© Lia DeLand 2019 All Rights Reserved
Because Paul Selig’s book I Am the Word (2010, Tarcher/Penguin) made such an impact on my life I wondered if it might be possible to write a “children’s” story based on the principles in the book…
Special thanks to: Marlene Walker: writer, actress, artist, and editor extraordinaire; Candace Kerber: for your wonderful suggestions; David O’Neil: for your insightful and challenging mind, beautiful heart, and questing spirit
Humm perches delicately on a pebble, looking up at the sky and wishing she could fly. Her feathers tingle as she imagines whizzing through the clouds. The rush of wind…the thrill of soaring and swooshing through the clouds… Suddenly she stops and glances around. It’s dangerous to think about flying. But she does think about it. Often. She sighs and her wings droop.
“What’s wrong?” says Caterpillar.
Humm looks down at her tiny legs. “It takes me forever to get anywhere. I’m exhausted. And I’m always getting stepped on.”
“Can’t you fly?”
She shakes her head. “I’m a Bridd. Briddas can’t fly. That’s just the way it is.”
This morning, however, Humm does A Very Brave Thing. Squirrel is romping around in the grass, playing with a pinecone. There is a flickering of grass as Rat sneaks up on him. Humm’s feathers go all prickly. She races over the grass and attacks Rat, scratching and pecking. Her feathers flash like emeralds. Squirrel zips up the tree. Humm whacks Rat’s nose with her wings. He flinches and she beats her wings faster. Rat is so unnerved by these buzzing wings he dives into the nearest burrow.
Bluebird sees the commotion and runs to join Humm. He watches for Rat while she catches her breath.
She’s trembling. “What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid?”
“I think it was brave,” says Bluebird.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” mutters Humm. “And I smell like Rat. Ugh.”
Bluebird leads her over to a puddle. “What do you see?”
“I see a very foolish little Bridd.”
He shakes his head. “What I see is a very small creature with a Very Big Heart.”
She stammers and coughs and can’t think what to say. Finally, she’s so embarrassed she hops in the puddle and takes a bath.
“Come to the river,” says Bluebird. “I have a question for Heron.”
They start off toward the river, shifting their packs. All the Briddas carry them. They hold everything they need to survive.
“What do you want to ask Heron?” says Humm.
Bluebird looks back at Squirrel, safely up in the tree. “Something is bothering me, Humm. About The Way Things Are.”
“What do you mean?”
“What does Squirrel yearn for?”
“Exactly. Nuts. And what does Butterfly yearn for?”
She looks around. “Flowers?”
“Right. She yearns for flowers. There are nuts for Squirrel and flowers for Butterfly. But what about Briddas? We yearn to fly. Why do we yearn to fly if we can’t fly?” He lifts his wings and lets the breeze ruffle his feathers. “Sometimes I wonder if we really can fly, but we don’t believe it.”
Unfortunately, Raven sees him. He wallops Bluebird with his heavy black wings. “What are you doing? You’re a Bridd, not a Bird!” Raven stalks off majestically, his glossy feathers glistening in the sunshine. Mockingbird follows close behind, as usual. He pecks at Bluebird, squawking, “You’ll never be a Bird if you break the Rules!” and then hurries off to catch up with Raven.
Bluebird picks himself up and sighs, “So many Rules.”
Humm agrees. The Briddas believe they’ll turn back into Birds if they can obey all the Rules. They try and try, but they make mistakes, so they feel bad. They try all sorts of ways to make themselves feel better. Pigeon eats, but she never feels full enough. Dove takes care of everyone else, and the more exhausted she gets the better she feels. Raven puffs himself up and makes more Rules. Mockingbird follows Raven around, repeating everything he says. Blue Jay is cranky, and the angrier he gets the better he feels. Peacock struts around, showing off his beautiful feathers. Starling pecks at the smallest and weakest Briddas. Sparrow tries to please everyone. Duck worries. Woodpecker bangs his head and complains about how much he suffers. The more miserable they feel, the more they strut, puff, and bang their heads.
Bluebird dusts off his pack. “It’s so heavy. And it hurts.” He stops and looks at it. “I wonder what it would be like to put it down?”
“But it keeps us safe!”
Humm wonders why Bluebird isn’t afraid. She’s afraid all the time.
Pigeon, Duck, and Blue Jay come through the trees, and they all walk on to the river.
Humm hops as fast as she can to keep up. Bluebird lets her get up onto his back where she clings to his pack. “Bluebird lifted his wings!” she whispers to Pigeon. “And Raven saw him!”
Pigeon tries to stretch her wings but trips and plops on her face. “Ooof.” She picks herself up. “It’s too-too-too dangerous. Someday the Teacher will come over the mountains and turn us back into Birds.” She pounces on a bug.
Humm says, “Maybe it will be another Cardinal. He said we were all Birds. He said we could fly.”
Duck hushes her. “You mustn’t talk about that, Humm. Raven and his friends said he was dangerous. They killed him, remember? If you start talking about Cardinal, they’ll think you’re dangerous, too!”
Humm buries her head in Bluebird’s feathers.
Blue Jay frowns. “If any magical Teacher was going to come, he would have done it by now. No one is coming.”
Duck glances up at the snowy peaks surrounding the valley. “Maybe the mountains are too high. Maybe he can’t find us.”
Pigeon says, “Thank goodness they’re too-too-too high. They keep enemies out.”
Starling comes along on her way to the river. Humm scrunches herself as small as possible, but Starling pecks her anyway.
As she passes, Duck hears something. “Are you singing?”
Starling jumps. “Of course not!” She pecks at him, too. “Briddas don’t sing!”
When they get to the river, everyone is panicking. There’s a new enemy in the valley, a Fox!
“Tell us what to do!” they say to Raven.
“Follow the Rules!” he says. Mockingbird echoes him, pecking at the nearest Bridd.
Fox is stealthy, swift, and deadly. As the days pass more and more Briddas disappear. They’re all terrified.
Bluebird sighs. “If only we could fly away from him.”
They try finding better hiding places. They try staying awake all night. They try standing guard for each other. Nothing works.
One morning Humm finds a scattering of blue feathers by the river.
Her heart breaks. She’s so sad she forgets about everything else, even Fox. And she’s angry that Bluebird is gone. Angry they can’t fly away from their enemies. Angry the Teacher hasn’t come over the mountains to help them. And when she sees how timid she’s always been, she’s angry at herself.
She sits by the river staring up at the mountains. Duck tries to hide her with his wings.
Pigeon hops around, slipping and sliding in the mud.
Dove frets, “Poor Humm. Shall I go fetch a bug?”
Blue Jay nudges her. “Come on, Humm, snap out of it.”
Humm doesn’t seem to hear. They get more and more worried about her.
Duck fusses. “Humm, talk to us.”
Humm says, “It’s about the nuts.”
“We need to be able to fly away from our enemies.”
Duck gasps. Blue Jay blusters. Pigeon falls in a puddle. Woodpecker gets so excited he accidently bumps into Blue Jay’s pack.
Blue Jay snaps, “Don’t touch my pack!”
Woodpecker slinks away and bangs his head.
Humm takes a trembly breath and draws herself up to her full no-bigger-than-a-mushroom height. She adjusts her pack and begins walking east, taking one tiny step after another.
“Where are you going?” says Duck.
“Over the mountains,” she says.
“What are you going to do-do-do?” flutters Pigeon.
“I’m going to find that Teacher and bring him back,” she says.
“Impossible!” says Duck.
“It’s too-too-too dangerous,” says Pigeon. “Fierce storms! Terrible enemies!”
“Monsters!” says Sparrow.
“There’s nothing on the other side,” grumbles Blue Jay. “An endless desert.”
“Can I help?” says Dove. “I could carry your pack.”
