Turtle time

By Anne Lamott
October 15, 1998 11:55PM (UTC)
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You know what they say: If you wait long enough, the same old broken-down
trolley eventually comes rolling by again. So here I am. And it's nice to
see you.

I'm sure you've noticed that I'm a little heavier than when we last spoke.
Also, that I have less money, but more time, and I can tell that these are
good things, because life seems more vivid these days. And the scales have
fallen from my eyes. Or rather, some of them did. Two of them did.


The first scale to fall was that the world was coming to an end. I became convinced of
this around the time Linda Tripp first appeared on the national radar. What a
nightmare! And me with my bad nerves. She was so angry and scary, evil in
its schlumpiest form, an overbred, overfed Airedale sicced on the American
public. I barely held on. Then summer came and everyone else got happier
with every home run Mark or Sammy hit, but I just felt odd, as if even the
good things were now so exaggerated as to seem unreal. No one can hit 65 home
runs; I mean, it was very disturbing. And things got worse -- the stock market,
all those bombings. Then, hideously, a tie of 66 home runs. Sixty-six home runs! A
tie! All of us codependents wanted to hang ourselves. Plus, it was so
surreal, like the next thing you knew, the umpires would start letting batters
have more than three strikes or something: "Hey, don't be so hard on yourselves!
Orel, give him one more pitch." Still I sat glued to the TV in cobra hypnosis
until late August, when I finally told a friend that the world might be coming
to an end. He said that perhaps it was just the summer that was coming to an
end. Also, that some of us would have made terrible cave men hysterics every
night when the sun boiled back down into the sea.

He also reminded me of something Don Carpenter told me once, that we
no longer had to try to figure out whether the sky was falling or not,
because it had fallen long ago, during World World II. But even with the sky
at our feet in shards, my concern is how we can best take care of each other.
And once I remembered all this, I thought, Hey -- we've survived mad cow
disease, we'll survive Linda Tripp.

But at any rate, I'm sorry for any confusion I may have caused.


Now, the second fallacy that I've recently dispelled is that most of
your better people -- and here I include myself -- were letting themselves go.
Duh -- it turns out that most of them are not going to seed at all, not getting
fatter and less efficient. That was the sound of me going down the tubes.

But see, friends of both sexes told me they were gaining all this
weight. "I weigh over 600 pounds now," one friend told me over the
phone. Another said, "Not one thing I own fits anymore. I'm sitting here
naked, wrapped in an old sheet." They also told me that maybe this was OK,
because they'd figured out that they were not what they looked like. They
were not their stomachs, or thighs. They were not what they had in the
world, but what they gave, and who they loved. Right on! I thought.

Five years ago I already knew this was true, but I'd secretly have cut
back on fats anyway, or started exercising more. This time I had a friend sew
extra material into the waistbands of my jeans. I called them my panel pants.
I'd wake up feeling fat, wondering if I'd accidentally put on a pair of the
kitty's underwear, and then I'd ask myself, When you're 80 years old, are you
going to wish you'd spent more time thinking about how fat your butt is? No.
Just the opposite. So I prayed for knowledge of God's will for me, and I got
my answer: I went and bought bigger underpants.


I have worn the same size for almost 10 years now, cute little bikinis
like maybe Drew Barrymore wears. This time I bought the next size up, the kind
that go all the way up to your waist. Boy, one size up is big. How did that
happen? You could fit a pumpkin into these. The Gabor sisters could borrow
them. I remember a young girl who was helping me fold laundry once, holding
up a pair of my underwear and asking with horror, "Do they even make bigger
underwear?" And those were the cute small ones.

Where is the woman who used to fit into them? Boy, you got me. I ain't
seen her lately. Maybe she's doing her Pilates workout. Maybe she's getting


- - - - - - - - - -

Somehow I made peace with this. Then I started running into the people
who'd claimed to have gained weight. But they looked exactly the same. Only
I was definitely bigger. It was like the episode of "Leave It to Beaver,"
where all the boys in Beaver's class arrange to make goofy faces for the class
photo, and then only Beaver does.

So I'd be standing there in my big girl underwear and panel pants; and
next these lying traitor friends would have the gall to ask what I was going to
work on next. And for the first time in my life, I could not answer. I have
known for more than 40 years what I was going to do. It turns out it's unpatriotic
not to know. It's bad for the country. I'm going to be investigated by
Kenneth Starr.


It's so nuts. Six months ago, on a Friday, I completely finished up a
book I'd been working on for years. Then the following Monday, I set out on a
promotional tour to flog the paperback edition of the last book I wrote,
crisscrossed the country crying out to small crowds, "Buy my book, buy my
book! It will hurt my family if you don't." But the day after I arrived
home from that tour, people starting asking, "What will you do next?"

