In the dream, my windows were open. It was fall.
In fall, songbirds quiet since July sing again, before they fly south. It's a strange phenomenon. Midsummer, the forest falls silent. The bustle of territory-defending and nest-building and mate-luring-and-attending is done. Birds are too busy raising their young to sing. But in fall, just as in April, I hear their tentative, raspy songs again, as though their voices are hoarse from disuse.
In my dream, their voices were not hoarse. Their songs were flute-like, rippling, tumbling, swirling through the dying leaves. Their songs moved like whirling winds. In my dream I tore out the door, desperate to hear this music I'd missed, this music so ephemeral, crazed to be surrounded by it before it was too late. I ran down a long green lawn, my arms in the the air, and the birds were already leaving, winging south above me, one after another, swift bodies arrowing away, and I cried up to them, waving, "goodbye, goodbye," not caring if anyone saw me. People across the street stood on their porch watching, but I didn't care. My heart was busting out of me, all that mattered was reaching up toward those birds, loving them. And then I saw the bear. In my dream, the brown bear was there suddenly on the lawn, and she was close, coming right for me, and just as suddenly there was my car in between us in the middle of the lawn, and I dove over its roof, to get to the driver's side door, the door closest to the bear. I had to get into that car, but I knew I wouldn't make it. In all my dreams, I can't outrun whatever it is that is chasing me. My arms and legs fill with sand, and I can't make them work anymore. But I got the car door open, tumbled into the driver's seat, but before I could shut the door the brown bear was upon me, my arm in her mouth, her teeth clamped on my flesh, pressing. And that's when I woke up.
It struck me that this is exactly the conundrum of the person who's had breast cancer. How to live with the bear lurking always behind the hedge? The bear can appear at any moment. Do you run headlong toward life, toward beauty, toward all that you love anyway? Is it worth the risk? Is it worth the loss? Or do you live your life listening to the bird song from the safety of your house, hearing it only through the open window? Do you follow your madly beating heart? Do you chase the alive creatures? Or let the fear of dying paralyze you? Or maybe there is yet another interpretation. Could be it's the brown bear and not the birds you are running headlong and recklessly toward?
My friend Erin, who writes a blog called "Being Poetry," posted this poem this morning, by Jack Gilbert. I place it side-by-side with my dream, on that pile of salvaged things I wrote of yesterday (goshawk, pillar, grosbeak), the things I've saved from the ruined landscape of my day, that place where creation begins out of destruction. If this life is one big dream. Then I say, hello departing songbirds. Hello pounding heart. Hello poetry. Hello goshawk. Hello brown bear with my arm in your mouth. Teach me how to live here. Yes, my eyes are open.
A Brief for the Defense
by Jack Gilbert
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
From Refusing Heaven (Knopf, 2005)
Monday, November 12, 2012
There are so many ways to be shattered in life. Breast cancer is only one. A hurricane is another. Having a neighbor's distraught teenager in crisis take up residence in your house and life for a weekend is yet another. It's just a matter of scale. Watching yourself fall into the same hole again is a shattering. Thin ice and you break through and all day you try to clamber out, find solid ground. There are so many ways to be in over your head. Yesterday, the sky reflected this shattering. It was a backdrop and a mirror, and it shattered and shattered and reformed and morphed all day long. At one point, pillars of light formed over one part of Kachemak Bay, while cloud shapes slid across another part, like fat drops of water elongating on a piece of glass, pushing against surface tension. And to the west, a gold blast of light throbbed against the horizon. It was like looking at light in ruins, light blasted apart. The pillars held up nothing. The cloud shapes refused to moor themselves. The gold blast hurt the eyes. A fogbank left the upper parts of mountains disembodied, detached from earth. None of it made sense, held together, told a sensible story.
This morning I woke up and couldn't help but think of my own life as that kind of ruins. Stay with me here. I don't mean to sound dramatic or negative. Because that shattered sky was the kind of beautiful that confounds. It was light like I'd never seen it before. The sky put into form something never before revealed on earth about the nature of light. Isn't it true that the nature of light and life is the same? They are made to be shattered and reformed. Every day, even. When I look back at breast cancer, it's clear to me that it shattered the structure I'd built for my life. And in many ways, I rebuilt those shattered structures, so that much of the outer trappings look pretty much the same: I teach the same classes as before, I live in the same house, I run and do yoga, in winter I go to Hawaii, my yearly round holds the same shape except for the every six-months pilgrimage back to Cape Cod and Boston. But that is somewhat of an illusion. Really, those are teetering structures constructed of cardboard. I reconstructed what I had before to the best of my abilities. But there is more. There's also the work of creating, building something new. Inside me, in that shattered landscape, I see myself wandering around, not knowing where to begin. I am still finding my way, even with my writing, around this shattered place. A person begins by picking up one piece of wreckage, moving it from there to there. Deciding if it stays or goes in the trash heap. In Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams faces the ocean and prays to receive one word to answer to the confusion following the shattering after the twin towers fell. This is what she writes:
"How to pick up the pieces?
What to do with these pieces?
I was desperate to retrieve the poetry I had lost."
Standing on a rocky point in Maine, looking east toward the horizon at dusk, I faced the ocean. Give me one wild word. It was all I asked of the sea."
This morning, in my notebook, I took a walk, and then decided to start a pile of words, to retrieve them from the shattered landscape of this particular day:
The shattered sky reflected a world, a wholeness, that we can't see. It was a rune. It was a beautiful ruin of pillars and blasted light. A goshawk landed in a tree at dusk last night, and even its wings reflected the blue light of evening. Two olive feathered grosbeaks landed on top of the mountain ash this morning, stabbing at the frozen bitter berries. From this shattered world, from the ash heap, these are the pieces I saved. This is where I begin.