Humm keeps walking. Starling pecks her.
Peacock is taking a long elegant bath in the river. “Don’t be silly, Humm. You’ll get dirty.”
Raven screeches at her. “You’re breaking the Rules! You’re putting all of us in danger! Like your great-great-grandmother did!”
Humm flinches. She is more frightened than she’s ever been, but she keeps walking. Her friends stand by the river and watch her walking away, getting smaller and smaller.
Day after day she walks across the valley with her heavy pack. She pushes through tall grass and climbs over sticks and rocks. She circles around rabbit holes, trees, rotten logs, and sticker bushes.
She has to be constantly alert for enemies. One long night she shivers under a pile of rocks while Coyotes romp all around her, yipping at the moon.
Snake is the worst. The first time one comes gliding through the grass she jumps in the air and squeaks out loud. Fortunately, there’s a large lumpy bulge in his stomach. He flicks his tongue at her and slithers on.
She’s afraid she’ll never reach the other side of the mountains. But soon she learns how to be silent and still, cover herself with dirt, and blend in with the rocks and earth. It helps that she’s so tiny and slow because many creatures never even notice her.
It takes Humm many days to cross the valley. She reaches the hills, then the mountains. She’s exhausted. Her feathers are dirty and scraggly. The way gets steeper and hotter. One afternoon she stops to rest on a high rocky cliff. She’s tired, hungry, and thirsty. Her pack hurts. It feels like it’s getting heavier and heavier. The valley, surrounded by high snowy peaks, is spread out below her. She thinks about Pigeon and Duck. She thinks about the cool river.
Looking ahead she sees tall granite cliffs and white snowfields running up the mountainside. How will she ever walk up and over those peaks? It’s impossible. And what’s on the other side? Desert? Monsters? How will she ever find the Teacher? She doesn’t even know what sort of creature he is. Maybe it’s just a story. Maybe she’s doing all this for nothing.
She feels small, weak, and alone. She wants to go home. She adjusts her heavy pack and starts walking back down the mountain.
Then she passes a clump of blue lupine and remembers those blue feathers scattered by the river. She stands there for a long time. Slowly she turns and starts climbing up the dusty and rocky slope again. She trudges on, day after day. Once in a while, violent thunderstorms roar through the mountains and she has to find shelter quickly among rocks and root tunnels. Thunderstorms always frightened her, but for the first time she notices the strange and wonderful smell of the storm.
When she reaches the snowfields, she sinks in the snow and gets stuck. She tries walking slowly, walking fast, hopping, and sliding her tiny feet, but nothing works. She keeps getting stuck. Then she remembers Bluebird wondering what it would be like to put his pack down. It’s a terrifying thought. She looks anxiously over her shoulder, but there’s no one there to scold her. Up here on the mountain, in all this silence and space, the Rules are beginning to look a little silly.
She takes off the pack and holds it close. She’s scared and dizzy, but she sets it down and waits. Nothing bad happens, so she stretches her wings. The sun is warm on her back. She takes a small step. She sinks a little in the snow, but only up to her belly. She discovers she can scooch herself over the snow by paddling her wings as if she were a little boat. When she gets tired, she flips over and does the backstroke! It’s slow and exhausting but scooch by scooch she makes progress.
All the scooching and paddling is so absorbing she gets careless. Suddenly a huge animal is bounding toward her through the snow. It has thick fur, a short tail, and tufty ears. She dives into a tiny crevice in a wall of rock. In a flash Cat is upon her. Her heart pounds as he sticks his big furry paw into the crevice. He smells sharp and sour. He can’t quite reach her, but his claws are long, and the tip of one razor sharp claw rakes her chest. It slices through the blue and green feathers and leaves a thin trail of blood. Terrified, Humm holds her breath and flattens herself as far as she can into the back of the crevice. Cat stretches, strains, and snarls, but can’t quite reach her. Eventually he gives up and wanders off, yowling bitterly.
It’s two days before she dares to come out of the crevice. She’s sore and scared, and a line of dried blood runs down the middle of her chest. She waits until the sun is high, hoping Cat is sleeping. She pokes her head out, listening and watching. All is silent. Cautiously resuming her journey, she travels at midday and hides at night. Twice Cat sniffs her out, but Humm chooses her hiding places well and he gives up.
She finally reaches the topmost ridge late one morning as a storm rolls up from the other side of the mountains. It’s wide open on the ridge and there’s nowhere to take shelter. She feels panicky until she realizes it’s not a thunderstorm, just a gentle snowstorm. There’s nothing to do but fluff out her feathers and surrender to the storm. She waits and watches through the long day as flake by flake the snow covers her over and the world slowly disappears.
She thinks about her long journey, her terrible fears, the pack she left lying in the snow, and the wound on her chest. She’s all alone on an open ridge in the middle of a snowstorm. There’s no safe place and no one to help her.
All her fears get bigger and bigger. Fears of taking a risk. Fears of failure. Fears of being alone. Fears of freezing to death.
And then…Something. Cracks. Open. She takes a deep breath and lets the fears well up. She sees how they’ve kept her small and afraid. Instead of squashing them down she lets them get bigger and a strange thing happens. They soften. They dissolve. They turn into mist. She’s alone but not lonely. There’s nowhere to hide from Cat but she isn’t afraid. If he comes, he comes.
She wakes at dawn, swaddled in snow. She didn’t freeze to death. Cat didn’t eat her. The rising sun hits her frosty cocoon and each snowflake bursts into dazzling colors. She shakes her wings, scattering all the fears, all the Rules. Paddling herself over the soft new snow to the crest of the ridge, she looks down into the world on the other side.
No monsters. No desert. Snowy slopes descend into a wide green valley. Somewhere in this valley there is a Teacher. Raising her wings, she whooshes down the slope on her belly. It feels like f-l-y-i-n-g. She is filled with the wonder of speed and the sun sparkling on snow.
She glides down the mountainside until she reaches the forest and bungs up against a knot of gnarly trees. Lying on her back, all tangled up in juniper branches, she hears a whistley sort of singing. Looking up, she sees Robin dancing on a branch.
“What’s all the whoo-bub?” he pipes.
Humm, too surprised to be polite, says, “How did you get up there?”
He flies to a lower branch. “Well, how did you get down there?”
Humm shivers. Her feathers stand on end. “You can fly? You’re…a Bird?”
He frowns. “Hm. Did you bump your head when you crashed, sugarbug?”
Humm flaps around excitedly, getting herself even more tangled up. “You’re a Bird! A Bird!”
“No doubt about it,” he says, doing a rhumba. “I’m a Bird.” He stops dancing and frowns at her. “And why are you scrabbling around in the snow, sweetbeetle? You’d be a lot safer up here.”
She sighs. “I can’t fly.”
“No, I’m a Bridd.”
He stares at her. “Hm. Wings: check. Feathers: check. Tail: check. Are you sure you’re not a Bird?”
“I know I look like a Bird, but I’m not. I’m a Bridd. Briddas can’t fly.”
He gasps. “Egads. Why not?”
“We used to be Birds, a long time ago, but we broke the Rules.”
He can’t make head or tail of this, so he asks her where she comes from.
“From the other side of the mountains.”
“And are there more…boshed-in-the-head-whatchamacallits, like you?”
“Briddas. Yes, of course. Swallows, Ducks, Herons, Pigeons, even Robins…”
“And none of you can fly? Boogie through the blue? Caper through the clouds?”
“No. It’s too dangerous. It’s against the Rules.”
“If you can’t fly then how did you get here, sweetiebug?”
Shocked, he looks down at this weensy creature sitting in the snow and thinks of her walking all that way. He’s never been anywhere. When migrating Birds pass overhead, he’s filled with envy. He wonders where they’ve been and where they’re going. He yearns to do something adventurous.
