by Tammy Tillotson

To be human is to exist, within the limits of present human knowledge, as the apogee of the food chain, while simultaneously epitomizing and encompassing all aspects of the duality of nature in all its vast forms… So what? What does that really mean to me?

Life Lessons
I paid enough attention in 11th grade English to add apogee to the lexicon of my seemingly endless mental dictionary of contradictions. I believe the exact words the professor scrawled in red were something to the effect of “if this is the apogee of your writing efforts I suggest you make an appointment to see me about withdrawing.”

At the time, I was having a hard time explaining what the character Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath epitomized as far as the capabilities of a human being to suffer and love. More accurately, I was having difficulties epitomizing that into four decent pages that did not read like a newspaper article announcing a second Great Depression.

Suffering and love were just a little too overwhelming for me. Ma Joad exemplified an ever-enduring foundation of strength and support, and I related to her more than I wanted to admit to myself. I felt my foundation was on quicksand, and while Ma Joad would have calmly waited for help, I was continuing to struggle without realizing I was only aiding in sinking myself faster.

Turtle In The Road
In an effort to move my writing apogee from a molehill to a mountain, the professor presented a chance for redemption. I was free to write about any character in the book as long as I could relate the experience of the character to my own personal understanding of what being human represented.

I chose the turtle in the road.

The turtle, though an obscure and somewhat unimportant creature was, in my opinion, the most fascinating and true to life character in the entire book. It also is a brilliant depiction of my understanding about life.

The little turtle was determinedly plodding along its own set course. One car swerves not to hit the turtle, while another car deliberately tries to run the turtle over. The turtle is struck, and it becomes flipped over onto the back of its shell. The hot sun beats down on the exposed tender belly of the turtle, yet it struggles until it flips itself back over. Without giving up and without any less determination, the turtle continues on its path even if its direction has been altered.

My understanding of life is that I am a turtle. My set course may be beyond my understanding at this time, but I’m still plodding along trying not to bother anyone. For the most part, cars try to avoid me. Yet, every now and then for absolutely no apparent reason, a car tries to run me over. It might successfully flip me over, and I might feel worried, hurt, or panicky, yet I have a sturdy shell that protects me. I do not give up, and I do not lose my determination. As a result, I flip myself back over and continue on my way.

I’m a turtle…so simple an idea and so complex an idea simultaneously.

I am now convinced that I despise heavy traffic, sports utility vehicles, flashy convertibles, Greyhounds, and pick-up trucks with dog beds. Just for clarification, I might also add that I am no longer carrying a “Vegas or Bust” sign. Yet, I’ve come a long way since high school.

Life on the Freeway
After graduation, I spent a year at an all women’s college in North Carolina to finish my Associate of Arts degree. I primarily made this decision because I was offered a substantial academic scholarship which made the tuition affordable. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing to begin with, so the scholarship more than heavily weighed the decision. Despite a rather sporadic on-again-off-again relationship with my high school sweetheart, we got engaged; he enlisted; and I enrolled into a single sex environment where I would be safe from the clutches of other men.

I ended up hating it, though I did earn the degree.

Life on the Autobahn
We were married after he completed basic and AIT training, and a few months later relocated overseas. I spent a little over two years in Germany attending “real life” classes, which turned out to be some of the hardest lessons of all. They were also some of the most difficult and depressing in terms of learning what it means to be human. I naively thought love and determination could conquer anything that my mind comprehended. Eventually, the problem was my mind comprehended all too clearly that which my heart was struggling to accept.

Inside My Shell
In Germany, speed limits were pretty much nonexistent. The drivers to be leery of were the ones with the dancing hula-hula dolls bobbing on the dashboard. Language barricades, one-way streets, and caution signs were also too numerous to count.

The turtle was hit by one too many cars, and too many others seemed certain to swerve in my direction. Instead of eagerly flipping myself back over, I found retreating into the safety of my shell a more comforting and serene place. Some time alone within that shell yielded a lot of introspection and reflection into what path I was plodding along. Inside my own quiet dark place, I realized I had found the apogee of a molehill. I was longing to climb a mountain that was always the faint backdrop of a horizon that no longer seemed so out of reach.

Coming Out of My Shell
I gathered all of the courage within that shell that I could muster, and I returned home to finish my four-year degree.

I telecommute to attend classes twice a week through Old Dominion University’s Teletechnet Program. I had a semester of Teletechnet courses before leaving for Germany, and I was far enough along in the core curriculum of the program to mean transferring somewhere else would equal losing a substantial amount of credit hours. The turtle might be slow, but she has learned a thing or two along the way to not want to be any further behind.

I actually enjoy the Teletechnet classes more than regular college courses, because the majority of the students are working adults that are in the “real world.” Their knowledge is insightful as it stems directly from their personal experience. I attend classes in real time and even though there are students in all different states, everyone is watching the class and there are microphones, which allow communication with the professor and other students.

I feel I’ve learned a lot more from the Teletechnet courses than I would have from a normal college scene of frat parties, sororities, and the like. Besides, if I ever think I miss any of that, I’m not quite ancient yet. I have a younger sister and some friends from high school who attend colleges within a few hours drive away from me. I’ve had the opportunity to hang out and do the on-campus thing, and honestly, I haven’t felt like I’m missing out on but so much. I may miss a bit of freedom perhaps, but then again I’ve had some worldly experiences of my own, and I can’t say I feel discontent with where I am right now. I might not be where I want to be eventually, but it’s at least a step in the right direction. It takes some people years to even remotely get oriented, so I think I’m doing just fine.

Talking Turtle
I believe humans are unique, partially because of an innate yet profound determination to prove the truth wrong. It might be more accurate to say humans are in constant challenge of what is understood of manifestations and limitations in relation to what is understood of the self.

Besides acknowledging that all my genetic DNA material stemmed from one of 8,388,608 possible combinations (or 223) of the halves of the chromosomes attributed from each of my parents, have I gleaned any truth from my travels thus far?

If I have, the truths certainly are contradictions of one another.

I know that I am an intelligent life form. I also know that I am, at times, a complete idiot. By loving others, I have suffered, and I have caused suffering to others that I care about. By being unwilling to risk loving again, I have suffered, and I have caused suffering and misunderstanding again to people that I care about. I am not sure I know what the lesser of two evils is yet, but perhaps I’m missing the point.

I’m my own turtle and in carrying a shell, I carry all the unique experiences, thoughts, and feelings of me within that. I decide whether I want to stay inside or outside that shell too. I can choose what I want to do, within the constraints of some of the world’s constructs, yet more importantly I have realized that I can have a positive or negative effect on the lives of other people. I can effect other people with or without conscious or unconscious thought, and I am humbled by the acknowledgement of the power within that concept. Each and every human being has that ability simply through living, breathing, and existing.

At times, that seems to be as much a curse as it is a gift, but plodding along is all I know how to do. Even that exceeds the limitations of my understanding.