The Turtle – My Totem

My editor, Linda Hasselstrom, recently returned my manuscript with many richly helpful comments, and an intriguing one that took me on a little research journey.

In the chapter I named Ocean Waves, I included a quilt square sample to give a sense of the pattern I’ll use to make that square. As I’d searched the internet through the huge variety of Ocean Wave patterns, I found one with a turtle that caught my fancy. I copied and pasted it into the manuscript.

Linda noted, “I especially love the turtle, my totem.”

IMG_20160102_132527212 (2)

I’d heard of totems, had a vague idea what they were; now I wanted to know more.

Among a dearth of information, I found that a totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol of a tribe, clan, family or individual. Native American bird and animal symbols are considered representations of the physical form of a spirit helper and guide. Further, a long list of animals and accompanying questions could help determine what my totem might be. For examples:

Are there animals that you feel drawn to in your life?
Does a particular animal often turn up in your life?
Is there a certain animal you often see in nature?

My thoughts began to flow: my many pleasant memories of hunting for turtles when I was a child, the countless times in my life I’ve stopped on a road to move a turtle across to safety, the joy I feel when I discover one in my yard, the turtles who have appeared in my writing, and the several allusions to turtles in my memoir.

Today I reflected further about how I move through my days and activities more at a turtle’s pace than of those nine deer that just leaped across my yard down by the stream. I love the slower pace since, in retirement particularly, I have the time to look more deeply at what I am seeing, to then ponder other layers of story or meaning that might be there.

This additional thought brought me to a clear conclusion: the turtle feels exactly right as my totem, that slow and steady creature with the ability to withdraw into its shell for protection when needed.
Now I wonder: do you, my reader, have a totem? If you would like to share it, I would love to hear from you.

Note: the quilt pattern above can be found at:


About Mary Jo Doig

At the turn of the millennium, I arrived at a cross-road that brought me to a splendid, if unforeseen place, almost as if I were a traveler on Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled. I was single again, my three children were grown and building their lives, I'd experienced a health issue and was working on an improved lifestyle. I also ached to do two other things: (1) change my long human services career in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains, where winter seemed to be at least seven months out of every year, and (2) move to a warmer place in the universe. My decision: did I want to continue on the path I'd been following pretty much all my life, or could I gather my then-fragile courage and start life brand new somewhere else? These were scary thoughts for a single woman in her late 50s. Five hundred miles away, though, I fell in love with a new mountain range, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I knew not a soul except my daughter who was attending college in the Shenandoah Valley, and I moved. I rented a tiny cabin on a mountain in the woods and lived there in solitude for two years, working in a new career by day and, when home, communing with the incredible natural beauty that surrounded me. There I also began to write my life stories, which were aching for release. I joined the Story Circle Network in early 2001, a rich place in cyberspace for women life writers, where I strengthened my written voice and began sharing my stories. I found so many opportunities to grow: 10 year facilitator for an online writing circle of women writers across the country; thirteen year editor of the "True Words from Real Women" section of the quarterly Journal; a reader and reviewer of women's memoirs for the SCN Book Review site; program chair for two Stories from the Heart national conferences in Austin, T. Presently I'm teaching Women's Life-Writing and Older Women's Legacy workshops in my part of the world in Central Virginia and facilitating the ongoing Circle of Memories Writing Circle (formerly an OWL workshop that continued on) at the Crozet Public Library. I am blessed with three wonderful children, a son and two daughters; a small, huge-hearted family; dear friends; my beagle Addie and cat Button. My hobbies include reading, writing, editing, cooking, gardening, quilting, knitting, biking, and simply being with the profound beauty of the mountains that embrace my small two acres in the Blue Ridge. The life stories I began writing in 2001 have grown deeper with time, re-writes, and personal growth. All these years later, I'm scheduled to publish my memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life, in 2018.
This entry was posted in Animal friends, Childhood, Gifts, Mother Nature, Mystery, Quilts, The Writing Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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