by Frank Craig
The Great Divine
I napped for a few minutes in an overstuffed chair in Barnes and Noble and, while regaining awareness, was startled by the bright image of a red-feathered bird on the cover of a large book. The photograph wasn't, however, of a bird but of the "The Great Divine," a female impersonator. Nonetheless, his red swept-back wig, red v-shaped lips, and black eyebrows had the angularity and proportions of a bird's face. I've not since looked at fashion-plate, big-hair models or rock-n-roll, big-hair bands in quite the same way. After all, humans and birds share not only facial proportions but a long list of social behaviors including: vocal calls, territoriality, mating, flocking both to feed themselves and to defeat enemies, rearing offspring, and even choosing which offspring to rear. The loudest hatchlings and the loudest infants are fed first and most. They advertise their health by vigorous movements and the red color inside their beaks and mouths and on their lips.
These striking parallels occur despite the presumed lack of a direct ancestral link between birds and humans. Evolutionary-developmental biology now tells us that metazoans share fundamental building blocks, known as Hox genes, and have done so for about 500 million years. Even though mammals separated from dinosaurs approximately 225 million years ago and birds from lizards sometime later, our Hox foundations suggest that distraught females, whether primate or avian, will sometimes act alike.
She fluttered on the ground, her right wing immobile. I picked her up and put her inside a large glass tank with seeds, water, and morning sunlight where she ate, splashed, and sometimes called to other birds outside. She also hid from me under an inverted box at one end of the tank. I again picked her up after several days and she bit me in the soft meat between my thumb and finger. I gave her a flight test, she passed, I turned her loose, and she rifled to the top of a tall mulberry tree at one end of my barn. She immediately chose freedom and the more familiar things of a sparrow's world. She never returned and, by now, I know that she existed only through DNA arrangements scattered in her offspring and in my quirky mind.
High-cheeked, luminescent hazel eyes, russet hair that was sometimes a mane and sometimes feathers, clear light skin with little need for cosmetics, well-formed hands and fingers...even the smallest one ringed with a bright yellow Band-Aid that she had taken from her daughter’s supply: Sparrow glowed in her 38th year, a beacon to even the dullest male eyes. She announced in our first five minutes together, “I know that I am going to need you for a long time.” She wanted a shrink who was a prosthesis, not a repairman.
She consulted me about her slightly above average weight, her slightly thinning hair, her infrequent smoking, a glitch in one of her children, a home that she found to be disorderly, and the persistent annoyances of her marriage. A toss of her head opened and closed each paragraph and she sometimes reprimanded her children as if pecking at them.
Our similarities at first made each of us suspicious of the other. We needed a partnership but neither of us wanted too much of one. She expected extra attention from men and worked to get it, but disliked their motives. I was a man; therefore, she was guarded. I was also 20 years older than she and equally guarded. I was flattered by her suspicion but careful not to elicit more of it. After all, I cherished my stuffy reputation, one that I inspected each morning for cuts from small town gossip.
She and I eventually did well. Perfectionistic, determined, self-sacrificing, and idealistic but, at times, utterly selfish even when carrying a cross for one cause or another, we each drove fast in fast cars and enjoyed outrageous but legal things. We liked to puzzle our companions but felt bad when we annoyed or hurt them. We both liked to win but in our peculiar contest, I had to win in ways that set her up to win. Having my way with her required that she get her way with herself, family and friends. She was both clay for me and judge, a customer, however, that Rick would have spanked and evicted from his bar.
This proud bird angered when she or the events and personalities around her lapsed from her standards. She believed that things happened for a reason, surprises predicted disasters, and disasters were earned through her own character defects. She even took blame for the way her husband annoyed her and angered about her anger! If misfortune was undeserved (a rarity), then she decanted righteous indignation and passed the brimming glass to everyone.
