To love that well

Drema Gaye Spencer

Drema Gaye Spencer. Her first name means “reverie,” or dream. Her middle name, “merry, lighthearted.” Her surname is Old English for “guardian,” “object of awe,” “dispenser of provisions.”

She stands on the precipice between childhood and womanhood, facing the camera directly, her hooded eyes steady and confident. She does not know it yet, but she will be like the mountains framing her background, where she and her seven siblings loved to run, calling to each other across the distance, teasing, playing jokes, laughing with wild abandon at their own mischievous humor. As intense pressure, heat, and time formed the ancient Appalachian coalfields, so the course of her life would forge an internal fuel, the deep, burning drive to keep going under the weight of crushing adversity.

It’s the early 1940s. World War II is in full swing; her three brothers have enlisted in the Navy. The family has survived the Great Depression in the place it struck the hardest, where the economy has always been precarious. When she arrived with the January snows of 1926, her coal miner father hadn’t had steady work in a year due to frequent safety shutdowns; the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training references nearly 700 fatalities for 1925.

She’s just a teenager with a head full of dreams for the future.

Maybe she could teach English literature and composition—What fun that would be! Maybe I’ll even visit England one day.

Innately musical, singing harmony with her sisters in church, she also harbors aspirations for the stage. She knows she has true dramatic and comic talent, which, along with her natural beauty, lands her roles in high school plays. Her blue eyes sparkle: Well, I AM a good actress. Very good. Eventually, of course, I’ll get married and have children. I do want children . . . Sometimes she can almost see their little faces, these someday-children. I hope one’s a boy with brown eyes.

So she looks at the camera and smiles, the mountain beneath her feet, her childhood behind her and her whole future lying ahead.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

-William Butler Yeats

The reality is that just a few years after this photo was made, she married a man who would be killed in a mining accident, leaving her with a toddler and a baby at twenty-three.

Several years afterward, she married a widower, an Army man with two older children. Eventually they had a boy and a girl together.

Her boy with brown eyes.

When her husband completed tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, she cared for the six children by herself.

When the brown-eyed boy was four, he developed acute bronchitis, necessitating an emergency tracheotomy. His temperature spiked to 107 after surgery. The nurses packed the child in ice. The hospital doctors told her that her little son might not make it. She sent for his father, away at Army summer camp; a police escort was dispatched to meet him at the airport. As the boy drifted in and out of consciousness, she sat by his oxygen tent, praying, weeping.

The boy survived.

She wrote him a letter on the inside back cover of a book of Bible stories.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

She could never speak of the ordeal without tears.

Staggering losses were yet to come.

When the brown-eyed boy was twelve and his sister nine, and all the others grown and on their own, her Army man died suddenly, instantly, with a heart attack.

Widowed twice—each time with a boy and girl at home to care for.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

-I Corinthians 13:7

When her sobbing son asked, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” she wrapped him in her arms.

“God will. And I will.”

And she did.

Survival ran in her veins like coal beds through the Appalachians. She dug deep within herself, tapping into the hardy DNA passed down by her ancestors, into the wellspring of her faith, into the fierce love for her children, and carried on. When her son was consumed with fear of something happening to her, she said:

“I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.”

For the next ten years, she poured herself into her children and her home.

Still she laughed. Still she sang. She called her brothers and sisters, who still teased each other with jokes old and new. She gardened. She arranged flowers. She organized a women’s political group, taught Sunday School, went to her son’s basketball games all through high school.

She managed, and managed well.

When her son said he found the girl he wanted to marry, she gave him her blessing and the diamond engagement ring that his father, the Army man, had given her.

The brown-eyed boy—now the man—gave the ring to me on my twentieth birthday, long, long ago.

For the boy who lived (apologies, J.K. Rowling) is my husband; the woman in the photograph is my mother-in-law.

When I came to know her, I first admired her elegant, impeccably-kept house, which she was forever redecorating. And the food, the food, oh, the food! Her table always looked like something from Southern Living, down to the coordinating linen napkins and rings. Her iced tea was always blissfully sweet and there must always, always be lemon slices with it. I came to appreciate her ever-present wit, her spunky humor, her fashionable attire. Being well-put together was a priority to her. I browsed her bookcases on every visit, knowing she’d have a new bestseller for me to devour. I was instantly at home in her home.

When she was sixty years old, a third man proposed to her. She hesitated. “I’ve buried two husbands. I don’t want to bury a third.”

But he was a good man; she took a chance on him. For the next three decades, they celebrated the coming of grandchildren and the first great-grandchildren.

Three years ago, she was widowed for the third time.

