The Bird That Hit My Window: truth and metaphor

DSCN5407A few days ago the sun shone just right through the glass doors between my living room and my balcony. A few inches above eye level is a white imprint – a startlingly elegant image, a Rorschach test in the middle of two lines that curve upward six inches on both sides.

It is the impact print of the mourning dove I found dead on the balcony a couple weeks earlier. Even the trace of its feathers is visible.

feather detail

The dove was folded in on itself under the small marble-topped café table. I determined to remove it before the woman who comes once a week to clean my house arrived. It was my dove, my balcony, my responsibility. Removing dead birds is not part of her job description.

But Onelia arrived too soon, before I had gathered myself to crawl under the table with an improvised bird body bag. Thinking she would not see the body from the living room, I decided to remove it later rather than draw attention to it.

Yet, when I looked later, the body was gone. Onelia had removed it without telling me. We were each protecting the other. Well, she protected me, and I had intended to protect her.

We didn’t speak of it then. We still haven’t. Between us, I am the designated weak one and she the strong one. Whether this is true or not, it is okay by me. People arrange their perceptions and assumptions into relationships without using words, and we do it in ways that tend to bond us, at least for awhile. Strength is her pride. It has gotten her through a difficult life. If protecting me adds to her sense of power and capability, I will not disturb that.

But I will not tell her of the mourning dove’s imprint on the window. I want it left there and she would clean it away. I want it there for a long time. It is flight. It is the moment before leaving.

We are alive and giving and flying until that moment. We leave imprints on each other. We burnish, scar, embellish, and decorate each other. We deepen character in each other. We take on each other. We are a Rorschach test of insights, memories, rituals, and of shared and opposing emotions. We impact each other, interpret each other, and live through each other.

In the last six days, a close friend called to tell me he had had a serious heart attack so wouldn’t be able to have dinner next week. Another friend was moved to a hospice after more than a year of treating her fifth bout of cancer as a friend rather than an enemy invader.

A few days earlier a friend told me he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and my dearest friend for the longest time simultaneously has a cousin dying and a roommate in his twenties being tested for lymphoma.

Two days ago I was with a precious friend at the offices of her primary doctor for management of her chronic lymphoma leukemia. On the table was an issue of National Geographic with a cover photo of a newborn and a lead article titled “This Baby Will Live to be 120.” I realized I needed to look closely at what is going on with people who weren’t born yesterday.

I am surrounded by people who are handling diseases and the threatened end of their lives with such grace that I am slack-jawed. It is enough to accept that you will die, but to plan for it in real time and to be absolutely gratefully alive until that moment is the accomplishment of a lifetime.

One friend with terminal illness was, when we last spoke, gathering her strength for one last trip to Tuscany. Why not? Tuscany is beautiful.

My friend with the cousin who is dying just completed papers for her body upon her death to be donated to a hospital for research. She sent the records to three of us for safe-keeping with the words “I’ve always wanted interns exploring my body.”

I hadn’t given any thought to where my body would go. I live as though I have decades to decide such things – and maybe I do. I know only that I don’t want to be ashes on someone’s fireplace mantel.

I think I’d like to be a print on someone’s window, captured in full flight, until the rain and snow remove me.

Was the mourning dove part of a couple? Was she or he missed? I think so, I believe so. Maybe not so long as humans grieve for each other, but enough that it bothered the other birds who live in my garden. One mourning dove has had a nest in the wisteria the past two years. Was it that bird? Will there be a nest there next year?

People leave, but their imprint remains. A whisper in the mind, a feather, a stranger’s turn of phrase, a holiday tradition, a poem, a piece of lace, an old Valentine card, a farmer’s winter wool hat, a photograph imprinted in the mind more than on paper, a mother’s remembered stroke across a cheek, a bit of arthritis in your pinkie finger that reminds you of your grandmother’s crippled hands, the upper lip of your grandchild that matches that of your mother and all her siblings, a fountain pen with a gold nub, a feeling on a day when the wind, temperature, and humidity are just so, fireflies on a summer night, being alone when winter arrives, being alone when the crocuses come up in spring.

We carry people with us – both as blessings and as scars. As humans we can turn those blessings and scars into lessons. I am a student of my friends. All of the people I have mentioned are peace builders. Every single one. And they are all at peace with their lives and its end.

Is there a correlation between ease with dying and how you lived your life? Has it been full? Has it contributed? Did you live with integrity? Have you no apologies yet to say? Have you no angers yet to release? Did you dare? Did you fly? Have you been loved? Were you able to feel the love that was offered? Did you love? Were you nurtured by your loving?

Yesterday I bought two see-through black lace blouses. I don’t intend to die soon. I plan to  make love, eat well, hug people every single day, care for my friends, play with them, create art, go to the theater, write an opera, and learn the capitals of every nation on the planet.

