Category Archives: Happenings

Alchemy by Hawk

There are encounters that leave you sloshing and unsettled– like a very full glass of pond water on a rickety table that has been jostled. A moment before you were self-contained, now your inner being is flustered and expressive — full of erratic movement you do not intend.

The jostler has long since vanished but you are still unquiet within. Across the stadium of your stomach a loosed stampede of bat wings, bull horns and hapless ballerinas. The sensation is not painful–nor is it pleasant. In such times it can be useful to recognize that you are a woman of independent means — financing this residual tempest with the hard cash of memory and the loose change of muddled emotion. There are better investments to be made. By far.

It is not easily arranged, but after such encounters if one can persuade a hawk to fly low overhead as one walks a narrow residential street, one might experience what feels akin to a comprehensive internal reset. A refreshment of being the equivalent of one thousand nights of dreamless sleep. Of that instant you are no longer a container of whirling sediment and liquid agitation, but a glass filled and stilled, quietly brimming with the crystal cold headwaters of a mountain spring. It will happen with a rapidity that defies explanation.

You remember the upward glance, and the preverbal register of a remarkable wingspan, a copper colored velocity, a grace that splits the sky like day time lightning. Electric and unbound. You do not recall the perturbation being poured out of you like stale tea from a teapot. The conversion is work that locates itself outside clock time. What has transpired is not so much substitution as it is alchemy– by hawk. The transformation of a base and volatile substance (your inner landscape) to one that is– at least temporarily– golden and inert.

It helps if the hawk calls out to you repeatedly while circling high overhead. Her voice commands the sky, corrals your wayward tendencies. Her wheeling, invisible calligraphy blots out any lingering reasons for dismay, any last recollections of dissatisfaction. And you are seized by an intimation of grandeur, a power vast and sweet and gloriously indifferent to our cramped labels of good and bad, a freedom so complete it does not require approval– or even understanding, and an awareness so piercing and acute, so borderless and far-reaching it leaves you with a paradoxical sense of how small you are—and how utterly seen.

If you are in a position to pull on cosmic strings and orchestrate this process further, it would serve you well to recruit between one hundred and one hundred and fifty additional hawks. Have them soar across your line of sight in ones and twos and threes and sometimes sevens over the next week. Have them perch unusually low and in view. Have them spur you to google “Unusual number of hawks in neighborhood this summer,” and accustom you to looking up frequently (because who wants to miss sighting a hawk?) Until their presence is undeniable, their message unmistakable.

Then let the hawks fly into your dreams, and with their alternating rhythms of muscular wing flap and spiraling suspension, begin to shape a shadowy sense of what it means to house an immense perspective, what it means to travel fearlessly between this terrestrial realm and the blue beyond, what it means to combine vigilance, with elegance and self-possession, what it means to expend effort, then effortlessly release, what it means to abandon petty stories, swoop down instead on what is essential, revolutionary– grasp it talon tight. And not let go.


Fortuities

Necessity knows no magic formulae-they are all left to chance. If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders. — Milan Kundera

There are days when I look out the window without meaning to, as if my glance had been commanded by a consciousness beyond that typically called my own. And I catch, not the sight but, the sense of a bird. The briefest of blurs, a velocity of being, accompanied by a communication whose unmistakable imperative is simply: LOOK. 

I have an unaccountable conviction in these moments, unlikely as it seems to my rational mind, that I am being summoned to witness something. Someone. But I cannot will my way into such witnessing. I can only intend and then forget. So that the surface of my mind moves unselfconsciously, while the depths have been readied.

Sometimes it takes a couple of days. I feel a quiet, almost imperceptible surge, but my gaze is belated, catches its breath not on bird but on space freshly emptied of bird. Even these misses have their magic. And then comes the barefoot discovery– always barefoot– for there is never time for mind to pull on shoes, slip into slippers. 

The first time I–felt– more than saw, the somersaulting shadow of wings, and was pulled to the window by the gravitational field of an invisible presence. Three perhaps four times this happened, over one afternoon and into the next. Then there he was. A young hawk perched on the wire closest to our home and lowest. An unusual bird placed in unusually close range. Those colors, those curves and angles enclosed in and enclosing such wild grace. A sense of young majesty, a presence aware of being within the radius of another’s awareness. 