Irritability is often a first step in depression. We surrender to despair but we first get nasty and fight to impose order around us, making our kids, mates, and business partners behave by our standards. Road rage? Ceaseless nagging? Sometimes adult conversation will help. If not, then some cognitive therapy may help you to re-label the noisy-mufflered, booming delinquent who drives from the back seat but cuts in front: you simply let him go on his way. And if you feel helpless to manage your thoughts, then a boost in your serotonin—that sweet stuff from 3 billion years ago that still lays out not only your forebrain at conception but also baton-waves your gut, your sleep, your temperature, your guilt, and your self-esteem—will very likely instate not only asphalt civility, but also less fretting about the clutter that others scatter in your life.
Antidepressants, however, brought temporary peace to Sparrow but made her fat in ways that neither of us would tolerate. Mood stabilizers would have done the same. Stimulants, on the other hand, did nothing for her organization and memory.
Thus, I taught her in a mantric way but with modern content about anger management and automatic thoughts and challenges to them. I led her to viewpoints that not only fog the lamp, mirror, and lens of self-doubt but also open our mind to new possibilities. I also shared my view that mom’s lectures reassure mom more than they change children. Further, differences in even our fine details have significant biological foundations. We do not choose to be different, we simply are different and there is no point to lecturing children to correct those differences. She had trouble applying these tools but she persisted, driven by her hunger for freedom.
Doubt slipped away as it often does in good times and when difficult tasks become first manageable, then simple. She applied my lessons gradually and she lectured, yelled, and obsessed less and discovered that her home neither crumbled nor went into foreclosure. Nor did her children fail school, start smoking, get pregnant or diseased, or develop criminal behavior.
She found part-time work where her beauty gained her the opportunity to be smart, her children more often managed school without her meddling, and she remained mentally and physically 25 while her chronometer rolled toward 39. She discovered like Wendy, Paul, and John that she could fly and the two of us found trust and caring that penetrated our self-woven, hair-shirts of duty and honor.
She left with "I know that I'll need you again and will give you a call."
She demanded to see me NOW. Her immediacy was not new but the quaver in her voice was.
She had become hollow-cheeked and hollow-necked with translucent skin, her dilated pupils radiated fear from her deepest being. She had lumps in her breasts, preliminary tests suggested cancer. She alternated between rage about “why now, things had been going well, my husband finally got a job and is out of the house” and forced laughter that health insurance would pay for the implants that she wanted for her 40th birthday. She also had repetitive thoughts of suicide, an option that would let her migrate quickly to another world.
Her mind was filled with "unfair" and "I can't go through this..."
I first distracted her with some gossip: sex and scandal are usually more salient than disfigurement, death, and equity disputes with God. “This reminds me of the time that...” led to sharing my own misadventures, especially the hairy ones that occurred over the last 40 years. Her eyes flared but with fascination instead of terror. She could again think.
Early memories are a powerful eraser when we listen to the songs and look at the pictures and revisit the places of our past. She reminisced about her teen years and mentioned her fascination with preachers. She disbelieved their message but enjoyed their command, praise, and apparent transcendence. What they said mattered less than how they said it. A mullah might have served just as well as a charismatic Baptist or priest. (Even starlings understand these things...)
To hell with reason, she wanted a shaman: I spoke, and she heard the whirlwind—but talking to her, rather than to Job: "Who are you to complain? Four billion years made you. Your mothers survived drought, hunger and long journeys across dry plains. They delivered children on a pad of leaves and picked the children that lived and those that died just as they chose between competing fathers for them. You and your daughter will also do such things. It's in your nature and in your obligations to all of your past mothers, as much as to your children, that you live. You WILL come out of this..."
A cautious glance in my direction. Softly, "Are you just saying that? Don't lie to me."
"I have never lied to you and never will...we are too alike and I care too much about you to lie, even about death." Of course I lied, but also crossed a boundary and shared a forbidden truth, “I care too much...”
