I wonder on days like today just how much capacity human beings have. I think we see ourselves, our abilities, and our output as substantially fixed. Afterall, we all have seen our own limits. We need a certain number of hours sleep, companionship, food, the newspaper, some form of media and entertainment to sustain us as we move forward in this life. In our relationships and in our work, we push boundaries, but ultimately we accept that there are boundaries up against which we continue to push.
Consider these human limits and perceived (and tangible) boundaries as the turtle’s shell. The shell confines almost the entirety of the turtle’s body. For the most part, the turtle is defined by this physical shell and by the perceived and tangible dangers outside the shell. This is natural.
This morning as I was passing through Morningside Park on my walk to school, I noticed this turtle sitting triumphantly on this pond rock boldly sunning himself in the middle of the city. All extremities exposed to the world, the turtle confidently and easily sat atop this city rock in this city park. I had to stop and take notice. This was out of the ordinary. In fact I took a picture to capture the moment.
This afternoon during our final sessions in our School Law Institute, I was so emotionally overwhelmed by the words of one of our speakers that I had to leave my seat. In fact I left the building. A complete stranger came up to me on the street and asked if I was alright and was so concerned she was very reluctant to leave me in such a state to return to her life. I was struck by the intensity of a series of moments where a professor who had dedicated his life’s work to the fight for equity in schools fought through the physical tremors of Parkinson’s to communicate to a group of 70 Teachers College students that it was our moment to take up this work. He could no longer continue. He spoke with humor and through a quivering, weak voice that betrayed the wit and sharpness of his intellect and richness of his experience. He struggled there before us, perched on the uncertain and steep decline of the human condition, and he was so utterly present in that moment, in each of 60 moments that he shared his wisdom and wit with us. He struggled with every inch of his body to reach us, and the intensity of that vulnerability and the tenderness of sharing that with 70 strangers reached deep inside of me. In a month of transformation and intense learning, he took this experience to an entirely new depth.
No one in that room left the same. I am sure of this. I am still struggling to understand the capacity of someone so willing and able to live so much in the present moment even as the simplest functions retreat from the brain’s command. How do you persist and persist with grace and good humor and with purpose even as you reach your most vulnerable state of life? I admire the willingness, the presence of mind, the sense of purpose, and the unyielding commitment to actualizing justice and equity for the most marginalized of people living among us. It is the fight for what is right alongside the fight for the simplest functions of life. I would be so lucky to live as much in this life the amount this professor lived in the 60 minutes he spent with us this
As I walked home tonight through Morningside park, I saw the turtle again. He was out on the same rock. He was there in the sun, hundreds of people about in the park: playing ball, sitting on benches, skateboarding, walking, running, walking dogs. He was still out, head and legs and tail all stretched outside the confines of his shell. I couldn’t help but think of Tom, and think about the audacity to live beyond the confines of the human experience. The shell protects, defines, humanizes the turtle, but the insistence on basking in the sun outside that shell speaks to the kind of human being I hope to become. I can only hope to live so fully.