Saturday, November 14, 2015

After Paris: An Owl, An Offering

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
—Adam Zagajewski
(Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh.)


Yesterday, I watched a Great Horned Owl fly from the end of a creance line, her once fractured wing now strong enough to carry her across the soccer field.  A farmer found her over the summer with one end of a string knotted around her wing and the other end around a telephone wire.  Who knew how long she’d been dangling upside down like a broken, abandoned kite? 

Carol, the rehab center’s director, explained that the fracture was likely from the impact or her struggle to get free.  Weeks passed before Carol was certain the owl would survive since birds, like humans, experience shock after trauma (in animals called “capture myopathy”).  However, in birds and other animals (rabbits and deer), this can be fatal, rapidly burning up all available glycogen stores.  These animals can drop dead at the moment of trauma (e.g., trapped in a “humane” cage) or days and weeks later from systemic organ failure.             
This owl survived and was magnificent.  Ombré feathers moved from gray to brown to ruddy red to white, like a desert rock face changing with the light.  Feathered tufts, like flaming antennae, grew from each side of her head.  Her face was a great disc confined between dark parentheses.  And her eyes were big, yellow honey moons.  She swiveled her head, a perfect radar dish, and fixed her gaze on me.  Was she wondering if I was predator or prey?    

At the rehab center, Blake, a volunteer, had strapped jesses around the owl’s legs; the anklettes, more hipster leather bracelets than falconry equipment, were fastened to the one hundred and fifty foot long paracord.  Jess, another volunteer, cradled the owl--a strange, otherworldy infant--while Blake zigzagged the line on the ground to prevent it from spooling out too fast, and to control the owl’s flight speed.  The owl was a little like a ventriloquist’s dummy: body still, head wheeling back and forth, eyes wide open, and beak clacking in warning.  In the sky, two crows circled us, cawing in protest over the owl which they’d immediately spied from their perch in a nearby pine tree.  Great Horns make meals out of crows. “We’ll have to leave if they start divebombing her,” Jess said.         
When the crows finally scattered, Jess launched the owl: one hand on the bird’s back offering a steadying momentum, the other under its taloned feet, thrusting them forward.  The bird beat its broad wings in rapid succession, gaining altitude, and then opened them into a four foot extension.  Each beautiful, tough feather worked with the others, flapping and gliding, flapping and gliding. 

The leading, serrated edge of an owl’s flight feathers, or flutings, muffles the rush of air over the wings, allowing the owl stealth flight.  Birds die from feather trauma: a long, vertical barb runs down the center of a feather, and similar to a straw, sucks blood up to the smaller, horizontal barbs and hooklets; if the feather breaks and the wound doesn’t clot quickly, the bird can bleed out.  “It can take years to rehab a bird with trashed feathers,” Carol said.  Before, beyond a simple understanding of a feather’s general flight purpose, my curiosity had ended in aesthetic admiration of the white and gray seagull feathers I’d twirl between my fingers at the beach, or the shimmering blue jay feathers I’d find in my backyard. 

Beautiful and necessary.  Delicate and tough.        

The owl picked up speed; the line tensed and went taut.  The bird tumbled to the ground, startled out of her intention: clearly the line of maple trees across the field.  The crows swooped in again with their vociferous complaints.  The owl waited, feathers puffed, clacking loudly, necessarily hamstrung by the line.  In a few weeks though, the owl will be released back to home ground in Erie, back to instinct and chance without the safety and constraint of the line or meals of pre-butchered rat dusted in vitamin powder.  Before Blake launched her for a second run, I ruffled my fingers over her head, through the soft, bristle feathers.  The owl stared at me, blink! blink! and then turned away, eyes back on the blue sky.  She didn’t want to know me at all.  A reason for joy.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Divorce: Happy Dis-Anniversary

The other day, I was driving back from Erie with my daughter, Sophia, a forty-five minute ride of monotony; she was lost in the world of Instagram and YouTube, and I wanted to draw her out because she’s thirteen, because she started using mascara and eyeliner over the weekend, because every day I am afraid that I am losing her to her future, separate life, one that is only spuriously connected to me via text or vague, sideways responses when I ask her how she is: fine, okay, good.  So I try to model honest, respectful communication, to avoid bombastic melancholy, but to be truthful about how I feel.  While I used to keep a photo of Wonder Woman over my childhood bed, I am not a Super Mom--no lasso, no gold bracelets, no comic book immortality thanks to Bipolar Disorder, Anorexia, and Alcoholism, and being a member of the species Homo Sapiens.  Lately, though, I’m just sad.