There were no children at home to care for now.

She was, for the first time in her nine decades, alone.

With housekeeping being too much for her, it was time to go to the home of one of the children or to assisted living.

And her genes, or her Appalachian roots, or the rising dementia—or all three—kicked into overdrive.

She would not go.

The house had become her whole identity. It was where she’d provided for the last of her children. It symbolized her strength, her ability to survive. This was her mountain; she would not be moved. She dug in her heels. Deep.

Until the stroke.

After surgery, when her family was allowed to see her in intensive care, she greeted us with a smile. “I can’t believe I’ve had a stroke! Can you believe it?” she said, as if she were sitting in the den at home, making everyday conversation, even as the nurses watched her monitors. Blue eyes sparkling as bright as ever, she reached out her warm hand to grasp mine. “Hey, you’ve got a birthday coming up. We’ll have to celebrate.”

I held her hand, marveling.

She rebounded for a short while, working hard at her rehab, thinking she could go back home. She couldn’t. She went into a nursing home instead, for, as the weeks wore on, her strength waned.

So did her mind.

The one thing that waxed bright and hot was her fighting spirit. She grew more determined to go home, even as she grew weaker, less hungry, more and more tired.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

She raged. She burned within like a coal seam fire, until her energy was spent at last.

Lying in her nursing home bed, she stood on the mountains again, seeing her brothers and sisters in the distance. She called their names over and over—only the ones who’d already died. She carried on conversations with them.

“I can’t go on up,” she told these siblings that the rest of us couldn’t see. “Not just yet.”

She knew us, called us by name when we last gathered with her, at Thanksgiving. Within the hour, she couldn’t recall who we were, or why we were there.

Still she sang.

There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come

No more clouds in the sky

No more tears to dim the eye

All is peace forevermore

On that happy golden shore

What a day, glorious day, that will be . . . .

“My throat hurts,” she said. “I can’t sing any more.”

“It’s okay,” said her children. “You don’t have to.”

They moistened her lips and mouth with water.

And still she sang.

If we never meet again this side of heaven

I will meet you on that beautiful shore.

And then she sang no more.

She rested a while, then, with her eyes closed, turned her face toward her brown-eyed son, my husband.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“North Carolina,” he replied, smiling through his tears.

“Oh, my son lives there,” she said.

“Yes. I am your son.”

She opened her eyes the tiniest slit. “Well. You’re all grown up.”

It was the last thing she said to him.

I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.

A few days later, my husband, his younger sister, and my son, the youngest grandchild, sat by her bedside all morning, watching her labored breaths. Finally they told her, “We’re going to go eat lunch, Mom, but we’ll be right back.”

The minute they finished eating, the nurses called. “The time is near.”

They came. They took her hands.

She took two labored breaths, and was gone.

She’d waited for them to have their lunch. To the very last, making sure her children had what they needed.

She never taught school.

She was never an actress of renown.

She never made it to England.

She lived one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever known.

The diamond on my finger shines as bright as it ever did; I can only hope that a portion of her strength, her courage, her wisdom has passed on to me along with it.

I look at her teenage photo, contemplating all that she will endure.

All that she did endure, and need endure no more.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

She loved as deep, as far, as long as she possibly could, with every ounce of her being. That is what I will remember most, her fierce, fierce love. It burns on, and on, and on, bright and warm, forevermore.

Belonging

Goose in flight

Canada Goose in flight. Richard HurdCC BY

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – 

over and over announcing your place 

in the family of things.

-from “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver

During a summer workshop, I read Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” and was charged with interpreting what it mean to me in a quick write.

I wrote:

No regrets. Life goes on. Heading home again – from wherever you are. This is a poem of belonging, of recognizing that we all have despairs, losses, soul-aches. We have to keep living, keep trusting life, keep reaching for it, because it reaches for us. Life calls to us as the geese call to one another. Reform – fly in formation. Geese mate for life – they keep going on. They know their places. We must know ours, must find ours, must believe in ours, even if we have never seen it, recognized it, known it existed at all – we have a place of belonging, for all things are connected with meaning, and have meaning. Home may not be home in the sense we know it. Home may be somewhere else – but we all have the homing device inside us. We must keep flying, trusting.  

I put that particular notebook away. I didn’t think about my interpretation again until I prepared to facilitate a recent “writing studio” workshop for teachers, touching on the power of poetry, abiding images, the interconnection of body, mind, heart, and spirit. I got the notebook out and took it with me. Not until I read my words aloud, months after the writing, did this realization come to mind – one so obvious that I can’t believe it didn’t come before.

