Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Transformative Moment

All those whose lives are spent searching for truth are well aware that the glimpses they catch of it are necessarily fleeting, glittering for an instant only to make way for new and still more dazzling insights. The scholar's work, in marked contrast to that of the artist, is inevitably provisional. He knows this and rejoices in it, for the rapid obsolescence of his books is the very proof of the progress of scholarship.
—Henri Pirenne

I was recently asked what the earliest transformative moment in my life was, that I could remember. Being gifted, or cursed, with an excellent memory, it's hard to choose among moments, when in one's early life everything is momentous, a portentous first. What isn't transformative when one is still young? There have been many moments of transformation for me this lifetime. The genuinely transformative, as opposed to the just really cool, all changed the course of my life.

I mean that more subtly than you might think: sometimes the observable outer course of events changed not a whit, but how you feel on the inside, how you interpret successive events and how you feel about them later, these are utterly changed. One aspect of learning from experience is that one perceives and evaluates experience itself differently. What changes is what we think about events and persons. We constantly re-interpret, endlessly re-evaluate. Everything is conditional, and open to re-evaluation.

The genuinely life-changing experience is not always obvious, dramatic, or easily spotted. Sometimes things take a while to percolate, and you realize what happened only afterwards. The awareness of permanent change, in the moment of its event, is a rare luxury.

Nonetheless there are vivid memories from my childhood that have left permanent marks. I can review these memories still, perhaps colored or papered over by later experience and interpretation, but still very sharp and vivid in my recollection. I can look at several of these early memories, now, and see which have endured as transformative, because I can create a narrative, now, of what followed. Life is made of stories, after all.

There is one very vivid memory I retain from early like, whose actions and events have colored almost everything that followed. I didn't know that till much later, but from that moment flowed many attitudes, approaches, beliefs, and cascading series of similar experiences.

I was eight or nine years old.

There was a nature center, a pond and some woods, some marshland and prairie, with many birds and garter snakes and turtles and other small wildlife, that was adjacent to and associated with the elementary school I was attending, Thurston Elementary School in Ann Arbor, MI. The pond and woods and nature center are still there. Just past them, adjoining the main road through the subdivision where my family lived, which at that time was the extreme northeastern corner of Ann Arbor, was the community pool for the local subdivision at which I spent many days each summer of my youth. These places are tangled together in memory, as well as adjacent in space. I sometimes still have dreams set in these places, in our old house there on Lexington Drive, or in the public schools I attended.

In the nature center there was a small island in the middle, with a small peninsula that goes out towards it without ever touching it. Within the peninsula is a marsh wetlands area. The peninsula, I recall, was made artificially, and was basically a banked trail that veers towards the island then away again. Trees line the trail, mostly on the pond side, leaving the marsh side more open to the sky. I spent a lot of time in the nature center, year-round; some of my earliest memories of encounters with wildlife and birds happened there. I remember one winter morning I was running across the ice covering the pond, when I fell through at a thin patch, got soaked, and spent most of that school day sitting on the classroom radiator, drying out. I remember skating on a public rink cleared off snow and sticks on the pond's surface every winter; I was never a good ice skater, though.

This one afternoon that I remember, it was in early or mid-summer, probably not too long after our last day of school. I was wandering through the nature center with a schoolmate and his older brother. Or maybe we were all classmates, and they'd begun their growth-spurts towards tallness. Always a late bloomer, it seems, my own growth spurt wouldn't happen till years later. Anyway, three boys wandering as friends.

That afternoon, the three of us were walking through the nature center near the pond, no doubt talking about the subjects that boys that age find compellingly important. We walked out on the bank near the island, in no hurry, looking for snakes or turtles or birds to watch. In a tree at the edge of the bank, no more than three feet above my head as I stood right under the tree, there was a male redwing blackbird, a mature bird by the three colors of shoulder stripes, singing with all his might.

Redwings are glossy black birds, with the males over the course of their first years of maturity adding a brilliant colored patch to each shoulder, red, orange, and yellow. They are not just beautiful blackbirds, they are songbirds. Redwings have several different sounds they regularly make. The male in spring emits a loud three-part song, two syllables followed by a long twittering call; it's a territorial warning song, telling other males this is my turf, go find your own. In the Great Lakes and northern regions of North America, the redwing is a migratory bird, absent in winter, coming up north for its summer breeding season. For me, the first sign of spring has always been not the return of the robin, but the return of the redwings: that's when you know spring is finally here.

