The Language of Birds

Mar 01

Yesterday, I saw flocks of birds, their species unknown to me, wing their way across the blue walls of heaven, headed south and east for equally unknown havens. There were decades of them, flying in unison, engaged in a singular mind and activity that, no doubt, have been used in migrations for millions of years. I watched them come from the northwest, flap over head and then fly out of sight beyond the eastern treelines.

What did it mean? I found myself wondering. I look for signs in the world around me. A shooting star, the appearance of a person or object just after we have thought about them or it, a coin in the street, a dream full of chthonic and archetypal meaning. Augury, the signs of the birds in the sky no less than any other part of the living world that continually reveals itself and by doing so initiates us to deeper levels within as we spiral through our lives. The birds give portents and omens, the creation of cities and alphabets comes from them. The language of birds is an interior one, and the men and women who understand it know what the gods know and dwell in mythology where the temporal world segues with the eternal.              

The first bird I remember was a rooster that lived nearby. I was in my crib, shadowed in the blue light of early dawn, the rooster was crowing. Its call waking me up-not just for the day, but for the life ahead of me. It always seemed fitting that this was the first bird I knew-although I never saw it, just heard its sound, and can still hear it today when I think about it.

When I was young, there were long stretches of silence and solitude. The world seemed, on occasion, overly vast, unconfined, sprawled about me in gigantic proportions. A little boy on a hill by himself in the looming dread and sparse chill that accompanies the later days of fall, when the early afternoon just after school is empty and alone. Amid the dead brown lawns and vacant houses, I often looked up into the blue reaches of the sky. There, gracefully tacking in widening circles was a vulture. Often, vultures, associated with death and scavenging, are maligned creatures. But this seems to be a projection of our own fears. Taken for what it is, as the vulture soars in the highest planes of heaven, it is silently meditating, taking it all in, its flight is unhurried. It brought peace, calm, reflection.

There was a single birdhouse in the backyard where I grew up. A simple, box shaped, plain brown, wooden place nailed to a pine tree. Cardinals nested there every year. The brilliant red plumage of the male stood out for all the more of its glory against the dull brown. I would marvel at how it seemed that only cardinals liked the house, they were the only birds that ever occupied it. Later, I learned that cardinals mate for life, and so it was the same family that lived there, year after year, raising generations of cardinals in the house we put out there for them. To this day, I feel a connection with the cardinals-as if by providing them with a place to live for such a long time, I’d earned their friendship and knew them better than others.

One of the great bird sightings in the sky is the great blue heron. It flaps ponderously, impossibly lifting the length of itself and then winging onward. When I see the heron, I think of how the Egyptians regarded the ibis as the bird of wisdom, how Hermes devised the alphabet from the leg movements of cranes. Here in America, surely, the great blue heron is a bird of wisdom that is our very own, and watching its flight and stances we can learn things heretofore unknown to us.

A red pleated woodpecker makes its home amid a row of high standing oaks to the southwestern point of my home. High above, it knocks out its meals from the wood, like a workman with a hammer, day in and day out. I recently learned their primary food is carpenter ants, of which, there are many in the area-once, there was a gigantic nest of them in the broken stump of an oak tree that fell in a storm.  The woodpecker has lived there for sometime, and seems to be undisturbed by the red-tailed hawk that, in its turn, lives in the northwestern part of the yard. The hawk announces its presence with triumphant screeching, and while this may be a way to warn others away from its territory, I am quite certain that he simply enjoys shrieking, its his way of exulting in the day, saying hello to the world as the other birds, squirrels, rabbits and small mammals dive for cover.  At night, the owls engage in a similar activity, and hoot themselves to the night, calling to each other in cries that sound like there is at least some sort of conversation taking place. This is the neighborhood of birds, where they know about each other. Along with mourning doves, mockingbirds, crows, nighthawks, listening in is hearing about a voice of nature, a music of the earth that with frogs, whales, coyotes and more is the chorus of life with all its undefined meaning-the meaning is contained in the thing itself and by seeing and hearing and experiencing it we have that meaning within as well.

We have a hummingbird feeder near the house and a ruby throated hummingbird darts to it furtively. At first, if we were near the window or moved at all, it would shoot away. But over time the little guy figured out we meant no harm and that we were just observers. No need to fear, please, hover all you want and drink your fill. My children marvel at the bird, seeing it at the feeder is a brief moment of wonder-and brevity, perhaps, sometimes should accompany wonder to truly leave its marvel in the soul. Like the cardinals from my youth, I feel a connection to the bird and see in its flight the language of birds.