My father loved Canada geese. I didn’t know this until the last years of his life and even now I do not know why he was so fond of them. On our last Christmas, I gave him two Canada geese lawn ornaments for his front yard (his yard was a great source of pride to him, as I wrote in Fresh-cut grass).  Daddy was delighted; his face lit up at the sight of the goose statues. He set them on the lawn in the shade of the maple tree, where they stood, elegant and life-like, until his sudden, too-soon death.

Many things are a painful blur about those days, but on the re-reading of my interpretation of “Wild Geese,” a stark image returned to me: Walking behind my father’s uniformed, white-gloved pallbearers through the veteran’s cemetery, past a wide field to my right where, standing at attention, was flock of Canada geese, silently watching my father’s casket go by.

Not that they were paying homage, as much as my fanciful imagination would have me believe. The geese were likely keeping wary eyes on this odd processional of invaders so near their space.

Geese, I know, represent fidelity, valor, protection, navigation – returning home – among other things. I treasure their presence and their symbolism at my father’s funeral.

For, with my father gone, there would be no heading to my childhood home again. It marked the end of that family of things.

But I was grown, with children of my own. I had another home, another place of belonging.  Life goes on, I’d written after reading of Oliver’s wild geese. This is a poem of belonging, of recognizing that we all have despairs, losses, soul-aches.

It occurs to me now that Oliver’s poem is about identity.

Whatever our losses, our lot in life, there is a place of belonging. A place of protection, nourishment, growth, and being. However harsh life may be, this place calls to us. It’s up to us to hear and respond.

Home may not be home in the sense we know it. Home may be somewhere else – but we all have the homing device inside us. 

So the question is: What is that home, that place of belonging, where it is safe to be who you truly are? For some, it’s family. Or one’s life’s work. Or a community of faith, believing in an eternal home yet to come.

Others also find it in a group of like-minded people – artists, writers.

I find my place in all of these.

Wife, mother. Teacher, coach. Christian.

Writer.

Each my identity, each my gift.

Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Listen. Know who you are. Where you’ve come from, where you’re going. Come into your place in the family of things.

My father’s house was in the city; my home now is in the country. Early in the morning, as the sun rises over the vast field at the end of my lane, geese fly, calling to one another in their discordant, raspy voices. I can hear them long before I see them. They fade in louder and louder as they come near. If I stand outside as they fly over, I hear the silken sweep of their wings.  I can hear them, calling and calling, even when they’re gone, when I see them no more.

The family of things – it is there, always, even if we cannot see it, even when we see it no more.

So is the belonging. Wherever else I find my place, I’m still a daughter, a granddaughter, the living remnant of a family of things.

From my teacher-place, I reflect on how we must create a sense of belonging for the students, encouraging and guiding them to find their places in the family of things.

The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever has gone before: Trust. Recognize. Reach. Open your wings, stretch them as far as they’ll go.

Fly on.

Geese in field
Kanadagås / Canada Goose. Stefan BerndtssonCC BY

 

Parodial school

School

School. vazovskyCC BY-SA

Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.

– Lois Lowry, The Giver

 

They come to us just as they are.

That’s a good thing. Educators are to value student diversity, to see it as a gift in the classroom community – in fact, a teacher can be evaluated on this.

For children, we know, are not standardized.

They are living portfolios of experiences, abilities, thoughts, feelings, perspectives. They are unfinished stories, works in progress, masterpieces in the making.

Some know several languages. That’s diversity – a gift.

This doesn’t always show on a fluency assessment.

Some are born storytellers, song composers on the fly, wordsmiths extraordinaire, but only when speaking – not always when reading or writing.

Data points can’t capture innate artistry.

Some are engaged in tough battles, have greater mountains to climb – these kids aren’t from houses covered with vines who will go everywhere in two straight lines – yet there’s a nobility within them, born of courage, of gaining hard-won ground, more so than any knight of legendary lore.

Many of these are innovators. Because they have to be. The bulk of their energy goes not into conforming, but into coping.

Their diversity might blow the top off the charts while their test scores might lie at the other end of the spectrum. Growth is difficult to measure in a constant state of change.

So, one cannot, in the same breath, value diversity and mandate standardization. To celebrate Not-Sameness, yet to penalize schools and teachers for not attaining Sameness – what words are there for this dichotomy?

Paradox? Oxymoron? Mixed messages?

Bizarro World?

Parodial school.

That students have a right to a quality education is an unequivocal point. That the absence of order and structure invites chaos is understood. Conformity, however, doesn’t beget excellence; inspiration does.

This is the hinge on which the entire portal hangs.

For what is true for students is also true for teachers.

