Turtle Time: Thoughts On Sustainability, Slowing Down, and Trust

For many years I wore a pendant of a very small turtle carved from a piece of jade that I’d found at an antique store. It was a reminder to myself to slow down and pay attention to the world around me. Eventually I started wearing other things, and then no jewelry at all (too many jobs where I couldn’t wear any and it became a habit I’m working to recover from, being that I can wear whatever the hell I want now), and the turtle ended up in a jewelry box where it sits until I can find a new chain for it.

Turtles are something of a theme that crops up for me pretty regularly. Usually when I’m going too hard and fast and am burning myself hotter than is actually useful. Or healthy. Lately I achieved a new and interesting kind of going too hard…the mental equivalent of frantically spinning tires while the wheels are stuck in the mud. All the effort and burnout, none of the progress to show for it!

Yeah, that’s not useful.

Turtles showed up again. I’m seeing turtles everywhere. I even ended up taking care of a friend’s turtle while he and his fiance were away for a week. Eventually I figured out that it’s because of the aforementioned spinning tires. Of course, knowing that I’m doing it and figuring out what to do about it are two entirely different things.

You see, the mud that I’ve been stuck in is my own work. Social media’s crashing as a useful medium for small artists like myself, but at the same time there aren’t a whole lot of options for the kind of work that I do offline, and trying to figure out how to produce ever faster and more and how the hell am I going to keep up with it and I need to do more with Ko-fi because oh gods people are giving me money and here I am stuck in the mud and and and and….

there I was, lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, having an existential meltdown, and there were turtles in my pareidolia…

Nothing else. Just me, the floor, and the turtles in the ceiling paint.

* * * * * *

The other week I came across two things that shifted the view. A random comment crossing my dash on social media, and book that I’d just started reading got me thinking. The comment was along the lines of how Patreon is basically an adopt-an-artist program and how that often gets twisted into being an artist puppy mill, instead. The book is called “Beyond Sustainability” by Nimue Brown, about how we, as a species, need to slow down and really think about how we engage with the world on every level because we’ve only got the one planet and the environment is coming undone. (Side note, it’s a really good book and I recommend it.)

I got to thinking about the artist puppy mill and how one of my big stressors with Ko-fi is that I’ve been conditioned to the idea that I need to be constantly updating but then get stressed out if I can’t come up with some new bit of art or witty comment or whatever the fuck on cue. I started thinking about how I’m constantly trying to figure out how to make a lot of small art and writing FAST and how to monetize every little thing and how that just ends up with me crashing and burning out, unable to create anything at all, let alone the fact that if I’m spending my time trying to focus on small fast things, I have no time left for anything larger or longer and how that is not remotely sustainable.

I disabled myself because I pushed my brain and body beyond its limits too many times for jobs that didn’t view me as anything more than a piece of machinery, if even that. I’ve had multiple nervous breakdowns, have PTSD, and permanent physical damage that prevents me from being able to work in almost any setting other than my own business, and they are almost entirely because of previous jobs. I *know* better, viscerally. Yet here I’ve been, basically trying to push myself beyond my limits again, because I panicked and forgot (like so many people forget) that things like Ko-fi and Patreon exist, not to be artist puppy mills where the artists push out ever more “content” for consumption like we’re factory assembly machines, but so that a community of people who care about us and our work can help ensure that we have a steady income in a field where a single piece takes weeks or more to produce. It’s supposed to be the safety net, not the meat grinder.

It’s there so that I can spend a month working on a single painting and not have to worry about how I’m going to pay for the cat food or the Disaster Cats’ vet bills. It’s there so that I don’t have to try and find a working brain cell that hasn’t burnt out from a day of being punished for failing to do the work of 3 people by myself before bed, or try to paint when the damaged blood vessels in my left eye are inflamed from staring at a computer monitor for 8 hours and there’s a blank space in the middle of my vision because the swelling is pressing against the optic nerve.

It’s there so that I can work slowly, sustainably, and in a healthy manner while trusting that my community is helping support me, because I am not a factory machine, and my work is something that not only takes time to create, but is also something that suffers for being churned out at frantic, panicked paces.

It’s there because, in a world that demands ever-faster jackrabbits, my work is a collection of turtles sunning themselves on a log and that’s okay. My job is not to try and keep up with the jackrabbits, it’s to sit with the turtles, listen to the stories of the wind in the trees, and share the gossip of the moths with my village.

I’m a little slow on the uptake, sometimes, but deprogramming from a life that taught me that my value is only measured by how much of myself I can sacrifice is a process that sometimes takes a little bit to work through.