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Visions of….

Feb 05

When I was younger and had more time I was fortunate enough to be a member of a number of secret societies-organizations whose meaning for existance were to initiate its members into a deeper, inner contact with their spirituality and, consequently, the world around them. The regimen consisted of study and praxis-and while it may seem rigorous to those of us who today live in a heavily secularized society that has compartmentalized all aspects of the human experience, safely consigning (confining?) it to a brief interlude during a single day of the week, I am sure that men and women of earlier times would scoff at the great latitude we were given.

Study and practice, study and practice, study and practice. We were told that if we kept our course (a word whose double meaning only just now comes to me) the experiences we sought would occur. Perhaps we were all seeking different things-or seeking for different reasons. But one experience would, at the end of all debates emerge as a common goal: Illumination.Illumination, the enlightenment of the West. The interface of our mortal consciousness with the part of us that is divine and eternal. The singular experience whereby all that ever was or will be is unveiled in all its monistic simplicity. Rarely do any attain such a state of being. I’m told it’s the result of several life-times.

More often than not, we get brief glimpses of eternity. Numinous ports in our lives that open us up to the vastness of being where we find stars burning in ourselves and others. And these singular moments were what we sought and hoped for in our work. It all sounds so lofty, rarefied states of being that remove us from the common spheres of men on the earth. But it’s not-or, rather,  it doesn’t have to be.

One of the systems I was required to work with contained spiritual visions at each stage. To have the vision was to have accomplished that part of the work. A lot of students enter into it expecting big things to happen. Sometimes they do. More often, after some months of furtive attempts and no concrete results, they move on to something else in hopes of securing a more real experience. The Mysteries were divided into the lesser and the greater, with transitions of great expectation between them.  Between the lesser and the greater is the vision of a sphere called Netzach-which literally in Hebrew means ‘victory’. Netzach is referred to often as the most ‘occult’ of all the spheres. It’s meaning was the most hidden, the most occluded from humanity. Certain clues were given: its power was said to be nature, it fulmination to be found in the act of love. Surely, a deep meditation was required to obtain the secrets that Netzach had to offer. Or was it? Sometimes, the we fail to see that the universe is, in fact, about us. The grand adventure that is life takes place all around, and it doesn’t require a great fury to sound it out.

I travel the same path to work every day. I go down a road with so many other vehicles, all fairly racing in our attempts to defy the infamous Atlanta Georgia traffic. To my left, as I bear down Post Road, I see rolling fields, emerald whatever the time of year. Rivulets hunch the valley and a gossamer, whispering fog veils the hills. Burns of orange and russet and purple shoulders of the dawn. Cows lowing in the country. Above, clouds like torn shreds of candy from a fair. A horned moon, set amid blue mists and then life falls in and I’m in the middle of what’s to come that day…

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That’s Entertainment

Jan 10

Some periods in life are definitive.  An event assumes critical and dramatic proportions and lives are defined by how they were before and after occurrences. A car crash, a key performance, a special person. But not all the times that make us who we are have so much sound and fury. Occasionally, in our long quiet moments we canoe the underground rivers of ourselves and, after traversing through long and vast channels, re-emerge. The inner journey doesn’t show its experience immediately, doesn’t reveal itself loudly. But looking back, we see the time for what it was and with nostalgia acknowledge the wonderful transitions, like seasons of the earth that we will only live through once and move into ones that are always new, the old ones just memories.

When I lived with my parents, I had a basement bedroom that was pretty much like having my own apartment. As a kid, it used to scare the hell out of me to sleep downstairs alone in the dark. I’d plan my escape routes if someone broke in and I heard them, worked out hiding places if I couldn’t get away. But later, as Middle School years passed their midmark and adolescence loomed, it was a solitude I treasured. Long hours spent at my desk writing and drawing or in my bed reading. It was an age before VCRs were common, before DVD and Internet, and so late night TV programming could often hold some interesting fare. Offbeat cartoons by Bakshi, edgy comedy shows like Saturdays and SCTV, and best of all, the eclectic variety show Nightflight-where I saw Le Planete Sauvage  for the first time.

