Look both ways

I saw a photograph of a two-headed tortoise today. The photograph was taken to mark the tortoise’s twentieth birthday, and 20 isn’t old for a tortoise though the experts say it never would have lived so long in the wild. A sheltered life can be a good thing.

The tortoise was born in Switzerland and still lives in the Geneva natural history museum. The newspaper article fails to record its gender. Not that it matters to me, though it might to them.

Them? It? Two heads – or one tortoise? Plurality is awkward so the museum staff named the tortoise Janus after the two-faced Roman god. In the photo, the tortoise looks determined, but perhaps that's just a tortoise’s nature. Thick-skinned and resolute. 

The interesting thing about this particular tortoise – other than the two heads – is that it shares a birthday with my uncle. And his twin, my father. 

I took my family to Ottawa this summer for their shared eightieth birthday. It was great to be in the thick of things – back in the crowd of family. Dad perhaps is not as thick-skinned as he used to be. In his old age, he is moved by music and the voices of his grandchildren. He remembers his oldest stories and tells us about the songs he sang as a child in his church choir. He is lovely.

We decorated the garden with balloons and bunting and needed three long tables to seat everyone under the trees. Lunch lasted all afternoon. We could have stayed there forever. My own little family used to live in Ottawa, close enough to my parents to share Sunday dinners, but now we are an ocean away and that was a hard ocean to cross after the birthday party was over.

Still, holidays end and September needs to be a time of new beginnings, especially with school-aged kids around the house. For the first time, my three kids are at three different schools, so this September has brought a lot of rushing about. My youngest has started all-day school. My eldest started high school. We rush and plan and prepare and collect and pray in these new and busy days.

I feel for Janus. 

This September, I, too, would move slowly and look both ways. If I could, I would find a place to sit still in the sun and crane one pair of eyes back to summer – to those long tables and all that laughter and to the kids balancing their single-file way along fallen trees in the forest, swimming in the lake and finding the nerve at last to jump off the raft. I would also – slowly, cautiously – direct my other eyes to look ahead into the soon-changing colours, the falling leaves, the coming cold and the wait for Christmas. I would look and look and, in looking, grow resolute and strong. Armoured. 

Families, with their sprawl of generations, are two-headed beasts, too, I suppose. The older members look into the past while the youngers sprint for tomorrow. Like the original Janus, we are all pulled in two directions and whichever way we look, we are strained by time’s demands. But time, too, is a creature made by God. This is good to remember. Time was made, just as we are. Time is a good and gifted creature. In the turning seasons of the year and of our families, we can find the patterns of promise and presence. We can find peace. Just like the rest of us, time is in God’s hands and, in both our timely forward- and backward- looking, we are met and held.  


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