A little over a year earlier a turkey vulture had alighted, on the wire opposite our living room window. A hulking black-shouldered, red-headed bird gazing deliberately into the heart of our home, while my mother served hot dosas to a guest. No this had not happened before, and has never happened since. And yes there is a story, but for another time perhaps.

And then last week, while making breakfast (oatmeal), I turned (or was turned,) abruptly from hot stove toward kitchen window and caught a fluttering handkerchief. Small, black and flying, falling, dancing. I recognize, without knowing how, the movements of familiar birds. I do not dissect the invisible warp and weft of their intricate weaving. I could not describe it to you even if I care to, but am glad for the quiet backdrop of their daily and dynamic craft. This pattern even peripherally caught, was unfamiliar. Less subtle, more demanding of audience. Snared I walked to the window searching for the bird behind the show. At first nothing but empty driveway and branches and sky– and then he materialized. 

An immediately likable bird of an immediately likable size. Charcoal-smudged body with a roguish, tousled head and such an unafraid, arrested quickness in his being. A purposeful sense of pause. “You’ve been seen,” I told him silently. Perhaps he was unconvinced, or perhaps he was simply being sociable. Either way when I stepped outside several minutes later, he flew past me and perching on nearby branch proceeded to sing a single note. So sweetly, single-mindedly, so persistently that I could not help but think he was telling me something. I noted then, his white breast, how it peaked crisply between his dark lapel feathers. How oddly formal he appeared, how like a bird in a tuxedo. A dapper bird who had remembered to dress for the occasion–but had forgotten to comb his hair. And all the while he sang his tail pumped, keeping time. He watched and sang as I watered the plants. Unfazed by my size, my species, my lack of song. I watched him watching me and wondered where he had come from, where he was going. Wondered who and what he was.

A search for mettlesome black bird with white breast brought him up immediately on my screen. A flycatcher — a Black Phoebe. A songbird, I am informed, that does well around humans and is known to sit on low perches in backyards and keep up a running series of chirps while scanning the horizon for edible insects. The most wonderful thing I learned about this bird is that the male of the species will show his mate possible nest sites by hovering in front of them for approximately ten seconds awaiting her ay or nay. She will make the final decision on where they nest. An arrangement that strikes me as eminently sensible on all fronts.

All morning I cannot shake the sense of his presence. Finally I take out my brushes, a paint set and begin. In London and New York passersby can get their portraits painted in a matter of minutes by gifted street artists. In the backyard of our little home, certain feathered individuals, unconcerned with quality or self-image can get theirs painted by a rapturous amateur, for a song. 

***

It does not have a name, and I do not know nearly enough give it one. The birds are privy to it though. This impulse that leaps my gaze to the window, this force that draws being forth and tangles my fibers with the pulsating beauty of this world, destabilizing strictly human concerns, re-centering perception.

***

“Hope” is the thing with feathers, said Dickinson, and perched it in the soul—where it–

“sings the tune without the words–

And never stops–at all–”

If I had to wager a guess I’d say she was privy to it too.

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Visitation

Sometimes it strikes me as curious. The many, seemingly disparate meanings certain words hold. Words like Swiss Army knives. Small enough to slip in your pocket and capable of unfolding in different ways, depending on whether you need to whittle a piece of birchwood, open a bottle or tighten a screw. This makes them convenient– but also at times when context is unclear– confusing. A Swiss Army knife on a camping trip is easier to understand for instance, than a Swiss Army knife in carry on luggage going through airport security.

Misunderstood Swiss Army knives are typically confiscated. Misunderstood words however, will typically continue to travel through the world unchecked, trailing bafflement, umbrage, heartbreak, hilarity or–fertile possibility in their wake. Unlike a misunderstood Swiss Army knife an imperfectly word can cause happy accidents, advantageous reactions– even poetry. Especially poetry.

Meaning more than one thing means carrying, at all times, the potential to be useful, problematic, poetic, or various combinations of the aforementioned. In some ways this is the precise definition of what it means to be a person.

***

In the dictionary the word ‘visitation’ has several meanings. Though they do not at first glance appear to be related to one another, they actually are. These meanings brush up against one another in inventive ways.

Visitation (noun)

 “an official visit by an important person especially to look at or inspect something

The appearance of a divine or supernatural being

a time before a dead person is buried when people may view the body

a special dispensation of divine favor or wrath

a severe trial 

access to a child granted especially to a parent who does not have custody

the visit of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth recounted in Luke and celebrated July 2 by a Christian feast”

***

Yesterday, after sunset, a visitation. Actually, two.