Adolescence is usually thought of as the time when we decide who we are, when crucial decisions are made about ourselves and our roles in society. I assert that the process starts a lot earlier and is, in fact, ongoing, a process that, properly engaged, takes place during the entire expanse of a person’s life, from cradle to grave. Certainly, as the dark, unknown, complex and decidedly more ambiguous world of High School seemed imminent, I gave a lot of thought about how I was going to enter that world. I had been a chubby, geeky kid. I liked Star Wars, Micronauts, super-heroes, role-playing games, and science fiction/fantasy fiction. To say I was unathletic doesn’t really capture my deviation from the roles society foists on boys-sports bored the hell out of me. It was as simple as that. I’m sure if I tried I could have done fine. I just wasn’t interested. But one thing I was interested in was dating girls-something that definitely wasn’t in the cards for me if I kept to the course I was on. Libido is a strong motivator, perhaps the single most force in any living thing’s drive. In 8th grade I asked for a ten-speed bike and a weight set for Christmas. To my surprise, I got both. My father, keen on my motivations as any good Dad would be (I thought I was in big trouble when Dad caught me reading his Playboys, instead, he laughed). I wanted to improve myself, healthy mind healthy body all that jazz. I biked all over Athens that summer. I lifted weights like crazy. When I entered High School, friends didn’t even recognize me when I sat with them for orientation. Several minutes after asking them if I could sit with them, astonished comments came when they realized who I was.

But despite the vast transformation I’d wrought in my physique, the fact remained that I was still a card-carrying dork. I’d skip out on football games to hang out at the Paper Chase, a local record/movie/comic store. Girls weren’t any more interested in me when I was thin and in shape than when I was a chubby little guy. Something was missing. I lacked the proper narrative of myself to attract the fairer sex. I wasn’t a jock, to be sure, but I also wasn’t willing to settle into some sort of non identified anonymity. There had to be something I could do to be who I was and have it be honest, interesting, empowering and, well, attractive.  

 Late at night I’d be at home, still writing and drawing. I’d still watch TV-the hey day of music television had dawned and there were arrays of videos, often comical attempts to render songs into something that was as entertaining visually as it was audibly. I didn’t just watch music television, I also listened to the local college station. This was Athens Georgia in the exciting emergence of indie radio. Experimental, off-beat, some-times awful, but almost always interesting. What was more, there was a whole compass of ideology that went with it. Its liberal largess made things like Hellblazer and Elric not only acceptable, but part of the greater, non-musical canon. It was, you see, cool. Cool in a way that stadium sports and arena rock weren’t. Cool in a way that put paid to American Top 40 and the fall’s clothing that was so widely accepted as being in that it might as well have been a uniform.

My friends and I would trawl the air-waves and compare notes-not always agreeing, we’d often argue about whether what we listened to was worthy or crapola. One of my favorites was Screaming Blue Messiahs. Not because I remember their music fondly, in fact, I can’t remember their music at all. I said I liked them just because of their name-because it was something shocking to say and I just liked telling people I liked a band with that name. It makes me laugh whenever I think about it.

The new narrative-although perhaps it was just an expansion of the old one-was well upon me in  the years that followed. I picked up on Russian literature, wrote short stories, claimed I was a socialist, developed a penchant for mysticism. I dyed my hair red, spiked it with judicious amounts of hair-spray and gel, wore a motorcycle jacket and engineer boots and wrote reams of bad poetry. There were women here and there, nothing too special, in all seriousness. Just more stories to laugh about or feel disturbed by. But the basement and the time I spent there hadn’t let me down. In that space and the many late night hours there were the defining moments of my life, when I decided, as a boy, what I was going to be.

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760 Boulevard Athens Georgia: A Christmas Story

Dec 20

I like Christmas. But I used to hate it. Does that sound like a Christmas story to you? A bad one, at that-the most repeated theme of the holiday special from Scrooge to the Grinch. But it’s true, I did hate Christmas…so gather round children and hear the tale of the Christmas that almost wasn’t:

It was so long ago and my life was so different that it feels today like another incarnation, some weird past life that I led in my twenties where it was always night-time. I lived in a Arts and Crafts style house on Boulevard in one of Athens Georgia’s historical districts. It was a picturesque place to live, but despite its visual appeal, there were certain disadvantages. The chief of these, was that, in the winter, you froze your ass off in that house (and in the summer you fermented in your own juices, a story for another day, perhaps). No matter how hard we cleaned, it still seemed dirty and the lighting was always shadowy and dim. The place was even haunted.

