The original inventers of twittering have been coming and going from the feeder all day today. Whenever I look out, from the bathroom window upstairs or the french doors in the kitchen downstairs, different visitors are at the cafe. Finches yellow as canaries, finches as reddish-purple as if they’d bathed in grape juice. Sparrows, in tweedy brown-gray-black-white. Black-caped chicadees. Grosbeaks, with their rosy-red neckerchiefs set off by the chic understated black, gray, and white, the bright slash of their busy yellow beaks. All those dear active feathered bodies, at work, play, feeding, in flight.
And then, twice — at midday and then again in the late afternoon — a rarity at the feeder. An indigo bunting, its turquoise so vivid my breath caught in my throat. (photo, courtesy of Thundafunda)
About six years ago, I was fixing to teach my first Fearless Writing in Vermont.
By the use of “fixing to” you can tell, if you didn’t already know, that the majority of my life has not been spent in Vermont, but in Arkansas.
“Fixing to” has elements of “getting ready to” or “about to” , but it’s more elastic, less definite. This indefiniteness has to do with time and preparation. One could be fixing to do something in a year or in 15 minutes. And while this could involve doing a particular task in a timely manner (if you’re fixing to go a potluck, for instance, you might be making a skillet of cornbread, or cutting up and transferring it to a basket), it — fixing to — also, to me, also implies a kind of thoughtfulness, a mental preparation or pre-preparation. You’re deciding less what, than how, you’ll go about whatever you’re fixing to do. You’re rolling it over in your mind, meditating on it, cogitating on it, considering it.(Left, one such basket I did take to a potluck, here in Westminster West, Vermont, in 2010; photo by David R. Koff.)
The fixing to I was doing around this particular Fearless Writing had elements of both thought and action.
Not only was it the first Fearless I was going to teach in Vermont, it was going to be in my own home, not a conference center or similar facility. Not only was it going to be in my home, instead of being a quick one-weekend intensive workshop, the way I most often teach it, it was going to be one full-day Sunday every other week for six months; twelve sessions, in other words.
We would go more slowly. The group would get to know each other very well. The seasons would make a half-circle. We would change, individually and together, with and through our writing and our shared time. I knew this, though I had no idea exactly how the particular students would all mesh together with each other and with me, only that they would, in some unforseeable way.
The fixing to was given further depth by the fact that I was still fairly new to my Vermont life. It still felt like a still largely unknown after, filled with question marks — to the before that had been Arkansas, period.
The Arkansas life: as many readers of these posts know, I’d assumed I’d have for the duration, but had been abruptly exiled from it by the sudden death of my much-loved husband, Ned Shank. His death that unspeakably large domino which knocked over almost all the others constructing my old life.
Ned’s before-and-after happened within the space of four hours. BEFORE: a tall, handsome blue-eyed guy in early middle age, with disgracefully long eyelashes; a writer, an artist, an innkeeper, an historic preservationist, an imperfect but loving, affectionate husband, and an all-around sweet, funny guy. Don’t know who took this picture of him, laughing with my Aunt Dot on the side porch of what was then Aunt Dot’s Vermont home, and is now mine… I believe it was a visit we made here in September, 2000, just a few months before his death. Now both Aunt Dot and Ned are gone from this world; but strangely, he, at age 44, before her, at age 100 + nine months. This picture always twinges me, but i love how it shows the fondness these two had for each other, their good humor in each others’ company, and their relative sizes and ages.)
THEN — which I guess is the “and” in every before-and-after: he, on his finch-yellow bicycle, on his tri-weekly ride, flew through a pick-up’s windshield. The impact, on 62 West, just past the Lake Leatherwood turn-off; the ER doctor at St. Mary’s in Rogers, Arkansas, wearing black scrubs with an incongruous pattern of bright fruit, coming into the “family room” to say to me, “We lost him.”
My own after was not a literal death, of course. Only the death of an old life.