As a non-traditional age undergraduate, I encountered The Giver for the first time as assigned reading in a course. I subsequently wrote an essay on its imagery that the professor believed could be entered in the university’s research and creative achievement competition. At this event, I walked hallways lined with exhibitions from the medical and engineering fields, until a university official greeted me: “Ah yes, you’re representing the Humanities Department.”

“No sir,” I replied, shaking his proffered hand. “I’m representing Education.”

His expression was clearly perplexed. “We hardly ever get anyone from Education here.”

This, at a celebration of research and creative achievement.

My question remains: Why, in the unlimited universe, not?

The answer, I suspect, is that teachers don’t realize they have that power.

We must, in turn, keep a wise perspective of the things over which we’re gaining control and those we are relinquishing – squelching – in the process.

In the hearts of students as well as in their teachers’. 

 

Harry Potter and the Banned Books

Anthropologists, historians of religion, and professors of literature will all tell you that the rule in traditional cultures, and even in cultures such as ours, is that story, in whatever form, is meant to instruct and change us.

-John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It’s been appearing on banned book lists for as long, regularly condemned for promoting witchcraft and satanism. I knew of the controversy long before I read the series – to be honest, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a fifth-grade classroom for the first time about fifteen years ago, read the first couple of pages, and wasn’t especially gripped either way. Not until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was about to be released did I take the real plunge. I had attended a conference with a group of children’s lit MFA candidates, who described the coming of the final book and their anticipation of it with eyes gleaming like those of beatified saints:

“I ordered it and when it’s delivered, I am going to lock myself in the bedroom – I told my family not to bother me, I am going to be reading this book, and I need to be left alone.”

I swear I saw tears shimmering in their wide eyes.

So, with a just month to go before the release date, I read all six preceding books, even went to Barnes and Noble to get my own copy of Deathly Hallows at midnight on the release date.

In short: The books are magical, all right, but not in the sense of spells, wands, sorcery. These appear in the books but aren’t the real draw, are not what the books are really about. The draw – the thing that puts the gleam in the diehard fan’s eye – is caring about the characters, the need to know what’s going to happen to them. The age-old theme of good versus evil, making choices to preserve life or destroy it. The big umbrella from which the stories hang is love – think of why Voldemort really cannot win in the end.

What we take away from the Potter books is that as long as as there is love, there’s hope. A young boy with a lot of hard knocks in his early life is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. He’s successful, and because he is, in his not-exactly-perfect-hero example, we know we can be, too. After all, he’s just a child.

The books don’t entice children to practice magic; they entice readers to be their better selves, to strive, to overcome darkness within and without.

I was an avid reader ever since I can remember. Every summer when I stayed with my grandmother in the far, coastal reaches of North Carolina, she took me to the tiny, dusty county library. I checked out stacks of books, more than I could carry by myself – Grandma had to help. One year I saw a title that compelled me. I had heard about the movie,  that people at my church said it was really bad; I knew people were afraid of it. Naturally, it piqued my interest. I put the book in my stack and, wonder of wonders, Grandma didn’t notice, or I surely wouldn’t have been allowed to have it.

That book was The Exorcist.

It was well beyond my developmental level, to say the least, and it was the first cover I opened when I got back to Grandma’s house. After maybe four minutes of attempting to decode words with multisyllabic chunking, before I even knew that was a real strategy, I was horrified by the images I could and did glean. I closed the cover and hid the book from my sight, fervently wishing I could just leave it outside until the return trip to the library.

I was maybe ten years old.

What I learned at that young age is that you have to be your own judge.

This is something that Harry does exceedingly well.

Every book that we read changes us; we take away some learning, some new thinking, some depth of emotion. Agreeing or disagreeing with the content, our given tastes in that regard, are not primary considerations – our freedom to decide is. We must be careful of what we are advocating – for, if a book containing stories of magic, sorcery, and evil acts should be banned, then that includes the Bible itself.

 

 

 

Almost

It’s always there,

the ghost of Almost.

What might have been

but was not.

What should be

and isn’t.

Almost – ever how illusory, how ethereal

all but ephemeral –

is a penumbra bleeding from yesterday

into today,

a pulsing presence,

a ponderous weight,

despite its nonexistence.

A walking shadow,

the thief of Now

and its fullness,

the vacuum of Tomorrow

and all its possibility.

Inversion,

implosion.

Just images

without substance,

yet the mass of the universe

compacted

into one knot of aching.

That is the price

of living

with the pretty picture, 

the insatiably hungry, ever-gnawing

all-consuming 

ghost of Almost.