I stepped into our mudroom and startled a little cat sitting at the top of the staircase outside our front door. She darted down the steps. Then stood behind the trumpet vine bush at the base of the staircase, her head peeking around it so that she could still hold my gaze. We stared at each other silently for a few moments, then I called out to my husband to heat up some milk for her. I crouched down at the top of the staircase and began talking to her. Where did you come from sweet one? What do you want? Are you hungry you beauty? I began to walk towards her and she stepped cautiously out from her hiding place. Then rolled on her back and let out a plaintive miaow. A movement so trusting, and endearing it made me smile. If it was a movement calculated to win over hearts, then it was well played. 

When I placed the container of warm milk on the step below me, she stepped up to it on her ballerina paws with no hesitation. Began to drink, pausing every so often to look up at me again as if suddenly transfixed by what she saw. 

We stood at the top of the staircase, in our darkened mudroom watching her. She drank and my heart filled. 

Not long after she had vanished into the night, we looked out and saw a little fawn at the base of the staircase — a startled brown face in lamplight looking up at our startled brown faces in the window.

***

What if –we are each other’s visitation?

***


Forgetting

St. Kevin and the Blackbird 

by Seamus Heaney

And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labor and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

***

How achingly lovely is this poem? It’s based on an Irish legend nearly 1000 years old, that Heaney retells to perfection. The vivid imagery of the first section holds you hostage. You are captive in the cramped cell of this verse with its kneeling saint, its window and that single upturned palm. Then the arrival of the bird! Hard to read these lines and keep your hands from tingling. Such a precise description, that for a moment, it is the reader’s hand that holds the nesting bird. And it is the reader who has, with the arrival of this winged legend, been linked into “the network of eternal life” [what a magnificent phrase].  And then the birth of that breathtakingly generous commitment so quietly announced. “Until the young are hatched, and fledged and flown.” A softly stunning line that requires a moment to recover from. How thoughtful Heaney’s placement then, of that starry asterisk. A beat, in which to find the ground again.

And how masterfully the storyteller shifts the tone directly after. Lifting the curtain to tease out the truth that lurks beneath the mythical. Introducing the paradox of seeking out the real in the realm of the imagination. We must try to put ourselves in the skin of the saint. And doing this, are shown a fork in the road — does our inhabitation of the holy introduce our rickety mortality to the saint, or does it elevate us into his transcendent experience? Heaney gives us both possibilities to live. And how. He gives us the sore forearms and the suffering knees. He gives us too the numb lostness –the creep of the underearth. And we, in all our unsaintliness, know exactly what this feels like. Because while we may have never incubated blackbird’s eggs in the hollows of our palms, we can extrapolate. We know what it is to have pins-and-needles. “Is there distance in his head?” And again the poem makes a beautifully abrupt turn. From the physical to the metaphysical.

A question that places distance like an object as a possibility in someone’s head. And the beauty of it is that we know instinctively what that means. To feel an inner expanse that is not an attenuation [Remember St Augustine’s claim: time is the distension of the mind.] The spaciousness that does not stretch, that is one with timelessness and that can sometimes be stumbled into. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and being no saint he concluded the sentiment with “…were it not that I have bad dreams.” But Kevin’s dreams are unclouded. His heart mirrored undistorted in the river. His prayer untainted and transparent, “To labor and not to seek reward.” An aspiration that mirrors the pith of the Gita:”You are entitled to your labor, not to the fruit of your labor.” An aspiration that issues forth not from mind or lips but from the entirety of his being– and then those lovely, lovely last lines:

“For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”

And we, standing again in the skin of our own lives, full of mistakes and memories and self, we know, as the poet relies on us to know, what St. Kevin does not. That the river’s name, of course, is Love.

***

Heaney reading St. Kevin at the offices of his publishers, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

“[This poem is] based on a sense of doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing. And I think that a literary publishing house which continues to hold those values is in that domain of a self belief and faith and chosen values opted for and stood by. Publishing is to some extent still, and to a great extent here I think, a labor of love, and a matter of work for the right reason, and–even if you aren’t going to get any great monetary reward–to keep going.”

***


The Two-Year-Old’s Tantrum

There are signs. There are always signs. But it all happens so swiftly there is never time enough to avert the catastrophe or run for cover. First a small thundercloud descends on her brow. The horizon darkens with her eyes as a lower lip thrusts forward and the moment turns ominous. A wooden silence deepens briefly before being split by the axe of an unholy shriek. A torrent of unhinged rage and grief floods the moment.

