Last weekend, when my husband and I were driving to a quiet country retreat upstate, we saw a small turtle crossing the road. This is not a joke, because our car swerved wildly to miss it. Immediately afterwards, my husband – the driver – apologized. “I know you’re not supposed to swerve,” he said. “I should not have done that. We’re lucky the road was empty.”
My reply? “I do not have a good feeling about that turtle.”
It really was an exceedingly small turtle; drivers would be unlikely to see it, let alone stop for it. And so it was that the two of us decided to slow down, turn the car around, pull over by the side of the road, stop the car, and save that turtle from itself.
The turtle, however, was having none of it. He had not made very far along since we drove past him, and miraculously, he had not been hit by the three cars that passed him in the meanwhile. But when my husband and I approached him — in tandem, as kindly, helpful roadside escorts — that turtle flew. He flew so fast we could not find him in a broad sweep of the tall grasses by the roadside.
“Maybe that turtle knows something we don’t,” I told my husband.
The two of us have not always had the luxury of this sort of follow-though, frankly. Last summer, when we were driving back from the shore, we ran over a pair of seagulls standing stubbornly in the middle of the highway. The thump the front wheels made as they ran over them both sickened me. “It was them or us,” my husband said, remorseless. “Those were not lucky gulls.”
Lucky: that’s the term my husband employs to draw a key distinction between survival and extinction. A big bug flattens on the windshield in the evening: not a lucky bug, he tells me. The two of us, still driving along a country road this summer, unharmed: lucky people.
We are lucky people, crazy lucky people, and I frequently have a hard time wrapping around this fundamental premise. We have all that we could need and more than most: food, shelter, transport, advanced medical care. Neither of us – thank God – has been killed in a car crash, although we certainly know people who have. Morning after morning, each of us continues to wake up clothed in our right minds. That’s not likely to continue indefinitely, I understand, but the rhythm thus far has been reassuring to me.
Not too long ago, I had what I’ve euphemistically dubbed a “bad run,” basically a spate of moving violations in rapid succession. All of these were church-related trips I was making, as I dutifully tried to this point to a few different state troopers, none of whom were impressed by the ministerial robes draped in my back seat of my vehicle. They did not think that my speed made me holy; they thought it made me dangerous.
If you exceed the posted speed limit by 20 mph or more, you get an awful lot of points added to your license, and after a certain number — it comes up pretty quickly, as it turns out — the state is at liberty to revoke your driver’s license altogether. New York State was at just such liberty, but in its infinite mercy decided to let me simply take a defensive driving course and promise to be a more conscientious driver on the roads.
I think it’s safe to say that as a general rule, I am neither defensive nor conscientious, and while I didn’t want to overpromise, I did owe New York some pledge of good faith, which I’m glad to say I’ve mostly kept. I go much slower these days and occasionally check the needle from behind the wheel. I try to take my own sweet time every now and again.
Just such sweet time — it’s truly quite delightful. For most of my life, something deep in my hindbrain has compelled to accelerate to great speeds in almost every domain imaginable, the very same thing that has managed to convince me that was the only way to stay alive in this world was by outrunning nearly everything around me. I have been the proverbial hare.
The wisdom of tortoises and turtles alike had largely eluded me until I had the good fortune to have that “bad run”. Since then, I’ve tried to modify my overall pace to one that is slightly more measured and graceful. This ultimately is a speed that might prove sustainable over the long run, one that could get me where I need to go when I need to go there, one that might actually let me lead my life instead of madly chasing whatever seems to lie just ahead in the distance.
What did we know about that turtle, after all? Last weekend, the two of us were in agreement only that it seemed to be lucky in the moment. My husband, a physician, is often fond of saying that life is tenacious. I myself have tended to characterize it as exquisitely fragile. Both of us are right, and so we have to live with that, which rather happily, right now, we do.