“You walked over the mountains? On those tiny toes? All by yourself?”
“So you’re an adventurer!” He dances along the branch. “Like me! I’m a swashbuckler! I go on great adventures!”
“Well…” He coughs and flies down beside her. “This isn’t safe, you know. Grooving around on the ground like this.”
Humm shivers. “Is Fox here? And Cat?”
“Of course. Fox, Cat, Snake…. And if you lean too far over the edge of the big pond there’s Frog. Absolutely enormous. Big bulgy eyes. Long sticky tongue. Ugh. Why did you walk all this way?”
“I came to find a Teacher. He’s going to turn us back into Birds again. Do you know him? Did he teach you to fly?”
“Teach me to fly? Of course not. What sort of creature is he?”
Humm sighs. “Actually, we’re not sure. He’s very special. Maybe even magical.”
Robin shrugs. “Sorry, honeybug. Never heard of him.”
She sighs. “I see. Thank you very much.” She turns and begins paddling off.
“Wait! Sugarbeetle! Where are you going?”
“To find the Teacher, of course.”
He flaps and flutters. “But but but… You don’t know where you’re going! You don’t know how to find him! You don’t even know how to fly, for goodness sake!”
She shrugs. “I know. Bye!”
Robin watches her disappearing down the mountain, a tiny dark dot on the white snow. All his feathers tingle as he yearns to join her and go somewhere new. There’s a voice in his head saying, “This is an adventure! Don’t miss it!” But another voice says, “Are you crazy? You’ll get lost! You’ll get eaten! You’ll starve! You’ll die!” He stands there, frozen. Then his wings rev up, all by themselves, and he takes off down the mountain. One voice says, “Aaaaaah, what are you doing?! This is c-r-a-z-y!” and the other voice says, “Yay! Let’s go! Tutti-frutti!”
It doesn’t take him long to find her. As he flies over, he calls down, “I’m coming along, sugarbug. For a little while. I know a guy…”
“But I won’t walk!” he croaks.
They race down the mountain, Humm sliding down the slopes and Robin flying from tree to tree, dancing and singing as he waits for her to catch up. He warns her about dangers like cliffs and Cats, so she can go faster. Even so, it takes all day to reach the hills where the snow melts into mud and muck. He tells her about Owl. “He’s very old,” says Robin. “If anyone knows about this Teacher, he does.”
They trudge on through a thick woodland and before nightfall come to an ancient oak tree. Robin takes a slight detour and finds a big juicy beetle for Owl. As they approach the tree a soft whooing comes from one of the upper branches. A moment later Owl swoops down to join them on the ground. His feathers are a bit thin and scraggly, but he holds himself with great dignity.
Robin lays the beetle at his feet and Owl gulps it down.
“Go ahead, twitterbug,” says Robin. “Tell him why we’re here.”
Humm begins telling him about her quest, but Owl interrupts. “I beg your pardon?”
Robin whispers, “I forgot about that. He doesn’t hear as well as he used to.” Chattering loudly, he explains what they’re doing.
Owl frowns fiercely at Humm. “Teach you to fly? Turn you into a Bird?” She nods her tiny head.
“How extraordinary,” he huffs. No, I’ve never heard of a Teacher like that. Maybe Snake would know. He’s even older than I am.”
Robin thanks him and they are about to leave when Owl shuffles his large knobby feet. “May I suggest you spend the night under the tree? I’m told it’s quite commodious. It would be lamentable if I (ahem) mistook you for a mouse.”
They see the point at once. The root system is indeed “commodious,” and they make themselves comfortable.
Humm takes a deep breath. “What a wonderful smell.”
“What smell?” says Robin.
“The roots of the tree. It’s homey. Comforting.”
Robin tries this. “You’re right,” he says, surprised.
“Who is this Snake?” she asks him.
“He’s very old, so maybe he will know something.” He sighs deeply. “But…”
He shudders. “He’s massive. Monstrous. He lost an eye a while back. Very cranky. Doesn’t like dancing.” He groans. “But he loves little Birds.”
Humm thinks about that. “How are we going to talk to him without getting eaten?”
“I don’t know,” he sighs. “It’s tricky.”
They sleep peacefully under the tree while silent wings sail overhead.
When the sun is up, Robin shakes himself and does a jig, but quietly so he won’t wake Owl. “Come on, sweetiebug,” he whispers. “Let’s shake a leg.” Their journey is much slower now that Humm has to walk.
It takes several days to reach the place where Snake lives. A wide rocky hillside slopes down to the river. They sit at the top, hidden in thick weeds, making a plan.
At midday when Snake is asleep, they come out of the weeds and tiptoe around the hillside, searching. They find the tip of his thick, pale, mottled tail sticking out of a large crevice. Then they find a pile of boulders lying angled against each other in just the right way.
Humm tucks herself into a hiding place. “You can do this, Robin! You have magical feet!”
“Okay, sugarbeetle. Here goes.” He shakes himself until all his feathers puff out. He creeps up to the tail and gives it a sharp peck. It flicks and disappears. A moment later the huge head of the sleepy monster appears, blinking groggily in the bright sunshine. Robin flaps around, dancing and singing, and Snake slowly wakes up and starts sliding out of the crevice. And out. And out. He turns toward Robin and fixes him with that one, fierce, cold-blooded eye. When Robin sees how enormous Snake really is, he chokes. He loses his boogie. He freezes.
Humm bursts out of her hiding place. “Dance, Robin! Jive! Tutti-frutti!”
Robin jumps and starts dancing madly toward the pile of boulders. Snake slithers closer and closer. Robin yelps and dances faster. Just as Snake opens his mouth to strike, Robin squeezes into a narrow tunnel between the boulders. Snake lunges after him, forcing his big head into the little tunnel.
Robin, terrified and breathless, squeezes through the tunnel and out into the open. He turns and waits. Snake rams his head through the tunnel and out the other side. He opens his mouth and tries to charge but he can’t move. His enormous body is too big to fit through the narrow tunnel. He pushes and strains but can’t move forward and can’t back up. His long tail thrashes around on the other side of the boulders. He’s stuck.
Humm jumps up and down. “It worked, Robin! You did it!”
Robin stands there panting, with his knees wobbling and his tongue hanging out.
Humm takes a deep breath and cautiously hops a little closer to Snake. “Excuse me, sir,” she says, as politely as she can, “We’re sorry to bother you.” Snake slowly turns towards her and Humm takes a step back. “We’re looking for a Teacher.” Snake flicks his tongue at her, and she takes another step back. “A very special Teacher, maybe even magical…” Snake leans toward her. She quakes. “Have you heard of such a Teacher? Sir?”
Snake stares at her. Robin is in no mood for dilly-dallying after what he’s been through. He loses his temper, jumps up on the back of the reptile’s neck, and pecks at the big lumpy head. “Wake up, you stinky skink!”
Snake opens his huge mouth, flashes his fangs, and hisses at them. On the other side of the tunnel his long body snaps and writhes. He can’t move his head enough to strike at Robin or throw him off. Robin digs his little claws into Snake’s neck and hangs on while Snake, enraged, tries to twist around and bite him. “Answer her!” Robin says, pecking at him and avoiding the enormous fangs. “Do you know this Teacher? Have you ever seen him?”
“No!” says Snake.
“Never?” says Robin, still pecking.
“NO!” hisses Snake, furious. “NEVER!”
Robin stops pecking. He clings to the back of Snake’s neck, shaking and panting.
Humm droops. So that’s the end of it. Not even the oldest creatures in the valley know about this Teacher. He doesn’t exist. It’s all been for nothing. She stares off into the distance, waiting for Robin to recover his breath. She thinks of the weeks and weeks of hardships and dangers. She thinks of the long hard journey back to her valley and back to Fox, with no Teacher and no hope.
