Finding the Stuff of Wings

July 23, 2012

Early this spring, just after the swallows and western bluebirds started returning, I got busy cleaning out and repairing our birdhouses, making ready for nesting season. This hadn’t been done for many years, if ever, and I don’t know a lot about bird life, but what I’d read recommended an annual clean-out … Additionally, there were some houses that needed some roof repair, plus one incomplete house that had been kicking around the workshop, waiting to be hung

Once I finished up this one house, I decided to place it on a pole that is in view of our kitchen sink, and when the swallows were ready to build nests and begin mating, for weeks I got to watch the pair that had taken residence in this new house. Twice a day they would do their little courtship dance and mate, and something about it was both brutal (as is the way with many animals) and tender and endearing.

Through my binoculars I could watch them tucking strands of dry grass through their round door hole, and I felt happy that this little house had indeed been located in a spot that pleased the birds.

I went away for two weeks, traveling to see friends, and when I returned I discovered that I had failed my feathered friends. The screws that I had used to complete the unfinished house were plenty good–for a dry, unoccupied house. But the weeks of rain had soaked the wood roof and walls, and with the added weight they tore loose from the backboard that held the house to the pole. And when I got close to check on the damage, the stench in the air told me that in my absence some wee swallows had hatched, and perished.

I keep promising myself that I will restrain myself from interfering with nature. Things always seem to go afoul. And I am so tenderhearted that each mishap or death tears at my soul.

Yesterday I mustered the courage to confirm what damage had been done in this instance, and I pried open the gravity-stricken birdhouse. Inside was, indeed, the unpleasantness of dead, baby swallows; there looked to be about six of them. And, I was sad.

But their gnarly little bodies rested atop one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. And I was in awe.

the feathers of a swallow nest

Atop a cushion of dried grass were a few dozen feathers, a wide array of treasures from other wild birds in this area. None of these feathers are familiar to me. I am guessing that some are from the great blue heron that frequents the creek across the highway. And I am guessing that some of the reddish ones are hawk or owl. The speckled one reminds me of young eagles, and the coloring and stripes of another remind me of larger wild turkey feathers I have found.

You know what baffles me, in the midst of my amazement? In comparison to a swallow, these feathers are large … how did the swallows find these, when I rarely find bird feathers, and, why did I never see them bring these into their house?

What I see in life is not always what is true or real.

It has been five years since I married the lovely man with whom I was building a lovely life, and it has been nearly three years now since that dream life shattered.

What can I say about that? Three years ago I expected that by this point I would “understand” why my marriage ended, and I would have “healed” from the sorrow, pain, and loss. For three years I have prodded myself onward, day by day, bit by bit, with expectations (hopes) that “it” would be “all better” and I would feel whole again.

It’s not and I don’t.

For while I have lifted myself from the grey tonnage of break-up muck that nearly killed me, I have not escaped nor regrown the hole that bore into my chest, the hole which aches less each day, but which in omnipresent, nevertheless.

Now, don’t construe my report to mean that I am miserable and depressed. I am not. I was, severely so, but I have moved beyond that, incrementally, like those cartoon illustrations of of pond scum evolving to become hunched Cro-Magnon man and later to become an upright-walking homo sapien. In fact, these days, most moments of most days, I am in a very positive mood–content, happy, excited, curious, or downright joyful.

But the hole remains, and it sits there nagging, a burning, empty space so proximate to my heart.

I have believed that I could fill the hole, incrementally like the rest of the progress I have made. I allow myself small, emotional attachments to, for example, the free-range chickens that live here. As chicks I fed them by hand and they still come to me and eat that way, even now that they are giant hens. But I know they will “betray” me, that one day a hawk will grab one or one night a coyote will feast on their flesh, leaving me a trail of feathers to find in the morning.

I don’t walk with anticipation of this betrayal. No more than I walked with anticipation of my marriage’s betrayal. But I have seen both things happen, and now I know it is possible … I have gained the hole in my heart, and I have lost a certain ability to trust.

So, I have been known to rail against the advice that goes something like, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I hate this platitude which passes for solace and wisdom. Where is the strength in being terrified of loving again?

I recently stumbled upon a beautifully composed and loving book by Augusten Burroughs, “This is How“. Of course I love this book because the author is also opposed to flaky platitudes, but more so because it has been true solace to read his wisdom. About healing he says,

I had mistakenly assumed that healed meant restored.

As though scratched by a thorn on my arm, I was waiting for my flesh to seal itself so completely that eventually there would be no trace and I would forget which arm had been scratched.

It is a terrible thing to wait for something you desperately need that will never come. . . .

But here’s the thing, there are some things in life from which you do not heal.

The tunnel never ends. There is no other side of it. . . .

. . . You might feel that “enough” time has passed now, that the hole at the center of you should not be there at all.

. . . Maybe there was a lesson you were supposed to learn and, obviously have not. . . .

The pressure to heal can cause enduring damage.

But like losing an arm or a leg in a car accident, no matter what, that arm or leg will never grow back. . . .

Do not wait for the healing to arrive. It will never come. The holes will never leave or be filled with anything at all.

But holes are interesting things.

As it happens, we human beings are able to live just fine with many holes of many sizes and shapes.

And pleasure, love, compassion, fulfillment–these things do not leak out of holes of any size.

So we can be filled with holes and loss and wide expanses of unhealed geography–and we can also be excited by life and in love and content at the exact same moment.

Though there will always be days, like the weather, when the loss returns fresh and full and we will reside within it once again, for a while.

Loss creates a greater overall surface area within a person. You expand as a result of it. Though it may well feel like the opposite. If you lose something or someone that is enormously important to you, there can be an overwhelming desire to stop living. To have no new experiences. To shut down.

. . .

No matter how huge your loss, as long as you remain engaged with your life, the best days of your life may still be ahead of you.

Don’t misunderstand me; the pain of your loss will remain with you for the rest of your life. But great joy will be there right beside it.

Deep sorrow and deep joy can exist within you, side by side. At every moment. And it’s not confusing. And it’s not a conflict.

This is among the oldest, deepest, most primal truths: the facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief. Those things that ought to kill us do not. This should be taken as encouragement to continue.

Encouragement to continue, now that I can take as strength. I am not dead, even though it was close. And those small swallows will build another nest, (of materials that I could never even hope to find). And I will watch them again next year, delighting in their swoops and their mating, ever remembering the nest that fell and the wee ones who perished. And I will strive to get over this notion that I should be healed by now, and instead will just keep on moving along with my life.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Campbell July 23, 2012 at 11:53 am

Yes, anything that truly mattered to you will always remain painful. But is avoiding future pain worth refusing to allow anything to truly matter to you again? Some people apparently answer yes to this question, but that’s not the answer for me.

Michelle Douglas August 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Just what I needed today. Thanks lady.

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