I think I must have signed some form when I was very small where I
promised I would always know what I was going to do next, and get to work on
that as soon as possible. Because it seemed very upsetting to everyone that I
didn't know what I was going to do. I felt like some grown-up was going to
sneak up behind me and ask, "Don't you have something to do? Is your homework
done? Is your room clean?"

I have always known. It's that simple. I've been busy ever since I was
a little kid. I've filled most available emptiness with projects, activities,
props. I've dragged in furniture and friends, put up metaphoric curtains.
But after I finished promoting my seventh book, and fine-tuning my eighth, I began
to believe that it was of no cosmic importance that I write any more books.
"Of course it is," people said loyally. But the only reason I could think to
do that was for the money. It didn't seem a good enough reason.


Now, I can
write a column like this, and they give me money -- more money than you can even
imagine -- so it wasn't absolutely imperative that I write any more books.
Also, next February, when the new book comes out, it will be my fourth book
in six years. Now, there's something wrong with that. I think we can agree
on this. That's just too many books. It was probably too many several books
ago, but because I'm the sole breadwinner in this family, we could overlook it
then. We no longer have that luxury. Too many books becomes gross after
a while, show-offy, unseemly, like too many marriages or face lifts. I don't
like it in other people.

So here's what I've come up with: Rather than make perfectly good writers
crank out new books every few years because they need income and are otherwise
unemployable, what if we gave them subsidies NOT to write any more books, like
they give to tobacco growers? We'd let the agents thrash out how much each of
us will get for not writing.

This would not apply to all writers -- Katha Pollitt would continue to be
given writing contracts, as would Taylor Branch, John Kaye, Sharon Olds, a few
others. Booksellers would sell the -- shall we say -- shitload of books that
already exist. There are plenty of books for everyone from Cynthia Ozick to
Dan Quayle to read for at least 15 years. October 2013, we'll all meet back
here and reconnoiter. Maybe -- if we're in one of our expansive moods -- issue a
few more writing licenses.

After I came up with this plan, my life lurched to a halt. I mean,
there's housework, a child, an aging mother who lives down the road, my
friends, pets and so on. But I spent more time puttering, looking at things,


It was like limbo as an act of treason.

I put a note in my God-box. I said, "Dude! What do You want me to
do?" And as usual, I didn't get an instructional tape from God like in
"Mission Impossible." I didn't even get an interesting horoscope or fortune
cookie. But someone did drop off a copy of "Turtle Time."

"Turtle Time" is a book for kids by Sandal Stoddard, about a little girl
who finds a turtle egg outside and brings it home. In time, a baby turtle
hatches. She makes it a house out of a shoe box, and then starts making all
sorts of things for the turtle to do, furnishing its house, making it little
costumes. But at the end, the kindly turtle tells her, in effect, "I don't
need you to make me things, I don't need things to do. I'm on Turtle time."

Then there's a little song the turtle and the girl sing, that you sing to
your child as the book comes to an end -- "Turtle time, turtle time ..."


And I thought, What a radical concept, and what a scary way to live. But
I started practicing here and there, practiced attention, not leaping up to do
something for the sake of having something to do. Maybe I was romanticizing
sloth -- I would certainly not put this past me. But I heard a man say once
that when he got sober, he had to learn how to do God's work, and to stop
trying to do His or Her job. So I let this be my only directive: The sky had
fallen 50 years ago, people just needed company, solace, care, a little peace
and quiet.

Within a month, I had gained my first five pounds. Also, I became
gravely ineffective. For instance, I usually see my mom once a week. We've
mostly done errands before, bought groceries, dropped things off that needed
to be fixed, the two of us functioning like a well-oiled machine with a poor
memory. But when I moved into Turtle time, we started wasting time together.
We watched early Wimbledon matches all day. We went to used bookstores and
browsed all those perfectly good books we discussed earlier. We ate ice
cream. Also, these little English biscuits she likes.

My mother has always been a little fat, and now I am getting fat too.
But the trade-off is that I am finding all these crumbs she has to offer. It
isn't the feast I have been starved for all my life, the feast I have
fantasized about and lusted after, of having a mother who was a queen and a
minister and a feminist comic all rolled into one. It turns out that for me
and my mother, there's still no big hambone of psychological direction, no
petit fours of mirth and encouragement. But there are these delicious crumbs,
and when I stop looking around for the banquet table, and instead notice and
savor these crumbs, they fill me up. They're the first gifts of Turtle time.

So: I will keep you posted. Meet me back here in two weeks. And as I
always said to my hosts when I was a child, and would like to say now to my
mother, Salon and to you: Thanks for having me.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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