She looks back at Robin. Something is wrong. A shiver of panic runs through her and makes her feathers stand on end. “Robin! Get off!”
He looks around, bewildered. “Why? What’s wrong?”
She nods behind him at the little tunnel under the boulders, where Snake is stuck. Or had been stuck. “He’s getting longer! He’s coming through!”
Robin looks down at Snake and is filled with terror. He is coming through. Slowly and silently he’s thinning his big heavy body down to the size of the tunnel and squeezing himself through. His neck is slowly getting longer. In a moment he’ll be able to twist his head around. Robin sees the huge mouth opening. He sees the fangs.
Humm hops up and down and flaps her wings. “Go! Go! Go!” She charges at Snake and buzzes at his face, distracting him long enough to let Robin get away. They speed back up the hillside and don’t stop until they’re at the top of the bluff. They pause, breathless, to look back. Snake is still, slowly but surely, squeezing his long thick body through the little tunnel. They decide not to wait.
They don’t stop until dusk. They find safe shelter under a couple of fallen logs. As they’re falling asleep Humm chuckles.
“What’s that about?” murmurs Robin.
“Stinky skink.” She chuckles again. “Wherever does that come from?”
Robin smiles. “My mum. No one got near her chicks. She was fierce.”
They sleep until noon. From the top of a high crag they look back to see if there is any sign of Snake. There isn’t.
“What now?” says Robin.
Humm sighs. “Go home, I guess. There’s no Teacher. It was just a story.”
Robin thinks about Snake and shivers. “He was scary. If it weren’t for you, I’d be a lump in his belly. But there’s one thing that puzzles me.”
“When you buzzed at him so I could get away…” He hesitates. “…you flew. It didn’t last long, but I saw you. You were flying!”
“Impossible. Briddas can’t fly.”
Robin looks up at the sky. “What’s that?” As Humm looks up, he gives her a little nudge. She loses her balance and falls over the edge. A moment later she’s buzzing angrily at his head. “Why did you do that?”
He just stands there, looking at her. All of a sudden, she realizes what she is doing and falls awkwardly to the ground. She starts shivering. She runs under the nearest bush, burrows under the leaves, and disappears.
Robin follows her. “Why are you hiding? Did you see something?” There’s no answer. He flies up to a branch and looks all around. He flies back down to the trembling little pile of leaves. “What are you afraid of?”
There is a faint whisper from the pile of leaves. “Death and Destruction.”
“What? What are you talking about?” There is no answer, so Robin crawls under the leaves and joins her. “What is it, sweetbeetle?”
In a quavery little voice she tells him. “A long time ago we used to be Birds. My great-great-grandmother, Whish, flew so high she made the other Birds nervous. One day she flew higher than ever, up into the clouds. That’s when a terrible hailstorm hit the valley and many many Birds died. They said it was her fault, that it was dangerous to fly so high. All the Birds were in a panic. Raven’s great-great-grandfather made Rules to help them stay safe, but it just got worse and worse. They didn’t know how high to fly, when to fly, how to fly. They got so frightened they stopped flying at all. That’s when they became Briddas.”
Robin shakes his head. “Hm. I don’t think you’re a Bridd at all. I think you’re a Bird.”
She gasps. “But I’ve broken the Rules. I don’t deserve to be a Bird.”
Robin snorts, “Stinkbugs!”
“You’ve been fed a lot of Stinkbugs.”
She thinks about that. “Like the packs…”
“We all have them. They’re big and heavy. I was afraid to let go of it. But one day on the other side of the mountain I took it off.”
“And what happened?”
She shrugs. “Nothing.”
“See? Stinkbugs.” He shakes off the leaves and flies over her head. “Come on! Fly with me!”
She shivers and shakes. She clumsily tries to flap her wings. She’s so scared she has goosebumps all over. Then she takes a deep breath, jumps up into the air, and flies. She flies around the pile of leaves. She flies around the trees. Then she flies higher and higher. She’s filled with the wonder of sky and space, and the wonder of her own grace.
When they finally stop to rest high up in a pine tree, she’s so excited she can barely peep. She hops up and down on the branch. “I’m a Bird, Robin! A Bird!”
“Wow! You were hovering! You were flying backwards!”
“Can’t you do that?”
“Oh no. Robins can dance, but they can’t hover or fly backwards. No way!”
She laughs and does a little cha-cha. Then she stops. She thinks about Bluebird. She can almost hear his voice. She turns to Robin. “I have to go home. They’re all in danger.”
“Ah.” His feathers droop. “Of course. They’ll be happy to see you. Happy to know they’re really Birds.”
Then she remembers Cardinal and nearly slips off the branch.
“What’s the matter?”
“A long time ago there was a Bridd who told them they could fly, and he was…killed.”
Robin shivers. “So how will you tell them without getting killed?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll think of something. Goodbye!” And she flies off toward home.
“Tutti-frutti, sugarbug,” he says sadly.
It took her weeks to creep through the valley and over the mountains, but it only takes her two days to fly back home. She flies over the juniper tree where she met Robin. And over the mountaintop where she slept in the rainbow cocoon. Over the place where she took off her pack. And over the cliff where she nearly turned back. When she gets close to home, she flies to the ground and walks out of the woods. The Briddas all crowd around, squawking, honking, and chirping.
Quail is gone. And Pheasant. And Wren. And several others.
“You’re alive!” fusses Duck. “Where did you get that terrible scar? Where is your uh…uh…” He’s shocked she doesn’t have her pack but is afraid to mention it.
Dove bounces around in nervous circles. “I can get you a new pack, Humm.”
Humm walks through the clamoring crowd until she finds Pigeon, who looks half-dead, lying under a bush with a bruised and bloody wing. Humm gently sits down next to her.
Pigeon slowly opens her eyes and whispers, “It’s you-you-you. I’m so glad.” She takes a deep breath and stretches herself, gently moving her wing. “Did you find the Teacher?”
The noise and confusion get worse. Blue Jay scolds her for taking foolish risks. Peacock is irritated because no one is paying any attention to him. Mockingbird tries to peck at Humm, but she dodges him.
Raven turns toward her, glaring and making threatening noises in his throat.
Starling pecks at her from behind. Humm jumps and Raven is distracted as other Briddas crowd around.
Dove says, “Is he going to turn us back into Birds? Where is he?”
She looks toward the mountains. “Up there.”
Duck trembles. “We have to walk all that way? What about Fox? Snake? Coyote?”
Raven is angry. He comes closer. His beak is large and sharp.
Humm’s heart is pounding, but she stands her ground.
Pigeon gets unsteadily to her feet. “Is it true-true-true? Will we fly?”
Humm nods, watching Raven as he comes closer and closer.
They all start gabbling. Sparrow sidles up close to Humm and whispers, “All of us? Even me?”
Raven rattles his wings and squawks, “There’s only one way to become Birds and that’s to Obey the Rules!” The Briddas look at him, then at Humm, then back at Raven.
Blue Jay is skeptical. “You’re going to take us to this Teacher?”
Raven roars, “There’s no such thing! It’s just an old story! Only a fool would believe it!” He hops around furiously, rattling his wings and glaring at them.
Mockingbird squawks, “Fools!”
Humm looks at Pigeon, “You’ll fly.”
She turns to Starling. “You’ll sing.”
Raven flaps his wings violently and says, “She’s dangerous, like Cardinal! She must not live!” Everyone gasps.
Humm is terribly frightened, but she stands her ground and looks at Raven with her gentle eyes. “Come with me. You’ll fly.” Then she turns away and starts walking, taking teensy weensy steps toward the mountains.
Raven thunders, “You wicked little Bridd!” He takes a threatening step toward Humm and raises his sharp beak.
