Turtles as a Metaphor for Home

IMG_3871 - TurtlesSeveral years ago, while I was writing my memoir, I visited a friend in Carmel, California, and bought a green jade turtle with a baby on its back. I was captivated by it, and thought I should give it to my editor as a thank you for all her help. But when I got close to wrapping up the present, I realized I just couldn’t let it go. I showed it to her and told her how I’d felt a connection to it. Perhaps I would give it to her when my book was finished. Luckily she understood.

The day came and still the little turtle was sitting in front of my computer. Something about its expression, of passive contentment, carrying the little one on top, felt like a totem for the kind of care I would need to give myself when taking my stories out into the world

But it was more than that. Turtles carry their homes on their backs. They don’t need the protection of the outside world to say, “I’m home.” They just are. I realized that the process of writing my book had brought me home to myself. I kept the turtle, and it’s here before me as I write. “Turtle” has become my totem for “home in myself.”

The other day when I was out walking with my husband by Swan Lake, in Sleepy Hollow, New York, we came upon a raft of turtles sunning themselves on a log. Our presence didn’t disturb them and we stopped for several minutes, inspired by their stillness. There were five in a row; a family perhaps, or at least next-door neighbors. Not one of them moved. We took a deep breath and I felt for the first time that day, the warmth of the sun on my face. I had been so busy in my thoughts and actions, that I barely knew I was walking in my body.

I stood there wondering. How often do we connect to our bodies, or stop in the middle of the day to simply take in whatever is before us? How does it change our perspective, our sense of spaciousness?

Just as turtle represents home to me, nature is an effortless teacher. She abounds with examples of wisdom, simply from being her true self. All we need to do it spend time with her, and protect her, to be reminded of what’s important. Spending time in nature, is a good way to come home to ourselves.

1. What is your totem?
2. What does it mean for you?
3. Please share an experience you have had in nature that caused you to stop and realize something about yourself or your life that brought you home inside.

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9 Responses to Turtles as a Metaphor for Home

  1. kate gridley says:

    What a beautiful post! When my little boys were young, they did not always want to travel, even as a family. I remember asking them to pretend that they were turtles, with their homes on their backs, and their hearts warmly protected inside. I told them that when we travelled as a family we carried our home with us individually and collectively. One of my sons relished this idea. The other one still got “homesick” for the “air in my bedroom.” Your image is beautiful, Eileen. I think being a turtle who can go anywhere anytime is very liberating!

    • Eileen Rockefeller says:

      Dear Kate,
      Thank you for your beautiful reply and for being my very first blogger comment! I love the image you gave your sons, of being turtles with their homes on their backs. I will carry that image with me as I begin my book tour after September 12th!

  2. A lovely image to carry in your mind, Eileen. I don’t have a totem per se. People are my touchstones. The people I love, who love me. The people I’ve met or I’ve yet to meet. And those within my mind, who depend on me and my writing to give them life.

    Deep within is a place I go. As a girl, I thought it was the non-space created by three intersecting cubes. I’m not sure why that was the shape I gave it, except that my high school love once told me about a science fiction story he read that expressed infinity in terms of two intersecting cubes. Now, I can find it simply by willing myself to be there without having to define the shape. I believe that place — or non-place — is my turtle. My home within. I just never thought of it that way until reading your essay. Thank you for spurring my thoughts in that direction. I wonder where it will now take me.

    • Dear Sally,
      Your lovely response to my blog reminds me that life is full of mystery. Just when we think we have a shape to help define some part of us, it shifts. I look forward to hearing where you take it, and where it takes you! Thanks for your reply.

  3. Lisa says:

    Dear Eileen: Love your story (and your blog, which I have just found)! My daughter has a tattoo of a turtle on her ankle, just for this very reason: no matter where we go, we make it our home. The thought gives her (and me) comfort, no matter what.

  4. Jacqui Meyer says:

    Hello dear Eileen

    Butterflies have long been my totem. When my sweet little daughter died and I struggled to find meaning in how tenuous life is and how a young and beautiful child can be gone in an instant, I learned to see butterflies as a representation of the metamorphosis of life that we all undergo at death. It is so hard to accept when the grief is new and the longing for the form of that little life is so fresh, but this living lesson from nature brings a smile to my face and tears of solace at times, as I marvel at the transformation of the caterpillar, so earthbound and plain into something so beautiful and free.

    Another lesson from nature happened for me about three years ago, as I was taking my regular run along a beautiful trail near my home, which follows the contours of a lake – a reservoir, bordered by trees on either side. I decided to slow down to a walk and found myself gazing across the lake to the trees on the other side, and started to really look and observe them more fully. It was summer and most of the trees were beautifully green and I was able to discern from the distance the variances in the size, shape and shades of green, determined by the different species of trees. By stark contrast, I started to notice that what stood out most poignantly to me at this time, were the few tall, dried, dead or dying trees, with no leaves, and marveled at how imperfect they stood next to the plentiful green trees. As I continued to scan the panorama of this forest, it subtly dawned on me how ‘perfect’ this scene was in its ‘imperfection,’ how stunningly beautiful the contrast was and I took that message deeply within – realizing and knowing how wonderfully ‘perfect’ I am, we all are, in our ‘imperfection.’ This poignant lesson has caused me to smile many times at myself and others in just letting things be as they are and the surrender, forgiveness and acceptance that sparks forth from that.

  5. Eileen Rockefeller says:

    Dear Jacqui,
    Thank you for your very moving response to my blog on Turtles as a Metaphor for Home. You are so right about the lens we put on life, and your conclusion that the only perfection includes imperfection. Knowing the loss you have suffered in your life, your description is particularly inspiring. Life is such a mystery, and our ability to find beauty and joy in the moment can help us get through almost anything. I have deep admiration for you.

  6. Roisin Casey says:

    Dear Eileen,
    I really enjoy your writing and metaphors and peoples replies and comments.It lifts me up to receive these emails as the thoughts of my adult children who have emigrated do not have a turtle-shell,but one lady who commented about the butterfly metaphor certainly makes me feel hope for my children away from home,knowing theres another stage,chance of life Heres hoping they will be turtles themselves,Please God.
    Roisin Casey

  7. Thank you Casey. Your response brought me back to read this blog from several years ago and its message felt like a welcome friend. So the gift is mine as well! And about children leaving home, yes that’s a whole other phase of life that no one prepares us for but which we all reach if we’ve had children. I hope yours are finding themselves and appreciating the tools you gave them. Blessings, Eileen

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