When the notion of Almost first came to me recently, it was about romantic relationships that didn’t work out.  Witnessing the death of the dream, how it takes its toll on the ones who wanted, and tried, to make it work. Broken promises, shattered hopes. It’s easy to cling to the idea of What Might Have Been, when it has been yanked away, leaving a gaping hole in a painful reality.

Then Almost beckoned me with its wispy finger: “Come in — come in, and get to know me better!”

(Before I go any further: Yes, I am borrowing that quote – thank you, Charles Dickens and the Ghost of Christmas Present, and yes, I borrowed “walking shadow.” Honestly, Mr. Shakespeare, it walked in of its own accord).

The ghost of Almost encompasses dysfunction, too. It’s the emissary of unraveling families, friendships. Within Almost are many shades of loss, of varying depths and proportions, all of which can overshadow daily life.

The game almost won.

The job almost attained.

The money almost saved.

The addict almost cured.

The temper almost controlled.

Almosts can go on and on.

Inevitably followed by “I should have … I should have …”

We have some choice, some power in some of those Almosts; in others, none at all. We cannot think for others,  cannot control their actions, decisions, feelings – only our own. Whether the ghost of Almost materializes because we throw the door wide open for it, or it arrives, unbidden, unwelcome, unwanted, through the choices of others, it wants to destroy What Can Still Be.

If we let it.

The only exorcism: See your Almost for what it really is. And release it, for it stays only if you keep hanging on to it. Decide that it will not devour your now, or your tomorrow, any longer. Seek the healing path over the haunted one.

A priceless quote from a friend of mine: “Don’t should on yourself.” No more dwelling on on what you should have done or what should have been. Move forward, one deliberate step at a time, one moment at a time, in wisdom  – for beyond Almost’s shadow, the sun still shines.

Be ready to walk in it.

 

 

I loved you at your darkest

At your darkest

August. Days of sweltering, snaky heat. Yet he donned a black tuxedo with a black-and-silver striped ascot and got to the church on time. 

In a back room, her bouquet of pink roses dripped on the front of her white gown, creating panic amongst the bridesmaids, but it didn’t stain. 

The morning’s thunderstorm cleared and the sun was shining for all it was worth when the ceremony began at 1:00. 

At 1:10 the preacher pronounced them husband and wife.

When they left the church hand-in-hand, the summer day was blinding – they shielded their eyes and made a run for it.

We’ve been running ever since, really.

For over three decades now. (I was a child bride. Well, sorta.)

As we mark another anniversary this week, I consider one of my favorite gifts from him, a bracelet he bought a couple of summers ago. We were at the beach for a few days, trying to get away from the daily demands, the stresses and strains – a lot was going on in life at the time. We went into a shop, and I saw it –  a band with a metal plate reading I loved you at your darkest.

It pierced my heart, those words. The incredible forgiving, trusting, reliable power of them. The surety.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

I nodded, for I didn’t trust my voice at the moment.

And so he bought it. I wore it out into the brilliant August afternoon, holding tight to his hand.

We’ve come through many darknesses – losses of people we loved, various setbacks, our own inner dark sides. Seeing each other at our worst.

But we’ve also seen the best in each other.

Growing older means acknowledging that there are darknesses yet to come – watching his mother’s decline with dementia is a daily reminder. We will not always be as we were, as we are now. Our summer is brief.

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, wrote Robert Browning.

It’s the togetherness, the commitment, the laughter at silly stuff, the embrace in the hardest moments, that drive the darkness away. The sacrifices. The faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow, and with it, hope. Abiding gratitude for every day.

It’s never the darkness that we carry with us anyway. It’s the knowledge that we walked through it together, to come out on the other side. Our minds, our hearts hold to what is good, what is bright. It propels us onward. Makes the entire journey worthwhile.

Especially when the journey almost wasn’t.

On the evening of our first date, I called to tell him I couldn’t go. I had a raging fever; I was being admitted to the hospital for tests.

“I am sorry,” I said into the phone, tears stinging my eyes. “Please don’t give up on me.”

“I won’t ever give up on you,” said his voice, strong and sure.

He never has.

I loved you at your darkest.

I did, I do, I always will.

Thank you.

 

Trapped

Hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird tongue. Pete MarkhamCC BY-SA

I hear it as soon as I step into the garage – a small flapping sound. I stop, trying to locate it – there’s also an accompanying sort of squeak. Mouse-like. I brace myself – I’ve found mice in here before, as well as a small copperhead snake that fortunately got away from me faster than I could get away from it. But mice and snakes don’t make flapping noises. This is the sound of little wings beating.

Desperately.

