I have a bathtub—large. It is next to a window. Outside my window this evening---the dusky blue of twilight, the vegetable silhouette of an oak, an insistent bird, calling in the darkness.
I am held by the web of the world.
Outside my front door, as the darkness comes to its whistle, the winged creatures begin to arrive.
I want to tell you about a winged creature I lived with once. His name was Marty. Marty was a screech owl, injured somehow and now missing a wing. He could never again live in the wild, and the group I volunteered with was rehabilitating him to use in educational programs. This meant he needed to get used to people and to being handled---he needed to get as domesticated as a wild raptor ever can get. So for a summer, Marty lived in our house.
Marty was tiny, as screech owls are—only eight or nine inches tall. He puffed himself up like a small melon when he was defensive but he seemed to prefer making himself tall and lean and whippy instead, like a thin lead pipe, and glaring at us out of slitty yellow eyes. During the day he stayed on his perch in the living room and at night he slept in the basement. He would clutch his perch with one talon and his dinner in the other---a dead half rat, or a frozen mouse, that we brought him from the freezer.
At night, alone in the basement, Marty would call. His tremulous, wavering notes would find their echoing way up through the air conditioning vents and into my room. To my twenty-year-old mind he sounded unceasingly lonely, a proud, vigilant, dangerous bird whose life had fallen into chaos and confusion.
I’m not sure he ever got used to people.
I am late finishing this—it has been a difficult week. I’ve thought quite a bit about Marty, about his lovely and mournful calls in the night, about how the loss of his wing meant that he could never again survive in his native habitat. Was he lucky that we’d found him and saved him from death by coyote or fox? Or would he rather not have had to adjust to the impossible panic of a human world?
More importantly, is there something that we as humans have inside us that is as important, as irrevocable, as wings?
Watch any winged creature—its envied flight, its seeming joy at being airborne, its graceful dance along thermals, through woodlands, over the tops of meadows, windborne and free. We’ve wanted to fly since we could scratch our desires onto the walls of caves—and we do, to some extent—we can mimic the sense of freedom and space that birds, bats, butterflies, insects all must experience. And yet we are fine without wings, where winged creatures are dependent upon theirs. Can any of them survive flightless? I cannot think of one…
And so—the wing. What is our wing? What part of us, if removed, would banish us from the world as we know it?
As I said, it has been a difficult week. I’ve been thrown into a cauldron of fear and stress, a place where I can barely breathe, a debilitating and lonely place. The cupped hands of the world’s web seem far away now and I can’t see a clear path back to any sort of peace. I send out a call for help, as best I can, I call my troubles out into the world—and back into this dark place come an army of people with axes, helping to chop holes in the barricades to let the light in. My best friend, though far away and going through her own ordeal, listens to all my rantings and fears and offers unconditional support and encouragement. A new-found artist friend and her husband offer to drive over if things get bad. Neighbors call to see how I’m doing. A friend (and ex-boyfriend) calls for the same reason, entertaining me with recipes and movie reviews. My spiritual director sends me the wisdom of the ages and irreverent limericks. A lovely man in the park talked to me about ospreys. My parents offered advice and came over to hang out a while. Countless others hand me their own experiences, their own brand of comfort, outpourings of more support than I could have even imagined. It was all a lifeline, meant to lift me out of this place of fear. It was, I realized, my human version of wings.
We are social creatures. While plenty of us in this world live lonely lives, how many of us can imagine living cut off from all love and friendship? Without the support of some human contact? Without the ability to hold out a hand and have it held—somehow—in return? It takes so little, I find. No dramatic rescues, no overwhelming gestures—just the simple gift of response—of someone being there.
At night, when the darkness closes in, when the moths and bats come out, when the owls start to call, I think again of Marty. And I hope that in some owl-ish way his calls into the darkness were answered, that he was in some small measure comforted, as mine were and as I was.
Thanks to everyone for the wings.