Call it, more accurately, an amputation. One that took place with agonizing slowness and only gradually dawning awareness. Pyschic gangrene just about had to set in before I was willing to say, “Okay, cut it off” and hobble the hell out of Dodge; which is to say, the town that had been my home for 33 years, Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
And move on to the slow, incremental creation, or perhaps revelation, or unfolding, of my new life, begun so tentatively. But one I have now been living, in Vermont, for the past eight years.
It now seems to me that in part I got through all this loss and change because writing itself had taught me a lot about uncertainty.
Showing up, working, walking and writing the same way, one foot after another, without much idea of where I was going. But somehow arriving somewhere that was often surprisingly good: despite unknown, unguaranteed, uncertain outcome, and swimming in the tidal rise and fall of anxiety with its unpredictable, lethal-feeling undertows.
Teaching Fearless Writing (a misnomer, because fear is always part of the process) had deepened my abstract and practical understanding of this. Each time I watched students get it, I got it again, too.
“It” being: that increasing one’s ability to tolerate anxiety is the price of admission to writing, creativity, and finally, life itself.
This is something one never stops learning. Like all the big, important stuff, you don’t learn it once, but over and over again. And each time it feels both familiar and like a shockingly new revelation.
So. There was a lot of “fixing to” as I approached this first extended Fearless Writing. Given a death, an emotionally unclean and needlessly cruel severing from a non-profit organization I had started back in Arkansas with my late husband, the sale of one house, the purchase of another (that second house being Aunt Dot’s former home, bought, as I always say, “…with financing, so creative I should have gotten a Macarthur.) Then, a cross-country move to a part of the country with so different a geographic, political, and civic climate from that in which I had lived for the prior 33 years, that I could as well have moved almost to another planet — a lot of “fixing to.” Right, the day of the great loading of the moving truck, on my then-front porch in Arkansas. I got by with a little help from my friends. Make it a LOT. Here, embracing and being embraced by Cheri Wright, Charlisa Cato, Starr Mitchell, & George West. Ah, the poignant problem of a late-in-life move: you can make new friends — I have, and I do — but you can never make old friends. (I believe the South is so much more easily friendly on a personal one-to-one manner than the North, yet remaining unbelievable harsh on a civic level, while the North is the exact reverse. But there are exceptions, and I digress.)
But I had done most of the fixing to by this particular Saturday, before the first Sunday of this extended Vermont Fearless Writing. And I was surprised to be… happy.
It was early May, as it is on the day I write this: miracle greeness after the long cold white winter. The one after which I gave that extended Fearless must’ve been my second or third in Vermont; now I have been through eight, to my own astonistment.
Non-New Englanders always imagine winter to be the biggest climactic challenge; this is not so. It’s Mud Season, which follows winter: incredibly inconvenient, mussy, muddy, mucky, unwalkable, undrivable, sloppy.
But then. Spring.
Now — both as I write this and the “now” of the day before I taught that first Vermont Fearless — the white snow and wet brown mud had retreated. Almost everything was green or becoming so, a green pale and yellow-tinged, as if trees and grass, so long covered and sodden, now thirsted for and feasted on sunlight to excess, imitating it, exuding it. A greeness omnipresent, almost palpable, and impossible for human eyes to get enough of.
And me? That day I too was beginning to green-up and grow golden, in a new, double-barreled way. First, I was filled with anticipation about the class, jazzed, psyched. Second, on top of that, just astonished that I had it in me to be happy again.
One does not understand life’s own hunger to live, quite apart from individual will, and the resilience it brings, until one has experienced it. While for several years after Ned’s death, my own life felt to me like a long prison sentence, a non-negotiable term that is served with grim endurance, because it must be, that resilience was there, as improbably alive beneath the inner snow and cold mud as is spring beneath the outer.