In a corner, beneath a window, I find the source. A hummingbird. It’s clearly in trouble. Not until I pick it up – almost weightless, just a quivering sensation in the palm of my hand – can I see why.  A bit of cobweb is stuck to its wings and wrapped in its feet. The hummingbird must have flown into it or picked an unfortunate place to perch. Once in the sticky thread, it was rendered helpless, unable to fly or free itself. How it got inside the garage is another question. 

This bird, utterly tiny, trembles in my hand. Its iridescent jewel-tone feathers glimmer like soap bubbles in the sun. I see its heart beating rather than actually feeling it. The bird’s eyes are bright, alert. How long has it been trapped like this? How much energy has it spent trying to rid itself of this confining cobweb?  The sound of its wings beating furiously and its cries of distress are testimony to the fierceness with which it tried.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I say in my most soothing voice, although I know my presence alone must be terrifying. “Be still, now.”

I pull the gossamer thread from the tiny, clenched toes, from around the wings where it’s loosely draped. The wings beat now with renewed zeal, as with vibrant hope or celebration. The hummingbird is suddenly airborne. I don’t even see it happen, it’s so quick. I run to the garage door, fling it open, and my little bird zips through like a miniscule fighter plane on a mission, into the wild blue yonder.

I watch it go, and my spirit soars with it.

I remembered the hummingbird this morning, when I heard softer wings beating in my garage, this time a big yellow-and-black butterfly (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail), trying to get out of a window. I caught him, too, and set him free outside.

It triggered the hummingbird memory, and got me thinking about being trapped. How hard it is to free ourselves of those things that hold us back, how they stick to us like a cobweb to a hummingbird’s wings. Past experiences, loss, failures, our own choices or choices of others, pain, regret – they feel more like chains. Burdens that keep us from living fully, maybe even from trusting life again, as that sometimes feels huge and potentially dangerous.

I think of things we desperately want to accomplish and the hindrances, the things that bind us, keeping us from moving toward those goals. The hummingbird fought to be free, in order to live – that was its goal, staying alive.

Surely it’s the teacher in me that suddenly thinks of Frederick Douglass. Reading his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave  for the first time in college, I was struck by his desperate desire to read and write. As a child he befriended little white boys in his community to get them, bit by bit, to teach him how to read – in a time when it was forbidden to do so. Douglass fought hard and long to stay alive, to have a better life than the one prescribed for him; with the help of others along the way, he escaped the bonds of illiteracy and slavery. A brilliant man of words and influence.

All of this comes to me, on hearing wings beating in distress. Matthew Arnold wrote of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” We do not have to remain trapped, ineffectual. Our better selves, our better angels, would recognize those of others when their beating wings, their beating hearts, are caught in a void. It’s within our sphere of influence, within the parameters of our power, to help find the way out; in so doing, our own do not beat in vain.

Mythical morn

Iceland beach

Sea stacks (Reynisdrangar) and black sand beach,  Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland

The breaking of the wave cannot explain the whole sea. – Vladimir Nabokov

My older son toured Iceland this week, capturing his own abiding images of the exotic landscape.

We struggled to find adequate words for encapsulating the stunning scenery.

Desolate. Windswept. Wistful. These drifted in and out of my thoughts when viewing the photos, although they were a shade off, a tad too dark, didn’t have the exact right feel, weren’t sufficient. Uncaptured words, like elusive, shadowy birds, circled round my mind, never quite touching down.

It’s like being on another planet, my son texted.

Ethereal, I texted back, almost happy with that word, as it’s one I love and it almost fit.

It’s mythical. 

My son nailed it.

He was, after all, the one there taking it all in.

Land of legend and lore, glaciers and volcanoes, sharp contrasts and starkness, sparse, picturesque villages, moody skies and morning mists, Iceland is mythical. Not in the sense of Avalon and Atlantis, for one can actually stand at the volcano’s edge or scoop up handfuls of the black sand at the beach, really tiny pebbles of basalt. The whipping wind, the rocky coast, the crashing waves – the Vikings would recognize these still.

It looks like something out of Tolkien or the Chronicles of Narnia, said my son.

Experiencing Iceland vicariously, I did what I always do when I wonder about things – I looked them up (until this moment, I hadn’t thought that looking things up might count as a hobby; I am saying it’s mine, the next time I’m asked). There in the Internet’s vast sea of words, the facts have as magnetic a pull as the legends.

