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    Old Turtle to the Rescue

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    We hear a great deal these days about our divided country. The fact that we are in an election cycle where one of the candidates has multiple indictments against him certainly does not help. The division has been a long time coming; a very long time. It’s often hard to see any light at the end of that tunnel without simply assuming it is an oncoming train.

    Sadly, our very own LGBTQQIP2SA+ community is divided as well. That division often shows itself in competition or arguments between the various letters that describe our community. Everyone seems to be fighting for his/her/their own piece of the pie—often to the detriment of others. We see the age-old circular firing squad brought on by disagreements and discounting anyone who is “other” because they are not our kind of “other.” The specific letters can divide our queer community into smaller tribes to the exclusion of others. The challenge, of course, is to bring them together under one umbrella of understanding and support while still honoring the important differences.

    The noise is getting louder every day. Many of us turn to music to calm us. Many of us turn to our animals for unconditional acceptance. I turn to music and Tater Tot. He helps calm me down. I also watch a lot of reels about puppies being rescued. Others watch cats do almost anything. But the background noise is still there and impossible to escape. Speaking of music, allow me to go there.

    “People argue and hurt one another. People kill one another and hurt the earth.”

    These words are in the news every hour of every day. But these words are not from the news, but from an extraordinary children’s book. When all is said and done, it is perhaps more for adults than children. I have lived with and loved this book for almost three decades. Its words literally haunt me, yet there is hope in the book as well. The words are from a book titled Old Turtle by Douglas Wood.

    A few months ago, I highlighted the 50th Anniversary of the iconic book for our community, The Best Little Boy in the World. Later, I celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the song “Everything Possible.” This month, I am highlighting an amazing children’s book now celebrating its 30th Anniversary.

    The book has been hailed as a “uniquely satisfying, beautifully imagined fable about ecology, peace, and the interconnectedness of all beings.” It has sold 2 ½ million copies and won a raft of national literary awards. The book itself includes remarkable watercolors by Cheng-Khee Chee. It poignantly describes much of where we are today.

    The one thing that may hinder many from embracing the book is the reference to God. I have found that, in our community, there are many definitions and substitutions for that word. Knowing the author and the goal of the book, I believe that the reference is not to the old white ZZ Top lookalike who rains down plagues and floods and death (oh my). So, if you can get beyond that, you’ll be touched by the story. In a bit of irony, the book and author were blasted by the religious right for two reasons. The first is that God is portrayed without gender—sometimes he, other times she. The other is the that the division was solved when humans began to see God in one another. That doesn’t sit well with fundies.

    The story begins with the idyllic, peaceful existence of all animals in nature. Consider the Garden of Eden before the naked people arrived. For the fish, God was in the ocean. For the birds, she was in the clouds. For the butterflies, he whispered, and for the lion, she roared. The argument about who God was got louder until finally Old Turtle, who rarely said anything, stepped in with a thundering “Stop!” She had news of a new species arriving on Earth:

    “There will soon be a new family of beings in the world. They will come in many colors and shapes, with different faces and different ways of speaking.
    They will possess many powers. They will be strong, yet tender,
    a message of love from God to the earth, and a prayer from the earth back to God.”

    As you might imagine, once the people came, it did not take long for them to forget they were love and a message and a prayer.

    “They began to argue about who knew God, who did not, where God was and was not and whether God was or was not. The people hurt one another or killed one another.

    And they hurt the earth until finally even the forests began to die and the rivers and the oceans and the earth itself.

    Until one day there came a voice. Please, Stop!

    After a long and scary time, they began to see God in one another and in the beauty of all the earth.

    And Old Turtle smiled.”

    Not long after the book was released some 30 years ago, a friend of mine in Dallas, Cece Cox, gifted me with a copy. She thought it would be of interest since I was then the conductor of the Turtle Creek Chorale, Dallas’ gay men’s chorus. I let it sit on my desk for many months before reading it. I jokingly said that I already knew enough old turtles. One day, I picked it up. The words literally leapt off the page—begging to be sung. I began hunting down the author through his publisher. When we finally connected, he was thrilled and felt a gay chorus had the perfect diverse voice and mission that would carry the message of the book perfectly.

    Who could compose such a massive work? There was only one composer up to the task: Joseph Martin. We had sung many pieces by Joseph, including the world premiere of his mixed chorus voicing of The Awakening. Thus began a two-year process of commissioning the musical version: Song of Wisdom of Old Turtle. Joseph’s compositional style was the perfect mixture of sweeping, expressive, challenging, yet intimate music this story needed. It was obvious that the book needed to be performed by a chorus of men and women, so we included our sister chorus, The Women’s Chorus of Dallas, a full orchestra, and narrator. By the way, the Song of Wisdom of Old Turtle also represents one of the highlights of my music commissioning career.

    Who would narrate?Because of the healing message of the book, someone suggested perhaps actress Marlo Thomas (That Girl) would consider narrating. We contacted her, she said, “Yes,” and we made St. Jude Children’s Hospital the beneficiary of the proceeds. What a thrill it was. My assistant and I flew to New York and met Ms. Thomas at a recording studio to record the narration. She was an absolute dream and a consummate professional. She literally recorded the 30-minute piece straight through in one take. We were thrilled and thought it was perfection. She did not. She asked to listen back, took a few notes. When it was over, we were in tears. She asked if she could record five spots again. Her perfect was obviously more perfect than ours! At that point, we hugged and the recording was a wrap (as they say in the business). She proved to be That Girl after all!

    Tater Tot

    It all came together with the world premiere in Dallas. The publisher gave us 1,000 books to give away to children who attended. Tickets were “One adult free when accompanied by a child.” From our position on the stage, we could see the hundreds of children turn the pages as the narrator spoke. We could see the delight on their faces as the story being sung sprang to life with each of the beautiful watercolors. It has now been sung all over North America and I had the honor of conducting it at Lincoln Center.

    The book is available everywhere. You can hear the recording on Spotify or on the Turtle Creek Chorale’s YouTube channel. It is the Song of Wisdom from Old Turtle. On YouTube, it is divided into five movements.

    The other reason Old Turtle is top of mind is that I will be conducting it at the end of this month for the Plymouth Music Festival in Wichita, Kansas. I am beyond excited.

    As mentioned in the beginning, the story is a fable. While this book is intended for children and perhaps more suitable for adults, it has important messages for those of us in the queer community. As Old Turtle said, humans come in “many colors and shapes, with different faces and different ways of speaking.”Those of us considered “other” certainly come in a wide variety of everything. What is heartbreaking is to see the arguments break out among those we should be communing, supporting, and loving.

    The argument about who knew God or didn’t comes to us in the form of who is right, who is wrong, who is woker, and who is not. “I have the right answer because my feet are on solid ground.” “No, I have the right answer because my head is in the clouds, and I can see so much more from up here.” We sometimes can’t see the good in each other because we have disagreed about things that really don’t matter in the end. We choose to focus on the bad and the difference.

    We need an Old Turtle to whisper with the voice of thunder, “Stop!” I still have hope that one exists in our world. We are just waiting for them to show up. Along with that hope, my prayer is that someday, there might also be a reason for her to smile. Until then, I’ll snuggle up with Tater Tot and listen to the Song of Wisdom from Old Turtle.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    TLC: Tears, Laughs and Conversation
    Published on September 7, 2023