That Saturday, I was cleaning the house. (“Thank God we have people over,” Ned used to say, cheerfully, running the vacuum, “Otherwise the house would never get cleaned!” It was as if he was happy to be cleaning and that getting the disinfectant spray, organizing the cupboards and using the floor steamer was a fun activity). David, my present and, in so far as I can see, for-the-duration partner, did not yet live here full-time. So that day it was just me and the two brother-and-sister tabby cats, asleep in the room we use for work-outs and DVD-watching.
Like everyone in Vermont, we “zone” the house in wintertime, so as not to heat the whole tresidence, only the parts we’re using at any given time. The room where the cats were asleep, and the guest room next to it, have no central heat. Instead, there’s my old Ashley Automatic woodstove, which I brought all the way from Arkansas. In the winter, when David and I want to watch a movie of an evening in that frigid room, we crank the Ashley up, and pretty soon it’s cozily tropical in there.
In addition to the Ashley, the house has two fireplaces, one in the living room (where Fearless would be held) and one in the dining room. Counterintuitively, we shut the damper of the fireplaces in winter and do not use them; more heat gets sucked up the chimney than even a blazing fire puts out into the room.
But in spring, when the days are pleasant and somewhere on the medium to warm continuum, but the nights still nippy usually well into May, ah, those fireplaces, and the fires we light in them, are perfect.
As part of my clean-up, I used my ash vacuum to remove the fireplace of ashes, and began laying a fire. I am a great and devoted fire-builder. It’s kind of a Zen thing. The way each fire goes together slightly differently, because the exact pieces of wood vary. It takes being very particular in stacking, layering kindling, selecting and placing just the right branch or log in just the right order and position. I should be good at this, and I am; wood was our sole source of heat all those years in Arkansas. But beyond all the shoulds, I love building a fire. And then lighting it. And then, watching as it catches, mesmerized — as humans have been since prehistoric times —made happy and warm by the flames.
That Saturday, I saw that one particular log was a little short for the fireplace. “Oh,” I thought, “I might as well lay a fire in the woodstove too, while I’m at it.” The short log would be perfect for the woodstove, and so I carried it in there and lay it on the hearth.
I heard a small unusual thump which I couldn’t identify as I came in the room with the woodstove. The cats, utterly sacked out on the orange couch, did not stir. I opened the woodstove and there was another sound, and a small puff of ash floated out. Cautiously, I leaned over and peered into the woodstove.
And there, at the far end of the oval shaped stove, was an indigo bunting cringing among the ashes, its feathers slightly puffed. I heard myself say out loud, “Oh, I know we can do better than that for you, ” and I closed the woodstove door.
First I got the cats (drugged with sleep, oblivious to the indigo bunting) out of the room, carting them upstairs and shutting them in the bedroom. Then, I went to the kitchen and got a rag. I even remember the rag: blue flannel, with small white fleur de lis on it. The rag had once been a sheet, in use at the inn my husband and I had owned back in our Arkansas life. When it had gotten too ratty for the inn, we had used it on our own bed. Finally, it became rags. It is strange, what lasts and what doesn’t.
With one of those rags, I returned to the woodstove, opened the door and yes, there was the indigo bunting. I imagine it must have been terrified, but what human knows, really, what a bird feels? But it was crouched in that far corner still, its feathers dulled with ash, its head tipping one way and then the other, its eyes still bright, alert, very wary.
I reached in and tossed the rag over the bunting, and, just like that, reached in and carefully picked up the rag from below, the back of my hand in the ashes, the bird inside. I carefully carried the small rag-wrapped bundle out to the lawn on my palm, hoping deeply that the bird inside was in no way injured. But expecting, I think, that it would be a little dazed.
There, in the sunlight, I lifted off the rag. And that tiny bright blue bird was not in the least hurt, or dazed. Instead, liberated from stove, rag, and human hand, it simply and immediately flew away and up.
“Took flight” makes it sound more dramatic than it was; there was no burst of feathers or sudden flapping of wings, as if it was in fear. It was wholly natural. I’m here, I’m gone. Just up and off. I followed its its blue with my eyes, up and to the maple tree by the stone wall. I watched until it flew away again, on whatever errands were on its things-to-do list.
