Thursday, October 24, 2013
A Bird Came (Face) Down (on) the Walk
I love the brooks which down their channels fret
Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born day
Is lovely yet;
--Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”
Monday morning, I walked to yoga as I often do. I could feel autumn: the air was crisp, and though it wasn't yet raining, there were dark clouds covering most of a blue sky. A block away, I heard Garfield High School's bell ring, indicating that it was time for students to change classes. Then I heard morning announcements: "Good morning, Students!"
"It's fall and kids are back in classes," I thought. "I don't get to be there anymore." The thought didn't make me feel sad or angry for having left my 26-year career in secondary education because of my brain tumors. I just felt reflective as I noticed time passing.
I wound my way through the neighborhood streets, choosing the route that I always take because on my route the sidewalks are least broken and the crossings least likely to have cars racing through: a carefulness in choosing my routes that helps me remain upright as I struggle with balance and walk with a cane. As I crossed onto the sidewalk that would lead me to the bus stop and then on to yoga, I saw on odd sight on the left edge of the sidewalk: a small brown bird, maybe a wren as it had a long tail feather, had died and looked whole and unwounded. It tilted forward on its neck, its beak parallel to the ground and its little feet in the air, its tail raised like a flag. It looked like it had fallen forward. It didn't look uncomfortable in this pose, only unnatural.
I thought, ironically perhaps, of Emily Dickenson’s poem “A Bird Came Down the Walk”, in which the bird’s liveliness amuses the poet and me:
A Bird came the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow raw….
I paused to wonder how my bird might have died: I saw neither feathers ruffled nor wounds, so "No trauma," I thought. “That’s good.” I've heard that birds are anxious and have exceptionally fast heartbeats, so maybe its little heart had an attack. Or maybe it was just old. (It didn’t have grey feathers, but I don't know what birds look like as they age), and it took life's natural course and died as the fall chill settled in, harbinger of winter days to come.
I walked on. What more was there to do? This little bird had lived its life—for better or for worse, I have no idea. I guessed this death was natural and gentle, but I couldn’t have done anything now even if it weren’t. So on I went, and began to think again about my own death, as I have many times since my first brain tumor, six years ago.
The first death I experienced was my grandfather’s death when I was three years old. I remember my grandfather, a man who I’ve heard described as an “angel on earth” and “a gentle soul.” I don’t remember his death, but Mom says that she took me to the grave after the burial and tried to explain that Granddaddy was in the ground. She says that I looked confused and upset and kept pointing to the sky and then looking back at the grave.
I am dying. Everyone is, but perhaps those of us who have experienced serious disease—and those who have loved us and witnessed our fragility (and thus their own)—are more aware of our passing days than those who have not glimpsed "the immortal footman hold our coats" (as T.S. Eliot's Prufrock describes his own intimations of mortality).
I am not afraid of death. Though I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, it was a church focused on social justice in the here now. I don’t remember hearing about death in church, except when, as a teenager, a boy a year my senior committed suicide. I don’t even remember hearing about heaven or hell, except as places humans created on earth. I've never been a hell-fire and brimstone person. In fact, the concept of immortal and brutal punishment seems unfathomable to me. I believe in a loving God, and hell just doesn't make sense to me: not for punishment or disbelief or anything. I can see that some people live awfully hard times on this earth: traumatized by the cruelties of war or torture, poverty or addiction, existential or physical pain, but when I have met people who have lived what seemed to me a hell on earth, I have been surprised to learn that they have joy, too: they laugh and love and see the sun. Hell doesn't make sense to me, and it doesn't scare me.
I don't know what Death is. Not really. I don't know what God is either. "Death" and "God" are just words for things that I perceive vaguely. (The poet Rumi said that we should not confuse a finger pointing at the moon with the moon, which I think means that we should not confuse a word, which is a symbol, with its essence. I think Rumi's right.)
Who or what is God? I don't know. It does seem to me that there is a Great Spirit, for want of a better word…or maybe Energy is a better word…or Grace. I suspect that "God" and "Allah" and "Yahweh" and "Om" and so forth are all words pointing to the same essence, something like the American Transcendentalists' notion of the "Over-Soul." (Oh there's another word: Soul), which Ralph Waldo Emerson called, “that great nature in which we rest…that common heart…the wise silence; the universal beauty; the eternal ONE.” For Emerson and for me, “In sickness, in languor, [it] give[s] us a strain of poetry, or a profound sentence, and we are refreshed….The soul is the perceiver and the revealer of truth.”
This God, this Over-Soul, neither punishes nor rewards. This God simply is. Life simply is. And so Death is, too. For the Transcendentalists and for me, our bodies die and return to the earth: “dust to dust” as the old Anglican burial service has it. Our spirits remain with the Great Spirit. I don’t really know what that means, but I believe that it is so. Perhaps, as the American Romantic poet Walt Whitman writes, “Death is different than anyone supposed—and luckier.”
I know I will die, and I am not afraid of Death, but I don’t want to die: not now and maybe I won’t ever want to die. I love my life. When I prepared for neurosurgery, I did not want to die, but I did not fear Death. I did not even fear pain. After surgery, when I hallucinated that I was in the crematorium, I was not upset, only frustrated because the hospital was so inept. (My surgeon was upset and reduced my steroids.)
I did not fear my death, but I feared losing my Self, my personality. I must admit that I am attached to my Self. This amuses me because I know that I’m happiest when I’m so absorbed in something or someone that I forget my Self and time and place. Perhaps these moments when I lose my Self will be like my death. Perhaps my body will be a clod, and my soul will return to the Light. Perhaps my soul won’t experience emotions, neither joy nor sadness, and perhaps my Soul will experience neither love nor hate. Perhaps my Soul will not even be mine. Perhaps then, my Soul will just be.