that almost always has a few pieces of kibble on it. So, welcome, dogs live here. We also have a table out in the hall with plants on it, and there are plants outside the front door of our building, and a turtle made of painted rocks. So we have a few things that announce who we are – Jewish dog people with lots of plants and an interest in turtles.

Turtle guards the garden.

Turtle guards the garden.

When my brother’s family came to visit, my niece Lilah, the black lab, who had only been here once before, raced up the stairs and went straight to our door without anyone reminding her where to go. She knew which apartment smelled right. Eau de kibble sends the message.

Lilah!

Lilah!

Lilah in the snow.

Lilah chasing Cricket in the snow.

But a mezuzah shouldn’t just be a sign to other Jews, as if only Jews should feel welcome in my home. I feel more like the mezuzah announces who I am, so that you will feel more comfortable telling me who you are.

I like symbols. An idea is elusive, but a physical symbol is visceral and concrete, and makes things easier to remember. I’ve considered dog related symbols for our front door too. The shelter where we adopted Butterfly gives out huge paw magnets that you can put on your fridge, and car stickers, and sweatshirts, and blankets, and on and on. But, by the time you get close enough to my door to see a sticker, you will have heard Cricket barking at you from inside, so the sticker would be kind of irrelevant.

I’m not comfortable wearing a star of David necklace. I had one, but I kept yanking at the chain until the chain broke, two or three times. Maybe the necklace felt too reminiscent of the yellow stars Jews had to wear during the holocaust, or maybe it’s just that the necklace I had came from my father’s mother, and she grossed me out.

I wear my Koru instead. It’s a New Zealand/Maori symbol of new birth – an unfurling fern – and I wear it to try to remind myself that I can start again every day. I don’t have to be stuck in the past, even if the past is the bad day I had yesterday. It’s not a religious or spiritual symbol for me, it’s a reminder, like a rubber band on your wrist (I tried the rubber band idea first, but it hurt too much).

Koru and hair.

My Koru, and hair.

I’m afraid to post this now, given the current situation in Israel. I feel vulnerable when I watch the news. When I heard about mass protests against Israel in Europe, and anti-Semitic slurs on college campuses, I couldn’t help but feel frightened.

To me, having a mezuzah on my door means that I feel safe telling people that I am Jewish and I don’t live in a place where being Jewish makes me a target. Putting a mezuzah on my door, or writing about being Jewish in a blog that is largely about dogs, is my way of saying that I know I’m safe and I don’t have to hide who I am in order to reach out to new people.

My girls, and Ducky too.

My girls, and Ducky too.

Turtle Slow

This is Mom's thread painting of me.

This is Mom’s thread painting of me.

I am like a turtle; I move very slowly through life. At my current pace, I may be able to meet the expected life goals of a young adult by the time I’m sixty.

Grumpy turtle (not my picture)

Grumpy turtle (not my picture)

Butterfly, my Lhasa Apso, is stubbornly slow too. We go slowly because we do each task comprehensively. It takes me weeks to write each post for this blog because I go through so many drafts, trying to capture exactly what I mean to say. Butterfly is the same way about eating. She likes to sit down, or even lay down, in front of her bowl so that she can savor each kibble individually. Her sister, Cricket, is more of a speed eater; she’s always in a rush, to pee, to poop, to run, and to greet; everything has to be fast.

Speedy Cricket!

Speedy Cricket!

Butterfly, the fluffy turtle

Butterfly, the fluffy turtle

Back in the Fall I bought Butterfly a set of steps up to my bed and proceeded to try to teach her how to use them. Cricket can jump on and off the bed herself, but Butterfly’s legs are too short. For myself, and for Butterfly, I believe in Anne Lamott’s method, from bird by bird: the best way to manage an overwhelming task is to break it down into a thousand small pieces, and take each one, one at a time, without looking so far ahead that you become overwhelmed.

I worked with Butterfly every day, one step at a time. I put her paws on the first step and gave her a treat. I led her up to the second step and gave her two treats. Day after day, I did everything I could think of, but I couldn’t find a way to break the task down small enough to make it manageable for her. Even when she could finally climb up all three steps, to reach her treats, she still thought going back down to the floor was impossible. But then she got thirsty in the middle of the night. This may have been the onset of the diabetes, without my realizing it, but at the time, I assumed it was about the unreasonable heat in the apartment complex at night. All of a sudden, Butterfly could walk down the steps and run straight to the water bowl.

Up! Up! Up!

Up! Up! Up!

"I made it!"

“I made it!”

"Please don't make me go back down."

“Please don’t make me go back down.”

"What's the big deal?"

“What’s the big deal?”

My therapist has a theory about this. She says that when you’re not ready to do something, it’s like climbing up a mountain, but when you are ready, it becomes easy. I don’t know that I’ve ever reached the easy stage, but I do know that after years and years of effort, for no obvious reason, sometimes things just start to click.

"It's so easy!" (not my picture)

“It’s so easy!” (not my picture)

I assumed that Butterfly would come right back after her miraculous escape to the water bowl, and climb up the stairs to the bed. But she didn’t come back. And I felt rejected. Here I’d worked so hard to give her the freedom to come and go, and she chose to just go.

I’ve heard that if you love someone you’re supposed to let them go, and if they were meant to be with you, they will return. Sayings like that make me want to hit people.

A few nights later, after a number of these heartbreaking episodes, I woke up at three o’clock in the morning to a scratching and tapping sound. Butterfly was scratching at the bottom step, as if it were an escalator that needed to be turned on, and she was looking for the switch. I got up and put her front paws on the steps, and she galloped up onto the bed, curled up by her pillow and went to sleep.

I worry, a lot, that my slow pace in life will mean that I’ll never move forward as much as I need to in the time allotted, but watching Butterfly makes me think that how we use our time should fit us, rather than fit some preset convention. I would never look at her and think she should be more like Cricket. She is Butterfly and that’s a wonderful thing to be.

I’d like to think that the same is true for me. I am a turtle. Is a turtle, by definition, a failed something else?