So I turned down the radio (Taylor Swift) and said, “This is a hard weekend for me.”

 She looked up.  “Why?”

“A year ago, this weekend, is when I moved out of your dad’s house.”  (Your dad.  Not dad.  A way to create distance.  Yours.  Not mine, not any longer, anyway.)  “The year has gone by really fast; it still seems surreal.”  The pain of divvying up all of our shared “goods,” down to the photos in the albums, is still on the surface.  The strange, immediate distant hostility—Christopher didn’t want any pictures of my larger family and vice versa.  And he didn’t want the wedding album, didn’t even fight for it, as if eager to erase evidence of any intimate connection.  Granted, if I tried to flip through it now, looking at those younger, buoyant, gussied-up selves, believing in forever, in shared dreams, in innocent domesticity, I would dissolve in hopeless nostalgia.  Like Dr. Who (the kids’ latest obsession), I would long for time travel, to undo all that had gone wrong to ensure aliens didn’t kill us off: anger, betrayal, emotional dissociation. 

Dissociation.  Dis: a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force.  So not restorative time travel, but a force that reverses love and affection, severs the ties that bind two people together and the marriage vows that enact that promise.  Utterly without association.  Except for our children, who still, of course, long for the circle.  My son, turning ten in a few weeks, said what he wanted most for his birthday was for his family to have dinner together.  And by “family,” he meant Mom + Dad + Sophia + Alexander; and by “family,” he meant the four of us laughing over Five Guys burgers, and leaving in one car; and by “family,” he meant for the four of us to re-associate and repair what has been lost in our year apart.      

Sophia looked back at me in the rearview mirror, her eyes steady (and smudged with brown pencil).  “Are you okay?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s been really hard, especially not being with you all the time.”

“Even though you’re sad, you seem happier,” she said.

“What about you?” I said.  “What has been hard about this year?  What have you learned about yourself?”

She put her hand on the back of my shoulder, in consolation and connection.  “The separation is hard.  Not living together.”

“What have you learned about yourself, though, even in the hardness?”

She was silent, struggling, likely, to name the source of strength that has helped see her through all this.

“You know what I see?” I said.  “I see how resilient you are.  How much compassion you’ve shown to your Dad and me.  A lot of kids would have been thrown by this, would be full of anger.  Which is okay if you are, but I see how steady you’ve been.  Not that you have to be, because wobbling is okay, but you’ve haven’t let our difficulties shake up who you are and know yourself to be.  You’re pretty amazing.”

She smiled, but that was all a sometimes-self-conscious teen could take.  “Can we turn the music back up?” she said.

Equanimity.  That’s what my daughter has shown me this past year.  How to roll with the punches, instead of being flattened by them.  It’s hard to be alone, without an adult who loves me best of all.  Financial insecurity that comes with divorce is terrifying, and keeps me up most nights.  Dating is uncomfortable and still feels like cheating (not to mention the fact that I can’t exactly tell dates that I’m on disability or am Bipolar—definite romantic buzzkill).  On the other hand, my family and friends have astonished me in their generosity and love.  And I haven’t wanted to drink or starve myself over this.  Being numb is no longer an option for me.  While the full weight of grief and anger and happiness and hope can be overwhelming (thank god for the healthy displacement of CrossFit, running, yoga, and Netflix), the ravaging is worth it because I am here to tell my daughter and son that they are holy and astonishing and loved, and born, yes, from love.