I stood there, directly under the singing blackbird on the branch above me, and lost myself in the singing. Everything else seemed to get farther away. Only the bird on the branch, singing, was there, in front of me. My friends seemed to be farther and farther away. They may have kept walking while I paused, but I don't think so; I think they were only a step or two away. My vision seemed to focus only on the bird on the branch. I remember his head turning as he sang, looking at us first from one eye, then the other. His bouncing on the branch made it sway, shaking the leaves. I was falling deeper and deeper into the bird's song, and his black eye.

Then, with no warning, I was seeing out of the blackbird's eye: I saw three tall forms before it on the path beside the tree, one shorter than the other two. The bird was singing, and staring at us, and I was seeing from the bird's eyes. The bird was thinking about challenging these interlopers with its song. There was no sense of an "I" present; although there was a sense of some kind of self. Some sense of self-awareness, but not a conscious one; perhaps this is what the Buddhists mean by sentience. I remember that the bird was filled with a kind of all-encompassing hunger, a desire to find food. This complete and utter need to be filled, and the unquestioned demand that need be fulfilled. This must be what it's like, to be a newborn baby, or an animal, to be so utterly and unthinkingly filled with need, with hunger, with every cell in one's being speaking the same thought, the same need. A complete and total, single purpose, single need to be fulfilled. It was overwhelming, utterly and totally enveloping.

I might have stayed there a long time, lost in the bird's mind, but one of my friends spoke me name a few times, then touched my shoulder or my arm. That broke the trance. I was back in my own body, feeling disoriented. I blinked a few times, swayed where I stood, shook my head a little. Then I was back. My friends were concerned. I don't remember if I told them what had happened: I had already, by this age, learned to not tell people the things I experienced. It seemed to upset most people, if I spoke of it. We walked on, while the bird stayed on the branch, still singing loudly. My friends were talking on as before, and I remember we hung out on the school playground next to the nature center for awhile. I remember standing next to the swings while one of my friends pushed himself rhythmically back and forth. I remember being very quiet, not speaking much. I couldn't get the experience out of my head; it stayed with me.

So now you know: one of my personal gods continually takes the shape, every summer, of a redwing blackbird. Redwing blackbirds are forever significant and special to my awareness. They catch my attention every time I see them, and I always stop to watch and listen awhile.

Years later, as part of the Sutras, that series of poems that are records of visions and dreams and beliefs, I wrote clumsily about redwings, hiding what I really knew behind words in a poem, afraid to come right out and say it. But the thread of this transformative moment has left a permanent mark, expressed many times in my writings, where the image of a redwing blackbird will take on a symbolic resonance. And ravens and crows also turn up, as cousin clans with their own meanings and iconography both personal and universally archetypal.

This is how a moment transforms: it rings through you, for the rest of your life. You always go back to the memory of it, no matter how many years pass. The transformation lies in the permanent track or groove into which both memory and symbols slot easily, like the phonograph needle falling easily into the well-worn grooves of an LP record listened to many times. (Sometimes one must settle for simile when metaphor is too strong, too personal.)

A transformative moment conceals itself in everything you do, later. It shows up, again and again, made into its own archetype: a category of personal god-image.

Redwings (The Way of the Animal Powers)

calmly black, call by the roadside:
three-colored elder glides on stiff pinions,
circles me, cocking a dark eye, and lights
on stiff deadwood down the embankment.
the light is fading; I have stopped here before,
to breathe the sunset changes,
to hear the birds gather.
something moves in me, now,
breaking out from my heart.

these sentinel, sergeant birds,
keepers of the gates of change,
silent instructors
who call only to each other,
eyes black, still, silent,

when will my own changing eyes
turn dark, my shoulders sprout colors,
my arms grow strong black feathers
instead of pale hair? I want to be
blinded by the air, and air’s lightness;
I want to spin in the road’s dark blur,
stiff wind splitting the grasses,
wildflowers swirling like late snow.

black wings gather for the evening concert:
those do not sleep, who guard the secrets.
unlikely gift: I hear something like words:
I am spinning, my heart aflame. the wind
burns colder, I cannot walk away;
doors open in the air.
sheets of light, shadows flying.

I slowly, slowly, start to learn
the dark thoughts of guardian birds,
red, orange, yellow:
badges of life, hard words to the ground,
seed fragrances of night.

and a new soul, flying.
find me in fields at sunset;
don’t bring any baggage,
there’s no place to leave it,
and no way to carry it with you
through those gates:
the passages are wide enough
for your elbows only,
and your dark, three-colored shoulders.

(Poem originally written in 1995; revised slightly in 2009.)

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