It might be best if you first read the poem I wrote, using this image as a visual for the words. It may be found at my poetry site, here: https://soulsmusic.wordpress.com/2020/04/27/topsy-turvy-2/
In my notes, at the end of the poem, I wrote that it might be best to write an essay to explain how I came to learn this very valuable, but simple lesson. So here I am, attempting to do just that. It came in several steps and over some amount of time.
I just turned 74 a couple of weeks ago. I was in my late thirties and early forties when I attended college as a newly divorced woman, still raising the last of my four children. Talk about having ones world turned upside down and daily life becoming kattywumpus. Lots and lots of adjustments for all of us. We survived, but I still retain a concerned but questioning curiosity about just how well we did that.
So, there I was, heading into ‘middle-age’, surrounded by other students half my age, sitting in a classroom. By the way, my first day of college, before leaving home, I sat in my idling car to watch my youngest get on a school bus, for the first time, as a kindergartner. And knew that I envied her. She, at least, had her year older sister, there alongside her, holding her hand. Me? I was alone and totally on my own.
One of my early classes was English and concerned reading fiction. We were to read “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. I was an avid reader, but had steered clear of the Classics because I was fairly certain I’d never fully understand them. And by the way, I graduated with two degrees, one in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing, and the other in History. Talk about topsy-turvy.
At the end of the reading period, our Instructor brought in the film and we settled in to watch it. Early in the film, a destitute family has loaded an old truck with all their belongings and is headed across the continent to find a new life in California. As the truck curves onto the roadway, one wheel makes contact with a large slow-moving turtle, setting it spinning end over end, landing in the gravel upside down.
After the film, the Instructor asked us what we thought Steinbeck’s purpose was in creating that metaphoric image in his book, and why the director was so careful to reproduce it in the film. And of course, that question was featured in the following exam.
Not much longer after that, I met a young woman on campus. She was always alone, never spoke with anyone, and dressed far more like a teenage boy than girl. Almost six feet tall, with dirty blond hair that covered most of her face, I became aware that she was harassed, not just by her fellow students, but also, on occasion, by campus security. The details of how we became friends are too complex to go into here. We did, and for the rest of my College career, we were most often found together. And the harassment stopped, especially after I was asked to be a volunteer advocate in the newly established Women’s Center.
When she asked me what classes she should take, I suggested the one I have already mentioned. I knew she was terribly creative and liked to write. She took the class and secretly started calling that same Instructor, “The Turtle Man.” I loved it and also came to think of him by that definition.
I graduated and became the Manager of a bookstore. I was living in Southeastern Wisconsin, where we had moved shortly after I was married. My family was from Green Bay. My sister was having serious back problems and needed surgery that could only take place in Milwaukee. I was visiting her as often as possible, especially after complications arose after the surgery, and I preferred using back roads when doing so, mainly because of all the wildlife that inhabits those areas.
I became aware of a large dark object lying almost dead center in the middle of the two lane road I was traveling. I slowed down and stopped when I realized it was a very large turtle turned over on its back and unable to right itself. By then, I had come to a complete stop, got out after putting my idling vehicle in Park, and walked over to take a closer look.
As I was doing so, a small camper truck, traveling in the opposite direction, pulled up as well, and the male driver got out to take a look. “I don’t know if it’s a snapper or not, and I can’t think of a careful way to help him,” I told the stranger. He nodded and said he didn’t know either. But, then snapped his fingers and said he might have something in the back of his truck. He dug around for a bit and came back with a long-handled shovel. He carefully wedged it beneath the turtle, then carefully walked across the gravel and down the embankment into a small area of grasses and slim trees, where a small creek was flowing. Then he carefully put the end of the shovel down on the ground and slowly slid the turtle off onto its belly. For a creature known for slow movements, this one almost seemed to scamper over to the creek and plunged in. We both laughed out loud.
I thanked the man and he told me he’d only stopped because he thought I might be having car trouble. We just grinned at each other, got back in our separate vehicles and drove away in opposite directions. And I spent the next few hours thinking about The Turtle Man and Steinbeck’s metaphor. How we all, at some point, find ourselves turned upside down and topsy-turvy and perhaps only need a stranger’s warm smile, or a few words of comfort to right us and allow us to continue.
Our present circumstances, the virus, social distancing, and staying at home has turned our world and our lives upside down. Being on our own, alone with self, locked down and in, raises all kinds of levels of fear and anxiety. That is only natural. But we can improve the situation by just regulating our breathing, slowing it down, and letting ourselves think a bit more clearly. And when we’ve done that we might reach out to others, here online, or by telephone and help them do the same. A kind word can travel endless miles and bring smiles to strangers. It can easily become the hand of support needed to bring our topsy-turvy environment back into some semblance of order, even if only for a moment. And in that moment we can breathe again. Perhaps become a Turtle Man or Woman, a living breathing metaphor of slow moving kindness.