Duck is trembling but he steps forward to block Raven.
Raven puffs himself up to say something, but Duck is joined by Woodpecker, Dove, and Pigeon, bravely limping.
Raven is shocked speechless.
Duck, Dove, and Woodpecker turn and follow Humm.
Humm looks at Pigeon. “Will you be all right?” Pigeon nods.
As Humm passes through the crowd, Starling pecks at her again. Humm leans forward and whispers something in her ear. Starling glares at her but stops pecking.
As they pass Sparrow Dove says, “Come with us.”
Sparrow sighs, “Oh, I can’t. I’m too… I’m not….”
Blue Jay watches Humm as she walks away. He hesitates, frowning. Then he sighs, shifts his heavy pack, and lumbers after them.
Peacock turns away. “Hmph, I’m not going to muss my feathers over a silly story. I want my bath.”
Raven hops up and down and bellows, “If you leave you can never come back!” They hesitate, then continue walking.
Raven turns to Mockingbird. “Stop them!”
Mockingbird races after them, screeching, “Something terrible is going to happen! You’re going to die! We’re all going to die!”
Humm and the others ignore him and keep walking.
Mockingbird stops and looks back to Raven, who is still hopping up and down, flapping his wings, and making terrible noises. The little group slowly moves off, disappearing into the distance. Suddenly Mockingbird turns and speeds after them. When he catches up to them, he says, “I’m coming along. Someone needs to Maintain Control.”
The others shout, “No!” but Humm tells Mockingbird he’s welcome. They all give him a wide berth, however. The sound of Raven’s screeching gets fainter and fainter. When Humm glances back she sees Starling trailing along in the distance.
It takes them several days to reach the mountains. Every night Humm finds them safe places to sleep. Under piles of rocks. Inside hidden burrows or rotten logs. Sometimes she stops and listens, then says, “This is not a good place,” and they move on to another. Every night Fox terrifies them, sniffing, digging, and whining, but Humm has learned her lessons well and Fox can’t reach them.
These fearful nights unnerve them. Their excitement dissolves into grumbling. It’s too far to walk. Their packs are too heavy. They don’t believe they can ever become Birds. They’re afraid Fox will get them. Afraid Raven will never let them go home again. They get irritable with each other. They complain. They squabble.
Dove scurries back and forth, trying to keep everyone happy. When she’s utterly exhausted Humm says, “You don’t need to do that, you know.”
“But…they need me.”
Dove feels a little frightened.
Woodpecker and Blue Jay bicker constantly. One day Blue Jay whacks Woodpecker with his wing and Woodpecker pecks him back. Everyone squawks in alarm as it gets worse and worse. Mockingbird screeches at them about the Rules.
Humm walks into the middle of the fight and gets stepped on rather painfully. Woodpecker and Blue Jay peck at her in irritation, but she whispers something in their ears. They look uncomfortable. Woodpecker sighs. He tries to apologize to Blue Jay, but Blue Jay stalks off.
Starling watches them closely. She’s humming softly to herself.
When the weary travelers finally get to the mountains and begin climbing the steep and rocky trail, the complaining grows worse. They flop on the ground, grumbling.
“Why don’t you take off your packs?” says Humm.
“We can’t do that! They keep us safe!”
Humm shakes her head. “No, they don’t. They keep us stuck on the ground when we’re meant to be flying.”
Duck looks at her curiously. “What happened when you took yours off?”
“Nothing. I felt lighter. I could walk up the mountain. See that cliff up there? That’s where we need to go. How are you going to get up there carrying those big heavy packs?”
Dove starts chattering, “Maybe I could carry them for you.” The others just look at her. “Oh, I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” They nod.
Duck clings to his pack. “Oh dear. I can’t do this. It’s part of me.”
Humm comes alongside. “No, it isn’t. Come on, I’ll help you.” He’s trembling, but he lets her ease the pack off his back and set it down. For the first time he gets a really good look at it. He shudders. “Ugh,” he says. “It’s so old and dirty.”
Humm nods. “I know. So was mine.”
Duck takes a deep breath and looks around nervously. He stretches. He takes a couple of steps.
The others watch him. “Well?”
He takes a few more steps. “Oh my, look at that, I can move. Come on, Blue Jay! Aren’t you tired of carrying that heavy thing around?”
Blue Jay squawks, “But there are Important Things in this pack!”
Pigeon takes hers off and walks around. She bobs up and down. She passes up three bugs. “It’s such a relief! Who-who-who is next? Come on, Blue Jay!”
“No! I won’t! This is crazy. I wish I’d never left.” And he turns around and starts walking home, stumbling under the heavy pack.
They all beg him to stay, but he holds his pack tightly and stalks off. Humm watches sadly as he walks farther and farther away. He never looks back.
Mockingbird, too, refuses to take off his pack. “I can manage it.” He slowly huffs and puffs his way up the trail while the others pass him by. When it gets steeper, he collapses under the heavy load, but Starling comes alongside and helps him get to the top.
Everyone is looking around in confusion. “Where is he?” says Pigeon. “Where’s the Teacher?”
“There’s no one here. I thought so,” grumbles Mockingbird.
They turn toward Humm, outraged. She stands on the edge of the cliff, doing a little rhumba and humming a song.
Dove, who never gets angry at anyone, stomps her foot and says, “What’s going on, Humm?”
Humm turns and jumps off the edge.
The others shriek, rush to the edge, and look down. “Humm! Humm!”
Suddenly she zips up and over their heads. She zooms, darts, and flashes all around them. Squawking in alarm, they run and hide under bushes.
She comes to a soft sweet landing. All is silent.
They peek out at her and look up at the sky, waiting for Death and Destruction, but nothing happens. Duck creeps out from under his bush. He looks up at the sky. “No storm. No hail. How did you do that?”
“I’m a Bird. Birds can fly.”
They slowly come out of their hiding places.
“She flew-flew-flew!” says Pigeon.
Dove says, “The Teacher turned you into a Bird! Will he turn us into Birds too?”
“You already are Birds!”
They gasp, remembering the Cardinal.
Humm takes off and flies some more, doing loop-de-loops and buzzing their heads as she comes in for a landing.
Pigeon says, “Is it true-true-true? We’re Birds?”
Duck squawks, “They lied to us?”
Mockingbird is sitting by himself, looking frightened and confused. Starling walks over and whispers in his ear. He takes a deep breath.
Starling walks to the edge and looks down. “What do we do?”
“Follow me,” says Humm, and jumps. Starling stands there for a moment, flapping her silky black wings, then jumps. She is singing. Loudly. Beautifully. It’s a song she’s always wanted to sing. The rest of them watch her flying. Their hearts are racing, their knees are wobbling. One after another they jump. And fly.
All except Duck. He moans and fusses, too terrified to jump. Pigeon comes behind and gives him a little push. Squawking in terror, he falls over the edge in a mess of flapping wings and tangled feet, then catches the wind and spreads his wings. He glides gracefully, higher and higher, over the hills, over the valley, over the Fox, everything.
Mockingbird watches all this and slowly approaches the edge.
Humm says, “You can’t fly with that big heavy pack, you know. You need to take it off.”
Mockingbird trembles. “I don’t think I can.”
“I’ll help you.” And she does.
Mockingbird flaps his wings. “I can breathe,” he says. “I’m a Bird!”
“I have to go tell Raven.” He turns toward the edge and jumps off. Humm watches as he streaks off to the west.
Humm flies up to join the others. She imagines Bluebird flying next to her. “Tutti-frutti, sugarbug!” she sings to him.
All the Birds swoop and soar higher and higher, and the sky is filled with flight and freedom and song.
