My persistent muse: the tortoise – by Keren Hoy

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This is the Year of the Tortoise: the year I write my book. It will be about my journey through the year, and about patience and sureness of purpose. It will take all year to write.

Some writing in the past has been hare-like, having to meet deadlines, leaving me and my family with ears pinned back and sore feet from the dash. This will be different.  It is fitting that it will be a process and a journey, for that is what my writing life has been so far.

Even daring to call myself “a writer” took almost forty years. After that, I took the next step of completing a magazine journalism course. The magazine writing course was based on working progressively towards a final article, and the first hurdle was to find a topic. Tea-bags? Babies? Job-hunting? Which topic should I choose?

A visit to Butterfly World in Paarl helped me focus, not on butterflies, or zoos, but on a pet from my childhood: tortoises. We had kept a succession of tortoises in an old aviary in our yard. They’d fed on vegetables, and had ambled slowly across the lawn. That was a lifetime ago.  Now I needed some expert information. Summoning my courage, I phoned the local university and its resident tortoise fundi. A short while later, we were sitting over coffee and I was asking my questions. The man’s insight and passion were infectious, and I had high hopes for my chosen topic. The article succeeded academically for the writing course; might it also succeed commercially?

I tried Wild; I tried Country Life; I tried a few other magazines. Either they had recently run a story on tortoises, or just were not interested. A halt, then, on the journey of the tortoise.

Next came handbags – no connection to tortoises or even to wildlife, but certainly local. A visit to a community development project, Learn to Earn, led to a successful article, “Bags of Talent”, for an airline magazine. And then – nothing. I haven’t sold another article since. In fact, I have not even written many articles. Instead, I have written chapters for text-books, drawing on my experience as an English teacher. These tasks have brought inspiring mentors into my life, as well as giving me a better understanding of the writing and publishing process.

So my writing portfolio comprises a few articles and some text-book authoring; all very much on-and-off. Encouraged by friends, I began a blog, but the entries were sporadic. Now, finally, the idea for a blog – and a book – has crystallised. Just like the tortoises in my very first Writers’ College article, my journey into writing has been slow, but sure of purpose.

Writing has helped me understand my own internal processes too. Journaling some very vivid dreams has been enlightening, satisfying, and challenging. My written dreams have helped untangle some relationship difficulties; given me focus; and strengthened new resolves. By the start of 2013, my relationships were going smoothly, and there was no text-book writing for the moment. Then came a meeting with a familiar source of inspiration: a tortoise.

“What would you like to do after we take your brother to school?”

“Go to the Nature Reserve, just us two.” This was Alexander, whose new school started on a different day from his elder brother’s.

The two of us set out, water bottle and snack on hand, hats on, to walk in our local fynbos reserve. I allowed Alexander to choose the paths, and we wound our way along the stream, overhung with cooling trees. At intervals a bench would beckon, a memorial to a loved one, now providing a place of reflection for fellow walkers. We sat and talked; walked hand-in-hand; and in sloping, open places he ran ahead, always waiting until I came into sight before running off again. We found dewy spiders’ webs; daring edges where the path almost fell into the stream; glades of dappled sun and shade.

After exploring the path until it emerged into bright sunshine, we agreed to turn back – it was getting too hot to be without shade on a January morning.  We reached the stone archway marking the boundary between reserve and car-park and as we emerged there was a movement at our feet.

“Tortoise!” came Alexander’s delighted exclamation.

It was indeed a tortoise – a venerable, elderly tortoise, quite as big as a small dog . Oddly, its shell was almost colourless; it was as if several parts had been scoured until they showed only white.  Awed, we realized it must have survived a fire.

“I want to see where it goes!”

We had all morning; so I watched my son, who watched the tortoise. It had a steady walk; eager, even. The scaly, wrinkled neck was stretched out; it was on its tip-toes, for maximum speed; and it knew where it was going. Its direction seemed counter-intuitive: the open, grassy spaces lay one way; tarred car-park, the other; and it was headed across that hot, grey expanse. Alexander ran alongside, then ahead.

“Slowly!” I cautioned. “Don’t scare it!”

Where was it going? It headed around the plants marking the centre of the parking spaces, and into a pool of water leaking from a sprinkler…

The tortoise in the water was quite remarkable. It stretched its neck even further, and seemed to sip a little. Then it settled its body right down onto the patch of water, and sort of “squelched” into it. It was like watching a sponge being used to soak up a puddle: the tortoise moved its whole shell from side to side, as if to saturate it with the cool water.

Satisfied, the tortoise put out its legs and trundled off, back across the car park, headed for the soft grass and titbit-carrying picnickers.

I resolve to be like the tortoise: to head purposefully for the “cool water”; to soak in it, and not mind how I look or how long the detour takes.

This will be the year of writing, of delight, patience and being refreshed.  My Year of the Tortoise.

© Keren Hoy 2013

 

Congratulations to Keren Hoy for winning the “My Writing Journey Competition” for February 2013.

 

Image: Michael Baird

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