I want to be a turtle grandma

A translucent glass turtle on a white background. The legs elevate the turtle off the surface and the head is raised. The shell of the turtle is mosaic glass - blue, green, yellow tiles.

But first…

Yesterday, someone dropped my mosaic fused glass turtle sculpture on the floor. The head and one front leg are broken off. I got the turtle sculpture on Tybee Island this past May 2022 from a quirky, artsy shop on the main road and two blocks away from the house. The shop owner spent time this May telling me about their personal knowledge of the artists, their own life living on the island’s brackish creek, and their previous life in northern Indiana. 

A left hand is holding a blue glass turtle sculpture. The head and right flipper of the turtle are broken from the body. The turtle's shell is a mosaic of blue, green, and yellow tiles.

Already, people are trying to offer to fix the glass turtle. Superglue. Get a new one. Perhaps my glass mentor can mend the glass turtle. [Side note, this last suggestion appeals to me if they could do a Japanese kintsugi style so that the repair honors and enhances the break]. Everyone else’s responses feel hurried and rushed. It feels like they’re trying to disappear and vanish both the breaks and the accident event itself, like it never happened. It also feels like they’re trying to prevent my grief, anger, distress, confusion, and shock (or at least shorten their exposure). 

Hello, I’m about to cry.

A left hand holding a pink sticker that looks like a name tag. The name tag says "Hello I'm about to cry."

Right now, I want to grieve the multiple losses: the loss of physical integrity of a precious object and the illusion that everyone will be and can be as careful as I am with my belongings. I sat in the neighborhood park in a pine tree stand, audible sobs with each new connection I made with that glass turtle.

  • Growing into my next personal and professional life stages
  • Learning to live compassionately with cPTSD
  • Upholding dreams of physical, emotional, spiritual, soulful liberation and abundance for all of us, including myself
  • Belonging in communities where I feel known, seen, understood, and cared for 

I really is _just_ glass shaped like a turtle. It is also _not just_ a glass turtle. While it was expensive, the glass turtle was also important, precious, invaluable, and meaningful to me. It has passed through many loving hands that have helped to bring out and share its beauty. And it reminds me of many things that are important to me–my memories and experiences, my values, my preferences, and my dreams. While none of those abstract things were lost or broken today, the accident reminds me that I am responsible for maintaining a web of care for those core elements of me. And it takes a careful balance to not get caught in a net of perpetual distrust and hypervigilance. 

I want to be a Turtle Grandma

For the week I vacation at Tybee every year, I walk out to the beach before dawn every morning. I cover about three miles in 90 minutes, spending lots of time watching the shorebirds, the sunrise, and the waves on the rock jetty. Most mornings this summer, I saw turtle tracks from female loggerhead turtles. They lumber before dawn across the beach to dig a nest near the dunes, lay eggs, cover the nest, and then crawl back to the sea. Sometimes they only go part way and turn back–a false crawl. 

Sunrise on the beach. There are turtle tracks in the foreground in the sand.

As part of loggerhead turtle conservation efforts on the island, pairs of retired people–predominantly women–walk the beach from south to north every morning to check for tracks. I call them “turtle grandmas.” They assess whether the nest is in the line of foot traffic, they move the nest if necessary, and they mark off the nest with “Do Not Disturb” tape and a QR code with info about the nest. In May and June, they’re watching for new nests; by fall, they are watching for hatched nests.

The turtle grandmas are shepherds, protectors, and keepers of space for the nestlings. They do pastoral work, watching over the nests and being present before, during, and after the turtles hatch. They facilitate the flow of nature. They are public educators, letting beachcombers and beachgoers know what transitions are happening underneath in the hidden nest chamber and ensuring we turn off the lights during nesting season. They greet the sanitation workers and the police chief who patrol the beach each morning. They know all the locals and long-stay residents by name and address. Turtle Grandmas contribute to the loggerhead babies’ nourishment, safety, growth, development, and long-term conservation. Turtle Grandmas are valued elders in the ecosystem and social fabric of the island.

A Tybee turtle grandma. A older woman is kneeling in the sand with an outstretched hand holding a turtle egg the side and roundness of a ping pong ball.

“You’re becoming an elder. Start acting like one.”

At a recent small conference, someone said they like to think of their grad support work as like going to grandma’s house (or the grandma’s house we all wish we had). A respite, a retreat, a little play, a little breaking the rules, a little something new. Visiting. Being resourced. Resting. Reorienting. Being regarded warmly. Quieter. A little slower. Well fed. Those are fantasies I associate with the concept of a grandmother’s house. 

And it’s a balm at a time during the pandemic when teaching center work has sometimes felt to me more like advertising, compliance, proselytizing, and missionary conversion work about best practices, active learning, and ungrading. We’re throwing all the pedagogy life preservers to keep all instructors afloat while they teach during compounding issues of burnout, long-term illness and disability, climate disaster, racial violence. There are times I hear tinges of self-righteousness in our field, wishing all instructors would just adopt the right way and the “best practices.” I honestly don’t think most of us intend to convey that feeling. But I worry that we might sometimes be received that way.

I think my time of doing graduate student development predominantly “at scale” is now past. Orientations. Welcome events. Workshops. Webinars. Symposia. Each event with large numbers of people is a lot of effort that doesn’t return with equal energy and growth for me anymore. That kind of outreach feels like a younger person’s world to me now. I don’t mean for this to sound like that work is beneath me. My body just doesn’t have that energy and power anymore. And I’m “not cool” to 20-something grads anymore. The kind of wisdom and energy I have now isn’t suited for those types of “big events.”

I want for faculty, postdocs, and grads to feel competent, capable, and supported as educators. I bet we all do. I’m coming to that work in graduate student development from my own developing point of view, setting the foundation for a future when I am an actual elder. Becoming an elder feels to me more like a state of attraction; people come to you because they seek your particular wisdom and expertise. They value an elder’s time, energy, and specific experiences. What will I want my life to look like then? And what kind of life activities will prepare me for that kind of life?

I want to be a Turtle Grandma. Literally. I want to get up before dawn and check nests with a turtle conservation partner. That’s a difference I want to make in the world, playing a role in giving baby turtles a good shot at making it out to sea. I want to be a Turtle Grandma metaphorically and spiritually, too, doing work that calls to me and puts my skills and energy to meaningful service. 

When I’m an actual elder, I want to be an actual turtle grandmother. But I’m not there yet. As an elder-in-training and in the meantime, I want to host renewal retreats over long weekends for educational developers. Based on a theme, cohorts meet largely by zoom over the year to support each others’ personal and professional development goals. We engage in play, rest, creativity, embodiment, connection, and community with a chance to celebrate in person together.

Words that come to mind at my beach turtle grandma’s house:

  • Not alone, watched over
  • Before, through, and after the shift and transition
  • (Re)oriented
  • Rested phase
  • Resourced
  • Allowing the flow of nature
  • Shepherded
  • Place of rest, protection, nurturing
  • Awareness-raising
  • Growth, possibility
  • Abundance, generosity, hospitality
  • Beauty
  • Observation, patience, stillness, calm
  • Creativity
  • Foundations, laying roots
  • Embodied effort, stretching

And maybe I’d like a quirky shop that sells art, encourages painting, has adoptable cats, and nourishes you with tea/coffee/pastry.

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