This is an illustrated children’s book:
Life is full of “monsters.” Anxiety is the most common mental health issue seen in children. Children cope with anxiety in various ways, e.g., by avoiding, getting sick, distracting with video games, having temper tantrums, or numbing out with food. This book shows children how to face their fears in a healthy and empowering way that brings true peace and resolution.
It’s available on Amazon:
run run run get out of here before it’s too late just get out leave run away oh shut up shut up you know I can’t please help get me out of here run away no I have to keep walking and smiling through the hall and down the stairs and into the courtyard and someone help me can’t anyone see me see how terrified I am get me out of here don’t be ridiculous I can’t leave what would everyone think no no no it’s impossible there’s no way out I got myself into this and now I have to do what I always do swallow the truth and put a smile on my face and tell myself everything will be all right and pretend I’m happy but I’m not I’m trapped I can’t breathe I can’t leave yes you can you can just walk out just go now do it before it’s too late no I can’t oh dear lord yes you can but you won’t because you’re a good girl and it would be too fucking embarrassing and I’m doomed ohmygod I’m going to regret this I’m already regretting this it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done but I can’t just leave and walk away what a terrible thing to do I couldn’t do that has anyone ever done that really just walked away you hear stories but who could do such a thing well other than mom she could do it that’s true but she’s a little crazy and doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks she even bit that guy’s finger when he shoved it in her face who in their right mind bites other people jeez but I am not like her I do care what other people think of me I care a lot I’m a good person and everyone would be so shocked you know what they would say it would be too humiliating so what at least you’d be free oh god get me out of here I don’t want to do this shut up you are making things so difficult I can’t leave it will be all right I’m sure it will and how could I hurt him it’s not his fault he’s a nice guy but you don’t love him you know you don’t of course I do no you don’t he’s not smart enough and you don’t want to look at that but it’s true no it’s not what a terrible thing to say he’s smart in his own way no he isn’t and he’s not creative enough or mature enough or anything enough and I’m going to be trapped forever oh help how could you let it get this far why didn’t you stop it when you saw that it wasn’t going to work you know why I didn’t stop it god help us you didn’t want to hurt his feelings what a stupid reason and now look what you’ve done get me out of here you should have stopped it a long time ago you are such an idiot but it will be all right no it won’t be all right and now you’re trapped and you’re going to be miserable and then you’ll have kids and when you finally get up the nerve to leave they will never stop blaming you for destroying their family and ruining their lives you think it would be painful and humiliating to leave now just wait until you’re getting divorced oh god oh god what can I do so how about an annulment how long do you have for that maybe six weeks and which one would be less humiliating leaving now or getting an annulment in a couple of weeks no shut up I don’t want to think like that I’m making a promise don’t you understand what that means I take my promises seriously I can’t just walk down the aisle planning the annulment I will do this and make the best of it and I will never get divorced oh lord there’s that good girl again you are so sickening you’d rather doom yourself to a lifetime of boredom and loneliness than leave but I don’t want to do this I want to get out of here I don’t want to make promises I don’t want to stay with him forever can’t I just run away and make it all disappear I’ve been stupid stupid stupid and all you have to do is say I’m sorry I can’t do this and go home but what would we do with the band and the photographer and all that food are you fucking kidding me you’re worried about the fucking food oh help how did this happen how did I get into this mess you wanted to be loved that’s how you got into this mess you wanted life to be all rosy and happy ever after that’s how you poor fool you wanted a family that felt safe and happy not like it was with mom so congratulations here you are and he can do that I know he can he never yells at me no he never yells at you because he doesn’t even look at you he isn’t even here haven’t you noticed and you keep trying to feel close and he avoids and smiles he doesn’t see you doesn’t hear you doesn’t have a clue who you really are ohmygod I’ll have to live with that forever I can’t do this but he’s not a bad person not angry he can learn how to be close can’t he I’m sure he’ll want to do that doesn’t everyone want that to feel close all I have to do is be safe and kind and gentle and never criticize and never get angry and he’ll let me in won’t he but what if he can’t what if this is all there is wake up honey pay attention pay attention don’t you feel it that terrible loneliness of being with him but it won’t be like this when we’re married surely the commitment and caring and living together will build something and it will be all right surely one day he will look in my eyes at least he will if I can be what he needs I can do that I can I’ve never been critical even when he invited me to his place for lunch and every dish every single fucking dish in the house was dirty and piled up in the sink and I never said a word just started washing dishes even though I was appalled I never said a word just washed that mountain of dishes while he sat around god you are such a sap so I can do that I can be soft I’m used to being left with the dirty work while mom watches tv I’m used to swallowing my words and choking down my anger because it doesn’t do any good anyway does it so I know how to accept it all and just take care of everything and then he will relax and look at me and really see me and we will have that closeness that complicity that some couples have those little smiles or a glance across the room we will feel fully known and fully accepted and we will trust each other and support each other and stand together against anything feeling close and connected everyone wants that don’t they so why do you still feel like this like he’s so far away even when he’s right here don’t you understand he wants you to be there wants you to wash the damn dishes but he doesn’t want to be close he doesn’t want to look in your eyes he doesn’t want to really see you or be seen he wants to stay behind that big wall but I can make it safe enough for him to come out I can see who he really is a sweet little boy who just wants to be loved and we could build a life together and have kids he likes kids likes playing with them anyway not sure about the rest of it and you’re afraid to look at that aren’t you and now you’re here and it’s too late and he will be another child and you will have to be the mommy and you can’t look at that either can you oh god no I can’t I’m trapped and I’ll never get to finish my project and get my degree and do what I’d really like to do oh stop whining for god’s sake that would take years and he needs you to support him so he can finish his own program and it will be worth it right it will be worth it and he’ll appreciate the sacrifice I’m making and he’ll love me more won’t he oh yeah of course he will don’t you get it you’re being a sap again but when he’s done I won’t have to work at all I can just be a mom won’t that be great yeah great but you’ll never get to oh just stop you know it’s a fantasy who knows if I’d ever finish at all or if anyone would ever hire me the field is so tight right now I just need to focus on what’s needed now today he needs me to do this so he won’t have a mountain of debt when he’s done and he’ll love me for it won’t he I’m sure he will oh don’t you get it you’re abandoning your dreams abandoning yourself how can you do this to yourself like that poor stupid stepsister chopping off her toes to try to fit into the glass slipper but it doesn’t work and there’s all that blood and Disney never told us about that did he you’re right I’m doing a stupid stupid thing I just want to run away but now here’s dad looking happy and handsome with his blue eyes and silver hair smiling and proud just tell him tell him tell him before it’s too late that you don’t want to do this he’ll help you he won’t judge shut up don’t be stupid I can’t do that I’m standing back here listening for the music in this church all sleek and modern and all that glass and light and everyone looking at us and I can’t just say get me out of here dad why not of course you can he’ll help you he wouldn’t want you to marry someone you don’t love you know he wouldn’t but everyone is here gramma and grandad and friends and relatives three hundred people all dressed up and smiling with their hands full of presents oh god the presents and a whole mountain of them sitting in my bedroom boxes and boxes of nice things and loving wishes everyone hoping that we will be happy and what could I do with all of that just send them all back I suppose oh no I couldn’t do that shit shit shit I don’t care about presents I don’t care about being embarrassed I just want to run away oh just shut up and be quiet I’m not going to leave it’s too late we’re all here yeah we’re all here on this perfect fucking day with that clear blue fucking sky through the beautiful big fucking windows and you will regret this no I won’t it will be all right because we are two good people so if anyone can do this right surely we can and we can do a better job of it than mom and dad anyway who were such a mess even dad but especially mom all the drinking and ranting and throwing things while the dog and I huddled under the covers in my bed and both of us shaking and I will never do that to anyone never be like that so I will accept him just as he is and I will never let myself see what I see that little boy and all that weakness and I won’t let it bother me that he is always somewhere else not here and so hidden that he’s almost empty but I am not like her I will be whatever he needs me to be but don’t you get it you are chopping off your fucking toes oh stop being so melodramatic it will be all right I will do what I need to do and I will make it safe for him to come out and be here with me and he won’t have to hide behind that wall behind that pleasant smile behind those vacant eyes he will look at me and I will know that he sees me and loves me and it will be all right and I’m sure we can do this because we care about each other don’t we and thank god he doesn’t drink or do drugs or cheat and he won’t yell at me or throw things and what more do I want we all have problems and his aren’t so bad it could be much worse much worse I’m sure it will be all right and here’s the music and okay just do it get going start walking dad looks so happy you can do this just walk walk keep walking keep smiling and everyone is watching everyone is smiling all the way down the aisle and here he is he loves me of course he loves me and it will be all right it will be all right it will be all right
If I have to watch one more scene where actors who hardly know each other are humping and bumping and sweating and cooing and mooing and pretending to be excited and to want each other and love each other, I will throw up.
