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The Thaw at Vetheuil by Claude Monet

Loss has laid bare my day. I’m attempting to make room for grief, “enjoy” the free time. I read, try to write, take more walks. I choose a nearby lake to circle. 

After a few death spasms– late snows and unseasonably cold days–winter’s finally loosened his grip. Life has begun to emerge from the ground, the branches, the lake. On Sunday, I look for the turtles in their usual spot, but there are still patches of ice on the surface. By Wednesday the lake is entirely thawed. I spy them lining a log in the water: eight of them basking, shells of various sizes glinting in the sun.

Unlike bears or frogs, a turtle does not hibernate. Instead, as she feels winter taking hold, she dips under the surface of the waves. She makes her way down, a gentle descent, slipping through the amber water, settling herself on the lake’s bottom. Engulfed in a silty sheet of mud, she slows herself– her heart, her breathing, most of her central nervous system. As everything around her begins to die, what does she expect will happen to her?

I am not a turtle. I’m more like a border collie, the type of creature that grows easily restless, requiring almost constant intellectual stimulation lest she become destructive. But there’s something about that mud blanket that’s awfully appealing. Soft and heavy. Dark and silent.

I feel I could remain under the sheets all winter if it weren’t for the people needing me, three girls pounding downstairs to get ready for school, plus the banking, scheduling doctor appointments and making sure there’s milk for the morning’s cereal. Truth be told, it crosses my mind that I might need more than this to keep getting out of bed in the morning. I don’t think I’m depressed, forward just doesn’t seem the way to go. There’s an urgency to this waiting, though I don’t know for what.

Normally, I would make something for which to get out of bed, a project; clean out the basement, pick-up where I left off the job hunt, volunteer to do some good for somebody else. I feel guilty that I’m not more productive. But the turtle’s got a different perspective: her body moves with natural ponderosity. The water offers a pleasing resistance. Around her, the shape of everything– the top and the bottom, the stones and the seaweed–is blurry and crepuscular. This is just the nature of the winter season; it’s darker and there’s nothing wrong with slowing down. Slowing everything down.

I’m getting used to being less productive unless somebody is watching. I wander through the living room and make a comment to my husband about the piles of laundry laying on every surface, baskets on the floor cluttering the path. David usually does the laundry but he’s running up the stairs and without looking back shouts, “Yes, somebody should do something about that.”  When I go to visit a friend with her new baby, she inquires whether I’m going to pursue the job lead her husband gave me. I can’t remember how I told her her I wasn’t.

When winter is well underway, if the ice is clear enough, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of a turtle under the surface. She appears asleep in a glass coffin. An uninformed passerby might be tempted to rescue her from a seemingly cruel death, but naturalists warn not to break the ice to free her. She’s protected, closed-in until she’s ready for the surface again.

Resting at the bottom, I can’t quite see what’s beyond. There is water and more water and then there is darkness over the deep. The landscape above the surface appears formless and void. It’s easy to gloss over the reality wedged between “In the beginning” and “the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” There was an eternity before this eternity. The world is barren and desolate before a hovering God turns on the lights in verse three. If the narrator hadn’t told us this was a beginning, it would look a lot more like an end.

Scientists used to believe during winter, turtles were comatose and completely unresponsive. Only recently they’ve found this not to be true. In fact, they describe a turtle’s winter state as a “slow vigilance.” She is mostly shut down, but her eyes remain sensitive. She is waiting for something that awakens her breathing, quickens her heart and draws her to surface again.

She will respond to the light. 


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Rachel Gustafson

Rachel Sheild Gustafson is an essayist and has worked for nearly two decades in public policy and advocacy. She has an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University and an MPH in maternal and child health from the University of Minnesota. She currently lives in St. Paul, MN.

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