I plan to exercise, snuggle with my dog, swim, dance, finally learn decent (and indecent) French, eat chocolate and candied ginger, and listen to my women peers who have fallen in love for the umpteenth time. I plan to fall more and more in love with my grandchildren and their  parents. I plan to be as transparent as the see-through blouses.

I will die, but that is all I will do for death – Edna St. Vincent Millay. (Quote courtesy of another friend and peer – an activist, healthy, beautiful.)






Ode to a Man Who Loves Me

There is a man who has loved me since I was a sophomore in college, or maybe a junior. I’m not sure now. He was the campus poet. Also a wrestler and football player, but for me mainly a poet and friend. Four or five years ago he found me through Facebook. When I responded with “Is that you?” he was unable to reply for weeks.

But since then he has written, mainly through private FB messages or emails, an average of two or three times a week. Each note is poetic, most have photographs, and they revolve around me, not him. He seldom volunteers information about himself or his life.

Occasionally he forwards an announcement from NASA or elsewhere on new discoveries in the cosmos or inside atoms. He is very smart and understands that we cannot comprehend where we live – and that the best we can do is to keep chipping away at ignorance until the gems of truth are seen and known. Well, I attribute that to him. He never carries on or pontificates. Maybe he just loves being awestruck.

Stars, mountains, lakes, and vistas figure large in his life. He spent years working in our national parks. A couple years ago he sent messages that I needed to call him right away. He had gone out to his car at night to see if that was where he left his keys. Standing under the stars and thinking about the end of his life, he had to talk to me, he had to make sure I knew how much he loved me before he went gaga and forgot to tell me.

Well, I don’t think either of us is near to being gaga, but he wrote last night that he is ill with one of those degenerative diseases that is not kind. I’m not sure any of them are. I am sad.

It took little nudges from me over months to find out that he is ill. He has had many medical tests done and the verdict seems to be in. His energy was devoted to supporting me, to being a champion, to declaring love, to being amusing with words that have multiple meanings and surprise pathways. It was not in sharing his troubles. You might find this strange. It is certainly unique. He chose to bless my life, and has.

Beyond his being there, beyond his infusion of beauty into my life, he has shown me the courage of expressing love, of saying it. We in the Midwest were taught not to do that.

Neither of my parents said they loved me until I was in my mid-twenties and I forced the issue by ending annual visits to Iowa by telling them I loved them. After a few years of this, they expected it and managed first an awkward “me, too” and then finally “I love you, too” at the airport. It was like chewing cardboard for them, but they got there.

There are so many absurdities around saying “I love you” and my friend blew them all away. The hesitancies didn’t apply. I’m not saying I deserve his love. I recognize he credits me with being more or better or whatever than I am. But that is not the point. He loves and he says so – not only to me. Sometimes he copies me on poems, photos, and notes to his family.

He was in Vietnam, one of only two in his unit to return alive and with all his body parts. A poet in the midst of slaughter. How does one deal with that? Well, at least partially with medicines and by saying what needs to be said before you go gaga or die.

He says he will love me always. It is that simple, that courageous, that “without any strings.” He has received scarcely anything from me compared with what he has given, though I hope he knows how grateful I am.

I love you, my friend. You have helped me to tell everyone I love that I love them. You have given my heart freedom, muscle, and joy.

And, dear friend, please forgive my being so public in the face of your tendency towards privacy. I want to pass on what you have helped me to learn.

. . .

Readers, below is a teeny sampling of photographs, and I start with a random – yet very clear – excerpt from a longer quote:

Q: So what did the OTHER photon say to the one photon … etc… 
A: I have NO clue as to what this matter is all about… so please, enlighten me, I truly wish to know if there is a tunnel at the end of the light…

tunnel at the end of the light..

reflections of warmth, love and light.. too much love..

veil of clouds..

Peace.. 2

Na Pali Coast, Kauai..

Love, one world..

heart with no pockets..

Finding Yourself in a World of Need

A few years ago I began an experiment that I thought would take me only a year to complete. The goal was to regain a sense of myself aside from more than a decade of peace work as founder and first Director of Peace X Peace. I had entered the field of peace work one week after September 11, 2001. I entered it from many years in the arts as a photographer, poet, and playwright. I was midway in writing a book tentatively titled “Diamond Woman: achieving clarity and brilliance in a world still dominated by men.”

Peace X Peace usurped all that. For the first four years I worked every day except Christmas. Long hours every day. Long hours with teams of women that I brought together. We made an impact. Ultimately we had members in more than 120 nations and 20,000 plus members in our Global Network of women talking privately to their “sisters” around the world through the Internet. We were the first global social network for women before the term “social network” was used.

