Two stories, both involving turtles.
The first happened when I was fairly young, sometime before my teenage years. I was walking around in the back field of the land we were farming at the time. In some brush, I noticed what looked like a turtle shell, although up until that point, I’d never actually seen one in person, not counting the ones at the zoo. When I walked over to it, I realized it was actually the remains of a turtle’s shell, or more clearly, the remains of a turtle.
As I said, I’d never seen a turtle out in nature before then. My image of turtles had come from children’s books and movies, so that was a sight I hadn’t anticipated. It was a brief moment in my childhood, but it’s a moment that has stuck with me.
Second story, this one much more vivid.
It took place when I was out cutting hay in a field that I’d been renting from a family friend. It was a good field, very big and surrounded by woods. I can remember times when I spent all day there on the tractor, and I can still remember how it looked to see the sun going down behind the treeline at twilight. The first time we cut hay in that field, we baled up over 1400 square bales—1414 if I remember correctly. The second time, we got over 2000. The grass was high, and there were several terraces in the field, so the ground beneath rose and fell in many places.
I was driving with the hay mower on the left side, constantly looking at the front tire to make sure I wasn’t too close to the grass or too far from it, as well as turning my head to check on the mower behind me. I happened to be looking forward at one point, when suddenly a form appeared out of the tall grass. I saw quickly that it was a turtle. What happened next happened in less than 5 or 6 seconds, but it felt as if time stalled and left me frozen on that moment.
At the speed I was going, it wasn’t possible for me to stop on a dime. But I knew as soon as I saw the turtle that I had to try, because it was right in the line of my front left tire, only feet away. I slammed my left foot down onto the clutch and my right foot down onto both brakes, but it would’ve been better if I hadn’t stopped at all. It would’ve been better if I had turned and ran over the turtle with the mower, but that’s not what happened.
The tractor slowed, but not in time. The front tire ran over the turtle’s shell—the inner layer of which is made up of about 60 bones—and slowly came to a stop, on top of the shell. The turtle’s neck stretched out farther than I’ve ever seen a turtle’s neck stretch, and its mouth opened up. I’d never seen an animal scream, but that’s exactly what the turtle appeared to be doing. I will never get that image out of my head.
* * *
I’ve tried to recount that moment in writing many times before, but I’ve never been able to think of anything else to say about it. I’d like to make some sort of connection to the frailty of life, or to the relationship between man and nature, but nothing seems to be reverent enough for the magnitude of that moment and how much it stuck with me. If ever there has been a time where I found myself fully engaged in the present moment, that was it. There was nothing I could do to change that moment, and there was nothing I could do to get away from it.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote this about being in the present.
Experiencing the present is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.
I can’t think of any better way to describe it. In that moment, everything else in me was emptied, and I was soaked by the flood of that moment until my cup ran over.
* * *
In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis had this to say:
We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.
I’ve thought about this several times before. A lot of my writing centers around memory, because it’s often on my mind. But memory is distracting, both past memory and future memory. Past memory keeps us from seeing anything good happening in the present, but future memory, or just “the future” in general, does the same thing. Why are we so obsessed with being distracted?
Think about it. How many times have you gone a whole day without being distracted at least once? Look at sports. I saw a commercial once that showed two friends, and it asked the question, “What do friends talk about when it’s not fantasy football season?” The answer, as they humorously pointed out, was nothing. They don’t have anything to talk about! The sad part about that commercial is that to some degree, it’s actually true, and it goes a lot deeper than just relating to sports. Look at any conversation and ask yourself, “What are we even talking about, and why?”
I look at my children, and it frightens me how distracted I am on a daily basis. The worst part of being distracted is that time doesn’t stop moving. It doesn’t wait around for us to chase every distraction under the sun. Every moment we give to something is a moment that has to be taken from something else. Moments only come once, and they can only be spent one way. When I think about all the good moments I’ve had, it terrifies me to think that a whole life could be lived while distracted. And as Annie Dillard so eloquently put it, perhaps the best thing we could ever do to avoid this is to allow ourselves to be emptied of everything with each present moment, and in turn, to be filled up to the brim by what each moment brings, so that with each passing moment we can say, “My cup runneth over.”