As she moves through the thin carpet of the five-gallon bucket’s leaves, the painted turtle sounds like she has a peg-leg: rustling, scraping, clunking. A sour reptile smell hangs over the bucket. My hands smell sour when I pick the turtle up. I hold her by her sides, my palm becoming a second shell, watching her shut the gates of herself and become both living thing and stone. If I steady my hand, the barricades will open. Her feet will strike and tear the air. Her wrinkled neck will wobble forth. If I lower my arm slowly enough, her claws will tear the soft banks of my parents’ pond, and she will be on her way without one social backward glance. She’s coming out of her shell, but only long enough to carry herself, shell and all, away from me.
I had acquaintance with turtles like this one throughout my long childhood. About once a year, a box turtle or painted turtle would find its way out of a muddy hermitage and become the captive of my siblings, my friends, and me. About that same time in my life, more than once a year, someone would congratulate me on “really coming out of my shell.” And this was the biggest compliment. I was becoming new. Leaving the sour old self behind.
This year my turtle-trapping days are far behind me, but I can still feel longing pull at my skin. Really coming out of my shell. I still want to. But this year, I found my metaphor challenged: “Some animals naturally carry their shelter everywhere they go, and… some humans are the same.” Maybe Susan Cain, who wrote those lines in her celebrated new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has known the loneliness of letting a turtle go back into the wild. Maybe she has known the longing to step out of the thick shell and into a garment much lighter and more iridescent.
But a turtle’s shell is not quickly discarded. One year, my dad found a turtle that had survived a mower blade. One of its scutes had been torn off, like a mosaic fallen from a wall. We kept the turtle in a terrarium and fed it ground beef, raw. We called the vet. We bought a liquid antiseptic called New Skin and sprayed the turtle’s shell. The scute grew back. We returned the turtle to the banks of the pond and it rustled away without a backward glance.
That year, whenever I laughed till I giggled or introduced myself to a stranger or ran wild and jumped in puddles, my friends said it was good to see me coming out of my shell. But I wanted to live to see the day when I could start to do this forever, when words would burst out of my mouth as if they were already written and all I had to do was voice them, and when I could sustain this exuberance without also craving silence. Coming out of my shell? I didn’t want a shell at all.
A cicada bursts its old skin and climbs out of a thin brown shell. I must have been six the first time I found one. Its needle legs pricked my skin. I investigated it in awe. I must have held out my insistent arm and asked, “Is it real?” I had never seen something so whole and so wholly abandoned. I didn’t even know, then, about the bright and glowing greenness bordering the cicada’s new wings.
Now I know, and now I know how much I want to be converted. To be all at once what this world privileges. To speak glamorous falsehood with confidence. To fill, just fill, the silence. To stand underneath the mist of that antiseptic and get a new skin. To be a creature not of mud and carapace, but of glowing green flight and inescapable whistle and roar.
But then I think of how it was a mower blade that created the need for the turtle’s new skin. Just as surely, culture’s brash blade, lopping us down to uniformity, creates the need for the introvert to repent of her solitude and cry “I once was shy, but now I’m loud!” and give up forever the hermitage beside quiet waters. But I won’t. Some conversions are myths. This is not the right newness. I need my hermitage, unglamorous as it is, as much as the turtle needs hers. And I’ll take it.