On the southern tip of Iceland, where my son stood on the black sand looking out at the craggy basalt sea stacks, the ocean is unimpeded all the way to Antarctica – there is no land mass in between. Hence the Atlantic rollers – long, powerful waves – can attack this shore with ferocity. I envision the sea drawing itself back as far as it wants, like a pitcher winding up for a fastball. Treacherous, even deadly (local legend features sea trolls and shipwrecks), there’s yet something lyrical, spiritual, about the wild freedom of the ocean at this point on the globe.

The Earth is mostly water; we are mostly water. 71% of Earth is covered by water; there’s 73% water in the human brain and heart. The ocean’s inspirational pull on us may be that simple – like recognizing like. We see the beauty and the power of the sea and something stirs deep within us – humans have waxed poetic about the ocean from time immemorial.

The thing that draws me most about this particular spot, the fascinating black beach at the village of Vik on the southernmost tip of Iceland, is knowing the ocean is unhindered here, from the shore at the uppermost part of the world to the lowest. The vast freedom, the power. The creative force. It draws me as a writer, as a teacher, as a human. That we are capable of great destruction is an understatement – but that’s not where I am going. From our entry into the world to our exit, there’s not a time we aren’t hindered by obstacles, both physical or metaphysical, taking their tolls on our bodies, minds, hearts, spirits. It’s astonishing how we are inspired to carry on, unfathomable how the smallest of things can be the source of willing ourselves onward – we flow over, around, through what would hold us back, finding peace despite what looms, ever how great, in our paths. As with the ocean, humankind has waxed pretty eloquently, deeply, about trouble, trials and pain. It’s a shared experience; none of us is unmarked. The difference is how we make our way, individually.

To be truly unleashed and still live seems an impossibility, so I ponder the power of unhindered inspiration – the indomitable force that would be. What heights, what depths, what creativity. Ultimate constructive power, unlimited possibility.

If such energy were harnessable . . . well, that’s the stuff superheroes and sagas are made of.

I tap into it as much as I am able, and let it flow on – one grateful conduit of ideas, images, and meaning, in my little part of the boundless, surging sea.

Iceland waterfall

Skógafoss, a waterfall in southern Iceland at the former coastline.

Note: Prior to writing this post, I had been toying with a piece about an enchanting encounter on a beach much closer to home. The titles of these posts are deliberate plays on one another, attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mystical morning.

In-between places

Gloomy forest

Gloomy forest. gorchakov.artemCC BY

I read the final page and close the cover. The idea of being separated from someone you love intensely, whether by distance, time, or circumstances, comes with a stab so sharp that it almost isn’t bearable.

Never mind that The Time Traveler’s Wife is fiction. The frequent separation of Claire and Henry, especially their final one, is crafted with this piercing truth, the longing for the “in-between” period to be over so that the characters can be together again. Sometimes the interim lasted for years.

While Claire and Henry usually had the advantage of knowing the duration of their separations thanks to his time traveling, the rest of us don’t get such clear glimpses of the future. We have to endure the various in-between stages of our lives, not knowing how long they’ll last, not being able to speed up time, not knowing the outcome, often having little or no control.  These in-between places are often laced with deep aching, a sadness and desperation at being apart from someone we  love. Existence is as flat and barren as a desert. The emptiness is huge, frightening; we want to rid ourselves of it before it consumes us. The scope of this in-between-ness is too much for us. The loss cannot be dealt with as a whole but only lived through in chunks  – a day, maybe just an hour, at a time.

There are in-between places other than those of relationships. The loss of a job, long illnesses, hardships, disasters – all can be dark places that sap our strength, sometimes with no foreseeable guarantees that all will end well. Living in these situations is like navigating a dark, unfamiliar forest. Not knowing which way is the shortest or best way out, we often go in pointless circles without realizing it.

I recall an in-between place that’s quite different. It’s remained in my mind since I was a child, on my first reading of The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s called The Wood Between the Worlds.

In the attempt to move from our current world to another by wearing magic rings, two children land in a sort of “connector” place. Here’s how C.S. Lewis describes it:

It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing . . . a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum-cake.” 

Digory discovers that he’s not frightened, excited, or curious. He’s forgetting why he’s there and what he knew of his own life, even his mother, who’s dying.

If anyone had asked him: “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterwards, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”

Not the sort of place where things happen, but things go on growing around us while we are numb, sleepy. Who among us hasn’t experienced this?

Digory has an epiphany nevertheless – he tells his companion, Polly:

That’s why it’s so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk , and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere!

Digory is right. The rest of the book deals with the results of his and Polly’s choices, both wise and foolish, but suffice it to say that they get out of The Wood Between the Worlds to witness the birth of a brand-new world.

Narnia.

Here’s another illustration, not out of fantasy.