And one has to admit, even if grudgingly, that the versatility and sheer energy of the performance is impressive. How one small being can produce such a convincing simulation of five banshees in an altercation is a mystery.

In the middle of your living room a tiny lightning rod for all the inarticulate sorrows and unnameable injustices of the world. A ritual enactment, that would be easier to appreciate if the sensorial experience were less discomfiting, less like listening to a smoke alarm with arms and legs that flail.

This one-act play always ends like it begins. Without logic or explanation. Peace and serenity show up at the doorstep unannounced. Like wandering minstrels. With bright songs on their lips, and nothing to forgive, or be forgiven for.


Commuter Dreams

A drunken stagger is perfectly acceptable when walking down the aisle of a moving train. I think this thought to myself while lurching gently towards the door, my station fast approaching, and just before my gaze snags, catches sharply (as stray wool of sweater on nail) on the scene of a middle-aged man whose snores grumble like waves, steadily over the shores of an open book.

I stop and stare, yes forgetting for a moment to maintain the courteous indifference train travelers exhibit to one another, observers of an unwritten code –“We shall not presume to be interested– no not even faintly—in one another.”

For I have been startled now into undeniable interest. By a man whose busy head is flopped forward in the rag doll abandon and recklessness of unintended sleep. I would give a great deal to know the hidden title of the book that prompted its reader into this public morning slumber.

He is attired in importance, in the pinstriped pajamas of the corporate world. A briefcase leans against his arm like a very tired teddy bear. In a moment the train will rattle to a stop and the scuffle of commuters coming and going will fill the air, will snatch the thin covers off this dreaming form and he will wake to the brief bewilderment of being who he is and where and when.

And glancing down at his book I wonder how much he will remember. Will the details of the plot be clear or blurred, an out-of-focus photo of a familiar place? Will he recognize all the characters and perceive the truth of their tangled motivations or will he use up a measure of suspicion and formality on them all over again?

The train stops, I do not wait to see his head lift, his eyes open, my feet carry me forward. I step off the train light as a falling leaf knowing suddenly, that we too drift, in and out of life with each passing moment, sleep and wake at nameless stations to find an open book cradled in our laps – the long-winded story without title that we started when the stars were children.

A  story whose brilliant and tender plot is concealed only by our human and endearing forgetfulness.


The Day the Deer Ate Our Rose Bush

Our friends brought us a rose bush –our first and only. They said they chose it because it spoke sweetly. And it did. (Not all roses do). We planted it in our fledgling garden. Dug a deep hole in a suitably sunlit corner, gently persuaded this beauty out of its pot, fragrant soil still clinging to its roots, placed it carefully in the ground. Then we proceeded to water it, with tender admiration and irrational optimism. Picture a rose bush, the size of a toddler, lush with emerald leaves, and studded with sunset blooms. Roses with rouged orange petals, brilliantly colored and just big enough to lose yourself in. Also fat buds swollen with gossip, teetering on the brink of gorgeous indiscretion. Some rose bushes are stand-offish, regal but removed. Ours was charming, unpretentious, easy to love.

It is relevant at this juncture, to remind you that we have deer in these hills. Herds that you will chance upon, poised prettily in driveways and front yards, sometimes even on sidewalks, like uncannily realistic garden statuary. They frequent our home with some regularity and are welcome here. I will look out the window and see them stepping delicately up the little path that leads to the tumbledown slope of our backyard. They arrive with a polite and expectant air, like customers walking into a restaurant where they’ve made a reservation.  “Party of five,” I will sometimes murmur to my husband. Almost I am tempted to greet them with a tray of water glasses, pass out menus for their perusal. But they do not need menus. Our backyard, with its towering cypress, it’s unkempt bottlebrush shrubs, it’s berry bushes, ivy covered fence and crumbling, uneven stone terraces, is their buffet. Sometimes they come when we are fast asleep in bed. A loud clattering will temporarily rouse us from our slumbers and then, “It’s just the deer,” one of us will say, and we will tumble back into dreamland, while our four-legged friends stroll across our wooden deck, towards the immovable feast of our aspiring garden.