Brilliant indigo bunting, trapped in a dark cavernous place filled with ash; then, liberated, back to air, sun, flight, its own nature.
That day, could my life, my starting-to-be-new life, have felt to me any more like that bird’s? And my students, who would come at noon on the following day — would I be helping them open a door to some cast-iron place, so that some imprisoned part of themselves might flutter out and back into its own nature?
Do we not each have, and need, a dark place? Maybe it’s a prison; maybe it’s a stove. It can trap us, warm us, burn us; it can, if we are a small blue bird and it’s May and we perhaps tried to make a nest in what seemed like a good place but turned out to be the stovepipe of a then unused stove, keep us cold, isolated, and in ash and shadow.
As humans, we need containers in which to create warmth. But we, no more than that indigo bunting, are not meant to live imprisoned, in a woodstove or anywhere else.
I can still remember the names of every person who attended that long class, which ran from the longest days of the year through the shortening fall and early winter. I can see the faces in my mind, where each person sat, the sunny day we met inside and just outside the opened french doors on the lawn facing the garden. The breaks where we ate, or sometimes ran down to the pond for a quick, chill dip. I can recall some of what everyone wrote, read aloud, said, and how often they surprised themselves and me and the class.
The one who said, at the beginning “I want to write, but I’m afraid I’ll be revealed as a phony.” “To whom?” I asked. He blinked in astonishment, as if this was self-evident. “To myself, of course.”
The one who said “I wish that every time I start to write, all of these negative thoughts wouldn’t rise up in me.” “Define ‘negative’,” I said. “Oh…” she said, pausing. And then, wonderfully, “Introspection gone ballistic.” (Something I quote occasionally, with attribution to her, in Fearless workshops to this day.)
The one — a lef-wing management consultant to non-profits — who discovered, in some of our practices, that some of what he was writing might be poetry, and that he could write sympathetically as an out-of-his-depth George Bush. Discovered that he could write with transparent brutality about a well-meaning conversation in a restaurant with his young daughter, in which he tried to explain the divorce from her mother.
I looked at that indigo bunting today and remembered all that. It happens to be a challenging time in my life and David’s right now. My mother is 95. My brother and I disagree about her care. David, his mother, and his brother mirror, in a fun-house sort of way, that same sibling/eldercare dynamic at play in his family. He has issues with his old life, and property he still owns in it. Time is doing its relentless tick-tick-tick number, asking us both at every moment, “Is this really what you want to be doing with me? I’m infinite only to myself, you know, not to you, you mere mortal.” The industry with which I’ve been connected my whole working life — publishing — is undergoing tectonic changes due to various forms of online publication, all of which affect my financial life and future and demand new responses and decisions from me. Risk and uncertainty at every turn. Anxiety’s causes are always current, yet it is also, again always, the same-old same-old.
And yet. And yet. Sometimes the door of the dark prison opens, and, with as much seeming randomness as one was got in there, one is suddenly free. Free, if one is an indigo bunting, even of the memory of ash.
And free, if one is a human writer, to remember and recall both entrapment and freedom, to consider them both part of the “riot of opposites” as the Gita puts it, the tidal turning that is life. Free to use the happenings, the mishaps, the happinesses, the mysteries in creating narratives with which we can live. Experience and its utility: the same old ticket to whatever is next, beginning and ending with the creative invention and reinvention of meaning. For nothing is wasted on us, we writers, and in that, we find our greatest luck and purpose.
Like a young brave girl leading the rest of us across deep water by stepping on stones barely visible, you encourage us back to laughter and sunlight. We leap along behind you, enjoying the process of following the indigo blue of you.
Perhaps you are the most fearless one we will ever meet, yet you never fail to look back, to check on us, making sure we live long enough to eventually fly.
May you live longer than Aunt Dot and her good sister!
“beauty for ashes…”