My family once decided to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston by train. There was a problem with the train at the first segment of the trip – it had to be made by bus. Arriving at a different station, we boarded the train at last.

What we didn’t realize is that the train would stop at every major station on the East Coast even when no one was getting off or boarding. Long into the night we rode, stopping in deserted stations, sometimes for an hour or more. Bleary, exhausted, regretting our choice of transportation, we wondered how long this train would sit in this place where nothing was happening, and why.

I fell asleep.

The first light of dawn woke me. I looked through the train window at gray nothingness to see a shoreline slowly materializing. After having come through the unsightly backsides of major cities for most of the trip, this was unexpected. The sky turned pink, the sea rose-gold and sparkling, with the rising of the sun.

It was breathtaking, one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.

After nineteen (eternal) hours on the train, we arrived in Boston.

The trip home was longer, as another train’s battery died and our train had to deliver a new one to them.

The point is that while the in-between places are static, and we often arrive in them for indeterminate stretches of time, they do serve a purpose. We can rage at the nothingness there, fervently railing at the passing of time, or sink into numb paralysis for the duration. Or we can see the in-between places as connectors, the temporary segue from one phase of our lives to another. Away from the energy, the hustle and bustle of life in this world, the in-between place may be one of needed rest, one of learning, reevaluating, recharging, restoring, until the path becomes clear and we can move on with living where the action is.

The next destination may not look like what we imagined.

It could, in fact, be far more glorious than we ever dared to hope.

Reflect: What in-between places have you experienced in life? What stories can you tell about enduring and getting through to the other side? If you are in an in-between place now – strength to you. It is temporary.  Reorient yourself; think, and begin preparing for what is waiting for you just ahead – be ready to meet it.

And write!

Song of invisibility

I sit straight up in bed. “Oh dear.”

My husband jumps: “What’s wrong?”

My brain can’t form thoughts yet. I was dreaming about . . . something. Whatever it was has already melted away.

He repeats: “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I am – startled.”

My husband sighs, turns over, goes back to sleep.

I can’t. I lie there with my heart pounding.

I’ll write for a while, I decide.

The predawn house is dark but for a nightlight in the hallway. I creep around, wraith-like, to avoid waking the three sleeping dogs. Heading toward the kitchen, I hear it, loud and clear, as if it’s on the front porch, trying to find a way in:

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

My favorite onomatopoetic sound in all the world. I’ve not heard a whippoorwill that close to the house before.

Is that what woke me? 

And then I start thinking about symbolism, so while my coffee brews, I look up whippoorwills on the laptop. Chilling stuff. Harbingers of death, disasters, impending trouble. Being visited by a talking Raven might be more desirable.

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Okay, it’s a captivating sound, more enchanting than haunting, I think, pouring cream in my coffee. I’ve loved the call of the whippoorwill since I first heard it, the summer after I moved to rural North Carolina. It dominates a warm country night, an energetic, compelling song rather than a plaintive one. It makes me want to stand still and listen for a long, long time. I continue my online reading, how the whippoorwill is referenced over and over in story, song, and poetry. Folks, it’s really a mating call. That bird isn’t going to be lonely for long.  

And then I read: A group of whip-poor-wills are called a “seek” or “invisibility” of whip-poor-wills.

My imagination takes flight. Those are magical words.

“Seek” implies “seeker,” someone on a quest, not to mention Quidditch. Few words have greater magical connections than “invisibility” – it’s a coveted power. Granted, in this context invisibility and seek define a homely, nocturnal bird that is rarely seen and which is simply  seeking a mate with its fervent night song, but still . . . could there be something more?

I’d awakened with a sense of imminent danger, bolting upright in bed. Oh dear, I’d said, just as I crossed the line between sleeping and waking (this a hypnopompic state; I looked it up just now).  While I cannot remember a dream-creature – or any shadow-people, for the true paranormal enthusiasts out there – attempting to do me harm, I do wake sometimes because of a dry, rubby cough, thanks to the flu earlier this year and my latent asthma. I wonder if irregular breathing is the root of this.

What an unromantic notion.

Whatever the reason:  Suppose the whippoorwill arrived at my house not as a portent of doom but as a protector, a preventive force. What if it knew to sing its song – because, let’s face it, that song is all about life and reproduction, not death – to wake me at the very moment before disaster struck? Exactly what, then, did it seek to drive away or undo – and why? What did my evaporated dream have to do with it?

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Ah, here are better words to describe the call: Ethereal. Otherworldly. 

A little bit of magic in the still of the night from the seek, the invisibility – although I always hear only one.

I sip my coffee, smiling at my flight of fancy.

Although it could be something more . . . .

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