On Holiness (And Turtles) [Discovery for 8/17/09]
Sunday, the Sabbath, the holiest day of seven holy days, I was in a car with several of my closest friends and my two daughters. Members of my given and chosen family. We had been to the top of the mountain to look out at three states. There, there, and there, we said. “Look at Kentucky, it’s the prettiest,” one of us said, laughing. “No, Virginia is,” said another. “On a clear day you can see North Carolina,” somebody else said, “and none of them can beat it.” Each state was completely the same from up there. Each state was completely different from up there. Each endless and green and lush with more mountains, rolling on and on and on, for ages. We spent a long while up at the pinnacle, talking, climbing rocks, studying trees. There were long bouts of silence. Family—especially the chosen kind—allows that between one another.
Then, coming down the mountain, there was a box turtle in the road. We had all been laughing and carrying on, but then, a silence stretched out in the car before we all said, in unison, as if amazed: “A turtle!”
I was struck by how mesmerized we all seemed by the turtle. It’s a common enough sight in Appalachia, to see them making slow but steady progress across the highway. But always so beautiful, so patient, that no matter how many times you see them, they seem like a holy thing. There he was with his yellow stripes, his blunt head that seemed to sniff at the air, his careful steps. Determined, small, tough. There was something about his curmudgeonly gait that made us all assume he was male.
And there was another, similar kind of holiness when someone said, “He’s almost across,” and another chimed in, “Yeah, he’ll make it,” and my daughter leaned forward, making sure. Because all of us knew that sometimes you have to pull over onto the side of the road and help a turtle across, to make sure it doesn’t get crushed, to make sure that a blessed thing stays alive in the world awhile longer. We had all done it at some point, had seen others do it. There are little acts of service and kindness that happen every day.
Not long ago I was on the Daniel Boone Parkway, where coal trucks quake by every five seconds, decorating the road with hard little bits of coal as they sizzle past. Yet a woman had stopped on the narrow shoulder to help a turtle across. A little girl, strapped into a car seat in the back, was crying and throwing her hands into the air. The woman was still wearing her uniform from working—probably a grimy, ten-hour shift—at the Huddle House restaurant over in Manchester. But despite all of this she had taken the time to stop and help the turtle across the road. She bent, picked him up with a cupped hand across his domed shell, scurried to the side of the road as another coal truck--load uncovered, mud flaps swinging--barreled toward her. The wind from the coal truck lifted her hair, caused her to shut her eyes against the grit that came in its wake. But then she put the turtle down--as gently as if she were placing an egg in its nest--and hurried back to her car.
I think acts like this are a kind of holiness. And in that moment with my people, I thought it a kind of holiness that we would all have the same thought, to take care of the turtle. And another kind of holiness that we didn’t have to explain that to one another. And another kind of holiness to live in a world made up of people who are mostly good, mostly trying to do the best they can, mostly trying to just move through this life without hurting others, mostly trying to help others.
A turtle is that way, too, I like to think. Maybe that's why so many of us have a deep attachment to them that we don't quite understand. And who knows what secret little acts of service he (or she) performs out there on the mountain when hidden among all the clandestine cover of the summer woods? Of this one thing I am certain: more holy things happen when we are not noticing than when we are. And that’s a great comfort.