“You can’t do it with turtles”

That line comes from George Fairbairn, the keeper of the turtles at the London Zoo. These are the turtles that William G. and Naeara H. stole and returned to the sea. William confesses that although he feels good about having launched the turtles, the project doesn’t seem to have launched him.

“You can’t do it with turtles, says the keeper, “but with people, you never know straightaway what does what. Maybe launching them did launch you, but you don’t know it yet.”

In 1975, Russell Hoban published Turtle Diary. Ten years later, they made a very engaging movie of it, starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley. It is the story of how two Londoners who are living bleak, unsatisfying lives, learn how to live more richly. I like the book better than the movie because the book separates the narrators. One chapter to William G, then one to Neaera H.

I’ve read the book many times by now, always one narrator at a time, and still I find new things. These are meanings that were always there in the sense that they were always available. I guess I find the meanings I am ready to find.

In her first chapter, Naeara delivers herself of this line: “I am tired of meek and cuddly creatures, my next book will be about a predator.” In fact, there will very likely not be a next book and what is wrong with her previous subjects—Gillian Vole and Delia Swallow—is not how cuddly they are, but how safe. Getting over the need to be “safe” is Naeara’s challenge in this story.

She does pretty well. In one of her last chapters, she has this:

I was [had been] waiting for the self inside me to come forward to the boundaries from which it has long ago withdrawn. Life would be less quiet and more dangerous, life is risky at the borders. Gillian Vole and Delia Swallow life in safe places. “Come,” I said to the self inside me, “Come out and take your chance.”

The story of how she did that is a different story than the one that called to me yesterday. Yesterday, I was attracted by how she describes this “coming alive” process to herself. Here are some of the ways.

She thinks of the turtles that she and William H. freed from the London Zoo and put into the aquarium. “All they had was themselves,” she says, “but they would keep going until they found what was in them to find.”

And then about herself:

No one could make me freer by putting me somewhere else. I had as much as the turtles: myself. [2] At least I, too, could die on the way to where I wanted to be. Gillian Vole! Not enough, not nearly enough. [1]

No one could make me freer by putting me somewhere else. I had as much as the turtles: myself. [2] At least I, too, could die on the way to where I wanted to be. Gillian Vole! Not enough, not nearly enough. [1]

As she begins to move toward more awareness, she has a moment when she looks around her apartment and sees it as full of things she doesn’t need and hasn’t cared about for a long time. Very sensibly, she packs them up and gets rid of them. But there are things in the apartment that can’t be dealt with quite that way.

She sees that her apartment has had “invisible wires criss-crossed in patterns of pain that had been there for years. I saw myself in days past, years past, stepping carefully and trying to keep my balance.

She also sees that she has been nose to nose with one particular pixel for a long time. She doesn’t say “pixel;” this is a 1975 book. She talks about the way a picture in a newspaper is made up of many half-tone dots. The idea expands really fast for her.

Each incidence of anything in life is just a single dot and my face is so close to that dot that I can’t see what it’s part of. I shall never be able to stand back far enough to see the whole picture. I shall die in blind ignorance and rage.”

Incidentally, if you have ever been there—I have—you learn that you don’t get to that ultimate despair while you are in the worst of it. That despair comes as you begin to come out of it and get a look at where you have been. So I take this wail of despair as a very good sign and I begin to have high hopes for Naeara H.

Thinks work out very well for Naeara. For one thing, she begins to have much more realistic expectations of life—of her life. There may never be another Delia Swallow and other cuddly creatures book, but the author is going to be just fine. And for another thing, she makes a friend of the zookeeper, who has been a part of her background for as long as the plot to rescue the turtles has occupied her.

These changes show up in her writing, of course. She is a writer, after all, and this is the last thing she writes:

Stiff but not formal
A dead cat says hello
This winter morning.

[1] The predator she bought, a water beetle, the hoped-for subject of yet another children’s book, wasn’t enough either.
[2] Not true, of course. Any biologist could tell you what resources the turtles have that Naeara has never dreamed of. Still, it’s a nice metaphor.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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