We also made a documentary in Afghanistan, Burundi, Argentina, Bosnia, and the US that debuted at the UN and aired on PBS. We did a book, “60 Years, 60 Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women,” (available on Amazon) that was gifted by the president of the United Nations General Assembly to each member state ambassador.

As a team, we made a significant impact on the rising women’s movement, but after a decade I was so burnt out that when I was asked to speak somewhere a wave of nausea went through me. Not every time, but usually. Peace workers get burnt out, and peace activists often submerge parts of their being in order to tend to a larger whole.

Peace work is the most necessary and honorable work in the world, and there are people who every single day give of themselves to help others, whose compassion drives them to dedicate themselves to others. The result can be a strange mix of both being fed and being depleted by the work. It expands your soul even as it nibbles at it.

I was ultimately depleted and needed to “re-find” the essential “me” that prefers – and naturally tends – to describe everything somewhat poetically, that needs silence, that mixes my sight with sound with words with wordlessness. I trusted the essential “me” was hunkered down inside, waiting, even though it had hardly been nurtured in years.

It felt – and feels – selfish to tend one’s self when others are suffering so much; but it is necessary. We have one life and we have the right – something close to an obligation – to make it beautiful and to grow in gentle impassioned ways. If we were given the ability to sing, we should sing. If we were given the ability of paint, we should paint. If we were given the ability to dance, we should dance. Disaster in the world is not helped by our ignoring our creative impulses and the sweet light at our center.

(It is also not helped by perennial sadness. The world is glorious and we are animals that can be stunned by awe and convulsed by humor. These are our right, but that is a different blog.)

It took me much longer than I expected to come back to feeling viscerally, daily and always, the “who” of who I am. I thought it might take a year, then two years. But it has taken more like three years – three years of stripping down and stripping down and stripping down and shedding of self-definitions. It required doing less and less peace work, of not doing anything that made me nauseous, of spending time with my family, grandchildren, and friends, and of writing again where I didn’t need to be politically correct but could be factually correct instead.

I made it here. I’m not particularly productive artistically or socially. I haven’t launched into a book, little or large. I haven’t resumed photography. Arbitrary actions and projects seem suspect to me, as diversions from facing up to continuing to go to the heart of the “who” of who I am.

This is not a self-indulgent journey. It takes courage to give up self-identification, to not distract myself with work or pleasure, to simply be – albeit with some sputtering on my blog or on Facebook.

I say all this for two reasons. 1) I encourage everyone, particularly as we age, to have the courage to give up self-identification. You are not a businessperson, an athlete, an artist, a meditator, a teacher, even a parent or grandparent. You are you. You are larger than what you do or have done. Getting to that visceral knowledge of “me” is to have removed all the adornments that cover who you really are. It is to sit within the terrifying you without the identifiers of what you have achieved, what you have lost, and what you believe. It is to give up history, knowing, strength, and weakness. It is being.

I say “terrifying” because when you get rid of self-definitions you get rid of what binds you in, what containerizes you. Your boundaries disappear, and you can feel like a large amoeba. At first, that’s a vulnerable state. Then it becomes a place of all potential – of ease, relief, and laughter. Joyous, poignant, encompassing surprise.

I am not saying this is easy. It’s a marathon that is not only frightening, but means giving up the angers, fears, and wounds that also identify you. Doing that means acknowledging them to begin with, which can hurt. Plus, there’s your righteous indignation: “Let them go! But . . . but . . . but . . .” Un-huh, let ’em go. They’re boring, actually.

The key to this aspect of achieving freedom is to feel the pings of pain with the intent to let them go. Then give yourself time. It’s an organic process that takes time and you don’t control it beyond holding the intent to find yourself, naked and beautiful beyond definitions.

2) On the personal level, I made it back to the “who” I knew, but with more than a decade of peace work, expanded knowledge, and some personal traumas thrown in the mix. It is an amazing place to be, and not easy to explain, and speaking of it brings some tears  of gratefulness.

But something unexpected has happened. The need to be more active for justice, to tend the earth and its people, has risen again and it is being a real nudge. If I rest in that place where I am – blessed as it is – it will become hollow.

I am aware that undoubtedly every person who reads this is already a person who works hard for the good of others. Some of you are my heroes and heroines. So perhaps I am talking to myself, but please indulge me:

Having one life to live, we must each find our essential “me” in order to live fully and come to wordlessly understand why we are here and who we are.

Having found that, we must then find what is uniquely ours to do to help others. It’s not a free ride. Our souls – that word works for me, change it if you need – are meant to be felt by ourselves and joined with others.

I don’t know why it’s like that, I only know it is.

So over the next few months, I am searching with a few others as to what is uniquely for me to do. I invite those of you who are peace workers to talk to me privately or through comments about where you are, how you see what I wrote, and to tell me what you think is important for our world right now. Thank you, my sisters and my brothers.