Am I the only one? Does anyone else see how bizarre it is that the vast majority of our movies, whether they are romances, comedies, dramas, or action, are all about sex? That the vast majority of advertising uses sex to sell pretty much everything? What does sex have to do with cars or soft drinks or shoes? Why do the mannikins in store windows have nipples? Good lord. Do they think that seeing nipples under a blouse will stimulate me to buy it? How odd.
Imagine for a moment that we take a trip to another planet where our hosts take us to a movie that is ostensibly an action story about heroism, courage, loyalty, and endurance. But running all through the action is an underlying tension about…(ahem) food.
Whenever our hero passes a bakery while chasing the bad guy, he pauses and goes into a trance-like state. The music shifts from loud and zippy to slow and sweet. Our hero inhales deeply, then slips into the bakery to buy a cream puff. There are close-ups of the whipped cream and the smooth yellow custard. The sugar sparkles in the early morning sunlight slanting through the window. Our hero nuzzles and slurps and chews and savors it with painful and exquisite joy. When he gets to the custard he moans gently and catches his breath. He slowly licks the goopy stuff off his upper lip…
Wouldn’t we conclude that those people were a little weird about food? And wouldn’t someone from another planet conclude that we are a little weird about sex? Why can’t we just appreciate, celebrate, and enjoy sex the way we appreciate, celebrate, and enjoy food? We all enjoy a yummy cream puff now and then but gorging on mountains of cream puffs in public orgies of ecstasy would suggest that our priorities were a teensy bit skewed.
I hope that as you move forward you will have triumphs and successes, that you will explore the world, that you will learn and grow, that you will bust out of that confining, crushing straitjacket that you call your comfort zone. But more than anything else, I hope that you will be happy.
You are at one of the major crossroads of your life, moving from childhood into adulthood. You will be making many important decisions over the next few months and years, what classes to take, what major to declare, what clubs to join, what jobs to take, where you choose to live… But the most important decision you make is not what you choose to do, it’s who you choose to be.
In order to survive as teenagers, we often have to put a shield over our hearts in order to protect ourselves. We lock the vulnerable parts of ourselves in a closet, our warmth, gentleness, kindness, compassion, affection, thoughtfulness. Our open-heartedness. Our ability to love and be loved.
Instead, we learn to use the parts of us that keep others at a distance and keep us on top, the arrogant, unkind parts that protect us from getting put down by others. In the teenage world, the meanest guy, the one who cares least about other people, is often the top dog.
But things change as we become adults. The same strategies that worked for you as a teenager will often backfire for you as an adult. If your only goal is to accrue power and wealth, they may be helpful, but what if you want more than that? What if you want to have true friends who genuinely like and care about you, who will support you when things get tough? What if you want to have supervisors and coworkers who respect you and like having you on their team? What if you want to have a partner who sees who you really are and loves you more than anyone else in the world?
If you do, then those distancing, arrogant, self-protective strategies won’t work. People who put others down, who talk about others behind their backs, who do their best to make others feel small, don’t do well as adults. Teenagers often suck-up to them, but healthy adults avoid them. People don’t want to work with them or be around them. Partners get hurt and leave them. They end up…lonely.
So what does work?
Having the courage to take the locks off the closet and let all those kind, warm, affectionate, considerate parts of you out into the sunshine. Opening your heart. That’s what works. Use your wisdom, of course. Don’t be a fool and just throw your heart open to anyone. Learn to discern who is trustworthy and who is not. Some people aren’t, but don’t let that stop you. Find the trustworthy ones and let them see the real you, the beautiful being that you really are, underneath all those protective layers. Let yourself see how beautiful everyone else is. Look underneath all the protections and see who they really are. Let yourself love with your whole heart. Let yourself be loved.
Open your heart. It’s the only way to be truly happy.
We marry our unfinished business…
She is a warm and intelligent middle-aged woman with a clear gaze and a quick smile. She’s also angry. She tells me that she was married for twenty years and had three grown children. Even though she and her husband have been divorced for ten years, she is still feeling angry towards him, grieving for the family she lost, grieving for the pain it caused her children. This sickens and confuses her, and she wants to be free of it. She doesn’t understand how she could still be so angry at a “nice guy.” He wasn’t abusive, didn’t drink or do drugs, and didn’t cheat on her. “It really wasn’t his fault. We just didn’t fit, that’s all. So why am I still angry?”
As we talk it becomes obvious that she has been angry at him not just since the divorce, but in truth since their early marriage. She was deeply committed to their marriage and refused to give up on it year after year even though she felt lonely, sad, and frustrated. “I never wanted a divorce, but I was so unhappy. I thought that if I stayed any longer I would get sick, I would get cancer or something. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but that’s the way it felt.”
And she still can’t understand what the real problem was. “We were two decent, intelligent, responsible people. Why couldn’t we be happy?” She thinks for a minute. “Or I guess it’s more to the point to say, why couldn’t I be happy? He seemed to be fine with the way things were.” She sighs and says ruefully, “Basically he wanted me to just shut up and be happy.”
We talk about her yearning for connection. “I tried for all those years to build a real relationship. Doesn’t everyone want that? Connection? Trust? Support? I thought that if only I could make him understand, we could be happy. I tried being gentle and supportive, I tried books, I tried seminars. I dragged him to four marriage therapists over a period of ten years, but nothing ever worked. For a long time I actually believed that I must be not smart enough, not attractive enough, and that’s why he ignored me. Later I believed that we didn’t have the communication skills that we needed. Eventually I believed that he couldn’t tolerate being close. Just couldn’t do it. How can I be angry at him for that?”
We talk about how common it is for one partner’s desire for emotional intimacy to run smack up against the other partner’s desire to avoid emotional intimacy, and the resulting vicious circles, e.g., the more she pursues, the more he runs away, and the more he runs away, the more she pursues, etc.
As we’re talking about the patterns in their relationship, she suddenly sits straight up with wide eyes. I give her a moment, and finally she says, “Oh my god. I thought that he just couldn’t do it, couldn’t understand, that that was just the way he was, like he was handicapped or something. But that’s not true, is it? The truth is that he wouldn’t do it. He chose to avoid any real connection.”
This has obviously rocked her, and I give her time to think about it. After a few minutes she looks at me and says, “He simply wasn’t going to do it, no matter what, but neither was he going to come out and be honest about that. That’s what he did with pretty much everything. I’d ask him to do something for me and he’d say okay, but he would never do it. Eventually I’d just do it myself, to avoid the unpleasantness. I didn’t want to be a nag. It was like he wore a ‘nice guy’ mask, but his unspoken message was, ‘I won’t come right out and say no, but I will never, ever, do what you want.’”