Roses, we had been informed are a much sought-after delicacy in the Kingdom of Deer. To make your rose bush unassailable involves encasing it in fencing or netting. But there is something about these sensible approaches that is too cage-like for my liking. My taste in gardens runs towards the tangled and wild. I admire, but do not aspire to manicured lawns and neatly ordered grounds. I prefer gardens that are loosely choreographed, spontaneous. Gardens that lean towards the green edge of chaos. Looking for alternatives I turn to the wisdom of the internet. A quick search reveals that in this battle of wits between gardeners and deer, humans do not often emerge as victors. The preventative measures we have evolved, while wonderfully creative and occasionally even successful, are far from being reliably effective. But some have the saving grace of being entertaining. For instance, there is the Irish Spring technique which involves suspending bars of this cheerfully named soap from tree branches, and tying them onto stakes. There is also the Stinky Spray method which involves boiling a mixture of garlic cloves, cayenne pepper, dish soap, apple cider vinegar and spraying the resultant concoction over your garden plants (while being sure to stand up wind). Is it just me, or is it a trifle absurd, and also a little bit adorable, that as a species we have put a man on the moon, we have figured out how to break the sound barrier and are on the verge of popularizing self-driving cars, but when it comes to protecting flowers from deer raids, our most advanced response is stringing up bath soap, and mixing inconceivably horrid-smelling potions over the kitchen stove?

Not being drawn to the aesthetic of soap bars a-dangling in the backyard, I went the olfactory assault route. I boiled up an unthinkably awful smelling concoction, out of a series of individually benign ingredients. In combination they resulted in a far from aromatic brew that managed to waft its way into every nook and cranny of our small home, prompting us to hastily open all the windows and depart for a very long walk — but only after I had filled a spray bottle and liberally sprayed our ethereal rose bush with this anything-but-ethereal potpourri of Awfulness. As we propelled ourselves speedily away from the garden we wondered whether our strategy was going to prove over-effective, keeping not just deer at bay, but any and all creatures possessed of a nose. Ourselves included.

A day went by, then two, and three, and our ornamental garden shrub stretched new leaves into the sun, opened the tight flushed fists of its buds into ridiculously generous blooms. The deer were nowhere to be seen and I rejoiced at the sage wisdom of the internet that had so sagely been applied. Feeling self-congratulatory and complacent I neglected to respray the bush at the end of a week, figuring the deer would have no way of knowing if I were to delay by a day. I underestimated their vigilance. The next morning I gazed out our window and wondered why the rose bush looked so much smaller than it had the last evening. And why there were so many stubby little branches sticking out in all directions, devoid of any leaves, and why were there only two roses left when yesterday there had been almost a dozen. It took a full minute for me to comprehend the obvious. The deer had visited. But why I wondered had they left the two roses? Perhaps as a gesture of goodwill, an attempt at compromise. “We take the bush, you take these two perfect flowers.” All is fair in love and war and gardening. I sprayed the bush with less conviction than I had the previous week. My faith in its powers, like the rose bush itself, sadly diminished. That night a rustling sound from the garden roused me from slumber. I flicked on the garden light and peered through the slats of our blinds, straight into the delicate face of a young deer with her mouth full of roses.

As a child I would sometimes save up the last bite of chocolate, the last sweet in the jar. For later. I would say to myself. And through the course of the day I carried knowledge of the stored-treat, like a shiny pebble in my pocket. To be fingered surreptitiously at various intervals, releasing the thrill of anticipation. Every event in childhood is experienced more than once. There is the event itself and then the innumerable times it is lived prospectively. And so perhaps it is with other creatures as well. I imagine the young deer in our garden the previous night. I do not think it is unlikely that this train of thought played itself out in her sleek head:  ‘Today I will eat all but two of these delicious rose custards. Tomorrow I will come back when the moon is full and the birds fast asleep, and I will eat these last two delicacies with unhurried grace, and strong-jawed determination.

To have a rose bush in your garden is a sweetly scented gift. But it is also, and this fact may surprise you, a gift, to find in your garden, a deer, haloed by moonlight, gazing at you with soft, attentive eyes, as she thoughtfully partakes of the very last of the last of your roses. Velvet orange petals, lush green leaves, woody stems, crimson thorns all pulled into the fearless cavern of her mouth. An appetite for life that strikes you as remarkable, and unequivocally deserving of all your pretty roses. Yes every last one.

And perhaps we can all learn to be such unflinching connoisseurs. Perhaps we too will someday stand, in a sliver of moonlight, feasting on the jeweled and thorny gifts of our world.