Athens during the holidays is somewhat desolate: all the students and much of the University staff leave town to be with their families. Businesses slow down, the streets are nearly devoid of traffic, sort of resembling a post-apocalyptic film. A natural spirit of contemplation comes with the quiet and the cold, as well as some reflection. Who am I? What am I doing? And for those of us who don’t want to look for answers, feeling awkward with our inner conversation, try to find a way to distract that voice of the mind. Generally, this meant going out to holiday parties thrown by those of us left in town or going out to the bars where it was almost a sure thing to run into someone you knew a long time ago and reconnect (this was in that distant, barbaric time before Facebook). I always made sure that I was out and about, catting around with friends. Getting wasted and glutting on party food was part of the holiday season for me as a twentysomething in the early 1990’s.

But there was one day on the Holiday calendar this was especially difficult to accomplish: Christmas Eve. It seems like none of my mates were ever available-as much fun as we had during the rest of the month, this one night, the worst night to feel alone in a dark, cold house always culminated in myself sitting at home, alone, watching bad holiday specials and then going to sleep.

One year, things were a little different. A friend of mine that I worked with was having some problems at home and we both decided to go out and get hammered after work in protest of the mean season. Work ended a little late-and as it turned out all the bars we went to were, sensibly enough, closing early. Wherever we went, we just missed our chance to get something to drink. I’d forgotten to buy alcohol earlier-a real surprise in retrospect. But as time wore on, our chances to get a buzz to wrap around our brains became slimmer and slimmer.

As the night wore on, I kept saying, “Don’t worry, the magic of Christmas will come through. You’ll see!” a jest on the simple minded hopefulness of every holiday cartoon I’ve ever seen. But as I repeated the age old refrain, I got the weirdest feeling. It was like an invocation, like I was calling some sort of power down to earth and offering up my humble plea.

We went back to the house empty handed. So much for the Magic of Christmas. The deeper night was coming full on and I couldn’t even meet it with the dignity of a drink in my hand. But then, headlights, an engine. A car pulled up outside. Doors slamming shut, voices, a knock at the door. Two men, reeking of alcohol and grinning toothily stood on the porch, looking for a room-mate of mine that was gone for the holiday. They asked if they could come inside and I of course, offered up my abode, as humble as it was, to them. They brought some cases of beer. It turned out my friend had left his Laserdisc player at my house and in no time, we were drinking, laughing, watching Star Wars and inserting the sort of jokes those who have seen it a million times over would recognize (wretched hives of scum and villainy, bulls-eyeing womp-rats, there ain’t no invisible force guiding my destiny!). Later, through a voice slurred with drink, I repeatedly said, “See, the Magic of Christmas came through! The Magic of Christmas came through!” And indeed it had. Eventually, the two men returned to the night from whence they came. I never saw them again.


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Years in blogging

Dec 11

Earlier this week, I renewed the DNS for my blog, marking the annual for when I began the thing twenty four months ago. It didn’t occur to me last year to blog about my blog itself-I’m not really sure just why. Certainly, it makes sense as the Holiday periods slow down time for the upcoming transition from one year to the next. Time to review what we’ve done or didn’t do-how well it worked out, and to make plans for the future. When I started blogging two years ago, I’d just emerged from a major life event. On Father’s Day 2008, I collapsed, was hospitalized and discovered I was within seventy two hours or so of death. This was due to a congenital condition whose ultimate seriousness was not known to me. I lay in the hospital for three days, feeling the life drain out of me. Transfusions temporarily fixed the situation, enough for me to be released. It was a perfect day when I left the hospital, a day that was so profound it needs no poetry for expression: a blue sky, sun on my back. Each day is a gift, no moment is something we can take for granted. Life is the most valuable things, all life, human life, animal life, plant life. I was transformed by the experience: the same, but different. It was a slice of illumination, a moment so small and so vast I’ll take it with me for the rest of my life.

Fortunately for me, my condition was fixable, with corrective surgery. Post op wasn’t too fun. I went home, stinking from anaesthesia and drugs and spent the night in and out of bed, in a feverish daze. Things wound down, and eventually, I was back to physical health. Not too long after, I registered my DNS, built a web-site and started blogging. Life is short-something I understood a little more literally than many people. I’m a writer-I wanted to export my writing as fast as I could to as many people I could. Using the Internet for this was just common sense. I wasn’t sure what I’d blog about, just that I’m a writer, that I had something to say and hopefully someone would listen.

