Of Turtles and Fear: A Writer Faces the Mind-Killer

January 21, 2019 § 20 Comments

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. ~ From Frank Herbert’s Dune

By Carole Duff


One bright Saturday morning, early in our relationship, my husband-to-be drove from his home in Alexandria, Virginia to spend the weekend with me in Baltimore. As promised, he brought groceries—food and beverages. In lieu of flowers, he carried a large pail.

I ran down the front walk of my house and peered into the bucket. “How do you know I love turtles?” I asked. “Where did you find it?”

While leaving work the night before, he had spied a scurrying clump of mud. The turtle crossed the parking lot and, fleeing from him, lodged itself behind the rear tire of a car parked next to his. The city was excavating along the Potomac River bank, he explained, so the turtle was probably running from the heavy equipment. He’d picked it up and put it on the floor of his car. At home, he washed the mud from the small creature’s shell and saw its markings—a water turtle. The slight convex bulge of her plastron belly indicated a female.

“Poor thing, she’s so frightened,” I said, gazing into the bucket. The young, palm-sized turtle flailed her stumpy legs. I picked her up for a closer look. “What a beauty! I’ve never seen anything like her.” Red and yellow flames streaked her face and raced across her shell like a dragster. On land, she could travel up to four miles per hour, twelve in water.

Later that morning, we carried her to the lake reservoir in the park near my house. The lake was connected to the same Chesapeake Bay watershed where he had found her. As we followed the meandering wooded path around the lake, the young turtle stopped thrashing. She stuck her head far out and scanned side-to-side like a dog sniffing familiar scents.

We stepped off the trail and scuttled down the bank to the lakeshore. My husband-to-be held my hand as I stretched far out over the water to place the turtle on a flat stone. She craned her neck—baring the sensors under her chin—and surveyed her new habitat. Then she launched into the lake with a resounding plunk and kicked away, raising curls of silt.


As a writer, I’m less a seat-of-your-pants dragster and more a slow, plodding box turtle, like the eastern box turtle pictured above. Our curious dog Heathcliff discovered him crossing the newly-mulched meadow in front of the house my now-husband and I built in the Blue Ridge. I identify with turtles. When faced with danger from potential predators, I pull inside my shell so I don’t lose my head.

This survival instinct offers some protection for turtles from physical threats, such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, and birds of prey. But living creatures cannot stay hidden or pulled in for long.

Nor can they live in constant fear, because fear is the mind-killer, the little death that brings total obliteration—like hiding behind car tires. I must face my fears. No matter how much I’d prefer to skip the hard parts, my writing blossoms on the page when I explore the very things that frighten me the most.

Inside my cozy warm shell, I become a turtle. I calm my breathing and ponder the past—people, places, and events. I return to unearthed excavation sites from which I’d fled. I run across parking lots, avoiding car tires and other dark places that promise false protection. I relive frightening memories of beasts hovering over me or lifting me from buckets as I’d struggled—what turn out to be benign encounters and unappreciated rescues. I listen with my head and heart. What am I thinking, what am I feeling? I ask myself.

When I’m ready, I stick my head far out, baring my senses, and listen to my body. The beasts are gone now. After surveying the territory and sniffing the air, I march across old habitats with new courage. I trust my inner voices. I trust my journey will lead to somewhere positive. I trust my experiences will mean something to others.

Then I write with steady determination, though not as fast as a water turtle. Box turtles average .17 miles per hour, .25 in short bursts of speed. During those rare, quarter-mile-an-hour bursts, I imagine I’m a speedy water turtle, a sleek, race-color streaked dragster. I plunge into uncharted lakes with resounding plunks, kick away mind-killing fears, and raise graceful curls of rich silt.

 Carole Duff is a veteran teacher of young women and now a writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and is working on a book-length faith memoir. Carole lives in Virginia with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and two large overly-friendly shelter dogs, Heathcliff and Freya.


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