Sunday, April 07, 2013

free as a bird

Last Friday, I went to my yoga class as I usually do Fridays at lunch. At the studio, there is a bowl of intentions. If you want, you can take a card out of the bowl and use the word written on the card to help you focus during your yoga practice. I don't usually pick a word. I am filled to the brim with words enough as it is. But on this particular day, on a whim, I decided to draw a word out of the bowl. I turned over the card to read it. The word was, "free."

"Free. That is a good word for me today," I said to the woman at the desk. "That feels about right." It did feel right, but at the time I wasn't quite sure why.

Our family friend Patty would say I drew that card for a reason, that there was meaning to it. She likes to discover the connections between things, to find meaning in numbers, everyday objects, happenings.

Patty's son Reid died suddenly last weekend. How do you find meaning in that? Reid was my age. We grew up together in the early years when we lived in Pawlet. And even when my family moved away from that sleepy town, their family continued to factor deeply into my early childhood memories. But I didn't really know him at all.

Yesterday, the family held a service at the family farm in honor of Reid. As those close to him gathered and shared their stories and memories, I discovered this was a boy that struggled with life ever since his dear Pop died in 1996. They all struggled—he and his brothers, his mother—but Reid did especially. For almost 17 years. Why did I not know this? How could I not know? Because my mother didn't tell me? Because I didn't ask?

One after another, people came up and described Reid as a caged bird that has been set free. Patty and some others read out loud from Wallace Steven's 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Bird while high overhead a hawk circled nobly around us in blackened silhouette from the sun.

There is meaning in everything. If you look for it, you will find it.


If you are a naturalist, then you know we are all one with the earth—at birth, in life and at death. Reid's ashes are now scattered on the hill, where as children we ran and played. Where in the summer, the honeybees will drink the sweet clover nectar. He is one with the earth and with the honeybees.

If you are a scientist, then you know energy never really dies. The day Reid fell, the energy that coursed his living body—contents under pressure—released. His energy is now all around us, darting here and there like a hummingbird among the hibiscus.

If you are a poet, then you know you must harness that energy somehow, like a bird on a string. You must gently rein it in to the palm of your hand. You may hold it and mould it and translate it into a gift. But then you must set it free. For the entire world to see. Reid's poetry will live on forever. His music will live on forever. He is free.

* * * * *

A glass window pane can be a harsh and cold-hearted thing. It can bottle you in and completely cut you off from the world around you. On the outside, the fragile bird is fooled by his reflection and hugs into the glass at break-neck speed. But shatter the glass, and you and the bird can be set free, swept up by the swirling wind into the heavens above.

For those of us left behind, the sharp fragments of glass cut a painful wound deep into the heart. But if you can manage to shift your view ever so slightly, you will see that the shards become a luminous prism, casting millions of magical rainbows across the landscape and letting us steal a glimpse into that world beyond. They glitter on the roof of the sugar house, where we stayed the summer our own house burned down. They glitter in the apple orchard up on the hill, now completely overgrown. They glitter over the village of Pawlet, Mach's General Store, the mill pond and the little house where we grew up. They glitter over Haystack Mountain and up into the heavens.

* * * * *

Over the last week, I have spent many hours thinking about Reid. I've cried for him. For his brothers. For his father, who also died way too young. And for Patty.

When processing heartache, it is hard not to go into dark places. But you must try not to.

The world has wonderful ways of reminding us: there is still so much LIFE on this earth! The hummingbird flapping her wing so fast in the garden is singing, "live, live, live!" The gull who floats on a strong headwind knows not to struggle against the force, but to lay into it and glide like an easy rider. He takes a deep salty breath and dives towards the sea to snag his next meal. He is loving the simplicity and deliciousness of it all.

Some of us kids from the early Pawlet days, little Reidie at far right.

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