My first posts were pretty standard stuff, just my thoughts for the day. I tried to keep it interesting, and steered clear of stock like my pets, my hobbies, whatever. Then, I started writing what a friend described as parables. I’d like to think they weren’t too bad, but perhaps the Internet isn’t the best format for prose accounts of different states of being. Or was it? I took a long break from blogging-a couple of months. When I returned, I was pleasantly surprised that people had read and not only that, commented on what I wrote. I felt spurred to go on-but was still searching for my voice. The parables gave way to fairy tales with moderne political messages. These were a lot of fun to write-more biting satirical stuff than anything else. My favorites were (and still are) Three Bad Wolves and The Trials of Prince Charming.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, I tried something a little different. My kids were running around the house, it was bright and warm and August. I was drinking coffee. Lisa, my wife, went out somewhere. Amid the chaos of managing my children and their playmates, I wrote my latest blog piece. It was something I’d played around with writing for years, but never really knew what sort of format to put it in. I wrote a post called “The Little Prince.” It was about a doomed relationship I’d had with a woman years ago. I was painfully, brutally honest about the humiliation I endured, the weakness, the betrayal of my own sense of dignity. I was frank about the numbness to the event distance in time created in me-about how today, I’m somewhat dumbfounded that it ever happened. The person I was seemed like someone else-not myself at all. It was my first attempt at narrative non-fiction, memoir. I was completely overwhelmed by the response I received. People emailed me, messaged me. They told me they read the post to friends, relatives. Eventually, it started to rank on Google, and to this day I get at least one person on the planet every day (according to Google analytics) that comes across my blog because of this post. The most recent email I got about it was from India. Of course, everyone has gone through heartbreak, everyone has a story about an ex-lover that, for reasons they can’t understand, they were willing to do almost anything to stay with them, only to have it end anyway. But the coolest thing about the post wasn’t Google rankings or feeling like I’d done something and gotten accolades. The coolest thing about it was that I wrote something that resonated with other people. That what I put out there for the world to read connected me with others and I got to share with them and they shared with me.

I felt inspired to do more. I had other things, other pains and wonders from my life to put out there. A stranger wrote to me about one post, saying it moved him to tears. He thanked me for telling the events the way they happened; how honest I was about wanting to help but ultimately  avoiding the person I felt needed it because there was nothing I could do about it. He thanked me for not moralizing the story or trying to frame it in any other context than what happened. It was a post about a good friend of mine that killed himself. I’ve cried for him often over the years (and the holidays mark the annual of his death) and I finally got to relate the experience, to tell the world what a great person he was and how tragic his loss.

I got to blog about the stories of my hometown: Athens, Georgia. Every town, every person is interesting. A lot of the story is in the telling. With the post called Magazine Street I got to tell about my search for a street in Athens that doesn’t exist anymore. I was given a thumbs up by an old-timer from the Classic City, a higher accolade, I couldn’t have asked for. I also wrote about haunted houses, Christmas.

I blogged about my spiritual experiences. I reported these in complete and unexpurgated format. Adventures out of the body, encounters with supernatural beings, journeys to other worlds. This was a little fun. Some of my more skeptical friends didn’t really know what to make of it all. In fact, a writer from the Huffington Post that I clashed with online (I was speaking out about the mistreatment of the Palestinians) tried to discredit me by finding my blog and putting up the hyperlink. But more than that, a lot of folks contacted me in private and related their own experiences. It seems that everyone has had some sort of interface with a world of marvel, a moment of the miracle where all things seemed possible. Many of them said I was brave for putting it out there. I suppose in today’s lest respectful and scandalous age that could be the case-my own hope is that by being open and honest I’ve written something that was worth reading. But then, that’s what I feel about anything I’ve ever done. Honesty in our creative endeavors, whether it’s writing, music, art, what have you, is essential for its meaning. Art without meaning (and here, I indicate inner meaning, not necessarily something high-brow or philosophical) is useless.  

I’m going to post stuff that I personally liked from the past two years to mark my annual. Thanks for reading my blog-if you have anything you’d like to read, just let me know. It’s been an honor.

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