Robust spirits are said to win battles even with cancer but, unlike Job, she accepted a comforter that evening. I promised to hypnotize her if needed, but did not mention that I probably already had, substituting a different shower of beliefs for those that drove her to my door. She still wanted no medicines except for a tranquilizer at bedtime. She also picked up on my comment about "four billion years" and demanded something to read about evolution.
Later, beside my wood stove I had a solitary rage, a recitation of “unfair” no different from hers, a train like the swallows that once trailed my cat as he walked across the barnyard and back to my kitchen, each bird screeched, self-aimed, and sped one at a time on a line that ran just above Fred's lowered tail, along the length of his back, and then up between his ears and just above his eyes as the next bird began its swoop. Unlike Fred, I had no big friend to chase them away.
She came back in four days...no longer hollow-cheeked, the panic gone from her eyes and voice. She wore a red-orange sweater, black slacks, and a black leather jacket. She also cracked bright blue gum.
I opened: "You clash. I don't care about the noise, just the color of that stuff you're chewing."
She parried: "Tough! I'm NOT spitting it out."
"It's good to have you back..."
"I saw a surgeon who said that I probably don't have cancer but I should have a biopsy."
She scheduled it. She also bought a pack of cigarettes and abandoned her no-smoking program. She next bought season Phillies tickets and planned to take her son to the games. She had grown up near the stadium and regularly hiked with her uncle through the litter and crowds and next to the traffic on "PASH-yunk Street, not "Pa-si-YUNK!" (Oh...) Sparrow wanted to relive those memories and to share them with her son. She mentioned her dream of playing a piano again. She wanted to perform Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. Of course, she wanted a concert grand rather than an upright, but what-the-hell, at this point I would have bought her one.
“Sagan and Druyan first opened evolution's door for me when I read Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Here’s my copy.”
She laughed as she left into the cold night: "Oh good, I get cancer and become an atheist!"
We met after her biopsy.
"Waiting for my results was tough. I chased my kids over to the neighbor's and sat by my phone all day. I also read three chapters of the evolution book. What I understand makes sense...I have a realist's mind."
I smiled: "You have a realist's mind but you believed my conviction the other night more than what I said about your living. You knew that I lied but my certainty made the lie a fact."
"I know...and I needed you to do it. I held on to your feeling that I would live and also your remark that 'shit happens.' There doesn't have to be a reason for what I am to go through."
Her lumps were fibrocystic and she would have to pay for her implants when she got them. We talked about reasons for her life in particular, not life in general. She will inevitably weave her own special order from her things and the people around her as every living creature has done for 4 billion years. Along those lines, she would get an electronic keyboard now and candelabra, vase, flowers, and maybe implants for her 40th. She also intended to take lessons and save money for a black glossy Yamaha if not a Steinway.
She blew me a kiss over her right shoulder as she left, returning to freedom and the more familiar things of a sparrow's world. I am older, however, and will be scattered bits of genes in my offspring and in the DNA sequences of their mind and hers.
I went to the darkness, collected wood from underneath a plastic tarp, carried it inside, and eventually sat in warm peace by my stove while I waited for sleep and talked with my departed cats about the many ways that we flock and why I made friends with a bird. g
Frank Craig, perpetual skeptic and optimist, usually takes pictures but sometimes translates visual images into verbal ones. "Stubborn, obstinate, and set in his ways" described his father and also describe him. A natural "cynic" who distrusts authority but is convinced that truth is individual but knowable only by personal investigation. He likes old things rather than new, and oak, stone and glass rather than vinyl, plastic, or chrome. He also likes all cats more than most animals and nearly any animal more than he likes most people. He also believes that the most dangerous liar is one who believes his own story, that women lie more than men and that it is never possible to have a conversation with just one woman. (He manages heartbreak—about once every two years—by reading the Mike Hammer series, in chronological order.) Frank's favorite book, however, is All the Strange Hours, an autobiography by his spiritual father, Loren Eiseley. His favorite music is the Larghetto from Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor.
2003. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2003 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. All rights reserved.