In February of this year I traveled to India. I went to finish a book that I’d started there six years earlier, and to begin a film project. The book is, among other things – but above all – a love story, the movie is too.
Sometimes when I’m working on a book I don’t know “what it’s about” until I write the last word. Though I never wrote – in so many words – that the book was ‘about’ “letting go”, when I wrote the last line I knew it was. Friends were glad that I was finishing the book, glad that I was finally ‘letting go’. What I couldn’t get across to them was that I had let go; and that the book was about what remained.
In his 1927 book “Why I Am Not A Christian” Bertrand Russell tells this story:
A well known scientist was giving a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth rotates around the sun and how the sun rotates around the center of our galaxy.
At the end of the lecture an old lady stood up and said, “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate resting on the back of a giant turtle.”
The scientist smiled a superior smile then asked, “And what is the turtle standing on?”
“You’re clever young man,” she said, “very clever, but it’s turtles all the way down.”
While in India a good friend of mine, Alice Bengston died, and I dedicated my film to her. For as long as I knew Alice she lived with her husband in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, several hours east of Sacramento. Native mule deer roamed the dry hillsides and delighted – along with songbirds and hummingbirds – in the garden that Alice planted.
But Alice’s unique and personal contribution to the local ecology was tortoises. They had free run and reign of the property – inside and out. Everyone knew Alice as Grandma Turtle.
I want to say that Alice taught her two daughters love. But Alice wasn’t a teacher, Alice was a lover, and her daughters learned love from her; and in that same way their children learned it from them.
I can’t think of Alice and not think of turtles; can’t think of Alice and not think of love. And so I came to think of turtles as love.
Much has changed since 1927; but if the truth is what remains then much is the same: the earth continues to revolve around the sun, the sun around the center of our galaxy; and there remain those (old ladies and others) who believe that the earth rests on the back of a giant turtle.
The scientist was right; but the old lady was right too – it’s turtles all the way down.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.