We talk about the childhood wounds that drive these cycles. He had a depressed, alcoholic mother, and his pattern was: I won’t rock the boat, I won’t challenge anything, I’ll be a nice guy. I will pretend to be caring and cooperative on the outside, but on the inside I will hide myself behind an insurmountable wall. Women are weak and sick and needy; women are contemptible; women are dangerous.
And her pattern was rooted in her relationship with her own raging, rejecting mother: If I’m a good girl will you see me, accept me, love me?
“I intentionally married someone who wasn’t violent like my mother,” she says, “but no matter how hard I worked at being a supportive and loving and patient wife, I felt abandoned, alone, resentful, unloved, unseen, angry, hopeless, and powerless. Just like I did with Mom.”
When I ask her to consider what her own unspoken message was, she squirms uncomfortably. “My unspoken message to him was, ‘You’re not loving enough, caring enough, present enough, open enough, smart enough, capable enough…’ Basically, it was, ‘You’re not good enough’, which is probably how his own mother made him feel.”
She gets teary. “All these years I thought it was about a lack of love or a lack of skills. But the deeper truth was that there were these little child parts of us that were afraid of being hurt, criticized, and abandoned.
“I’m not angry anymore.” She sighs. “Just sad.”
There are fifty people sitting silently on poufy little pillows around the large hall. We are on a ten-day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. Forty-five minutes of sitting meditation, forty-five minutes of walking meditation, all day long. Two sessions of qigong, morning and afternoon. Vegetarian meals, everything completely silent. We are surrounded by rolling hills of tall golden grass. We are settling ourselves in the big warm hall. They ring the little gong.
I breathe, relaxing into the stillness and silence. Thoughts come and go. I swim through the usual sludge, then it gets quieter, and eventually I am aware of a deep wondering. What am I? Who am I? I wonder about the essence of who I really am, the rock bottom, the whatever-it-is that doesn’t change. Surely there is something. Is it gender? Is it my values? I look at my life, my roles, my history. I go down through the list of all the things that feel important and unique about me, but it turns out to be…slippery. I can’t find anything solid.
So much has changed and keeps on changing. I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, or even five. Physically, of course, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, as well. My beliefs have changed, my way of seeing myself and the world, my values, my goals. I think surely being a woman is part of my deep essence, but as I look back down the years my awareness slips back to another lifetime, and another, and another. Some lifetimes as a woman, others as a man. Some as a slave, and others holding the whip. Gender, race, nationality, roles, professions… One by one I look at them; at first each one feels fundamental to who I am, but then it slides away. There’s nothing to hold onto. Each lifetime making different choices and asking different questions. What would it be like to be a soldier? A beggar? A dancer? A priest? A potter? I lose all the anchors of my identity. Everything I have held onto as defining who I am fades away. None of them feels essential or eternal. There is a moment of panic, then I just let it all go.
I feel myself dissolving into mist.
After a while something else begins to emerge, a seemingly contradictory but equally true thing. I feel the clear and absolute nowness of this particular lifetime, of being born in this place, at this time, and into this family. I am this specific nationality, race, and gender. I have this kind of body and this kind of mind. I have these values, these strengths, and these challenges. I feel all this, this constellation, this soup of who and what I am right now. It has weight and substance and truth.
The two awarenesses come together in my mind. On one side I feel the solidity of being me and all that I am, in this lifetime, in this moment. On the other side there is nothing but mist. I hold them both and just sit with them.
They ring the little gong. Time to get up and walk out into the morning sunshine and the golden hills. Time to put these bare feet onto this beautiful earth.
I’m meditating… And Toto just pulled the curtain. I not only see the little man pulling the levers, I see that I AM the little man pulling the levers. And Toto. I’m Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West. I’m the munchkins and the winged monkeys and the Yellow Brick Road. I’m Oz and Kansas and the tornado and the little girl watching herself playing Dorothy in the movie on TV.
I can feel all the little gears and flippy-flappy cards rolling and shifting when I change my thoughts, when I let go of a resentment, or when I choose to radiate peace. I can feel the earth and everything on it making an infinitesimally slight but significant shift. There is one more drop of dew in the desert. A mother in Inverness smiles at her child. A man looks at his wife and really sees her. A sculptor in Cusco gets an idea. A breeze in San Juan ruffles a wind chime.
I see that everything is perfect. All the beauty, sadness, pain, death, love…it’s all perfect. It’s teaching me exactly what I need to know, giving me all the opportunities I need, all the pressures, pleasures, pain, frustrations, challenges, things lost and found, babies gone, torment, despair…everything I need to walk into the knowledge of who I really am, to know, really know, that I myself am the wise and wonderful Wizard.
I dreamed of Kali. I know she has come to teach me something. Black skin all shiny with sweat, long black hair all tangled and snaky, nearly naked, a necklace of skulls, holding two long sharp knives, snarling, wild, joyful, blood all around. She terrifies me. She fascinates me.
What is she teaching me? I feel the edge of her power, her blackness, filling my body. I feel my arms holding the long sharp knives. And I see that I gave away my power over and over again, all through my life. I became a nice girl. A good girl. A victim.
I gave away my power to all the people who intimidated me, frightened me, abused me, tormented me, discounted me, dismissed me, groped, grabbed, molested, raped me, all those who twisted my mind, body, thoughts, and emotions to fill their own needs and suit their own purposes, those who insulted me, manipulated me, treated me as less than, judged me, shamed me, all those who derived pleasure from hurting me or forcing me, all those who stole from me (my possessions, my body, my innocence, trust, peace of mind, safety, joy, hope, my truth, my own sense of right and wrong, my own sense of self).
I gave away my power to all the people I wanted to please, all those whose respect or affection or love or approval I wanted or needed. I exiled parts of myself, crushed my feelings, denied my truth, strangled my words, twisted my thoughts, extinguished my light, denied my needs, cut off bits and pieces of myself in order to please, tried to shame or kill the parts of me that were unacceptable.
I gave away my power to the church, forcing myself to swallow doctrines that didn’t make sense, that made me feel sick, accepting customs and beliefs that reinforced my powerlessness. I gave away my power to an idea of God that kept me feeling ashamed, helpless, hopeless, worthless, and guilty, afraid of saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, believing the wrong thing, or else…
I gave away my power to all those I envied…those who were beautiful or wealthy or intelligent, who were talented and creative, to all those who had kind and loving families.
I gave away my power to the patriarchy, the culture, the educational system, the political system, the way things are, authorities, laws, customs, to everyone who raised an eyebrow at me.
And now I am taking my power back. I have taken back parts of it before, over these last years. I stopped allowing my mother to abuse me. I left the church, left relationships, left jobs. I stood up to people, said no, started honoring myself, faced my fears, one after another, over and over, more and more and more fears. And now I am looking straight at it, every bit of it, back through my entire lifetime, through all my lifetimes. I am naming it, feeling it in my bones, and Taking. It. Back.
Just say One True Thing, my friend once told me. This helps, especially when I’m fearful, troubled, or stuck. I am all three on the morning my second son is nine months old and I say One True Thing to my husband: “I’m not suicidal, exactly. I just can’t think of any good reason to live.”
As soon as I say it I’m horrified. It feels shameful. It is a profound and terrifying failure, not just a failure of some course or project, but a Failure of Being. How did an overachieving, responsible, “good girl” like me end up like this? I have everything I wanted: a degree from Stanford, marriage, two children…and I don’t want to live.
How am I going to do this? How am I going to get through the rest of my life? A quiet little thought comes into my head, just pops there out of the blue: I could drink.
This shocks me, it scares me to death. I don’t even like to drink. My mother drank, and the thought of ending up like her frightens me into calling a counselor and begging to be seen as soon as possible, like today. One part of me wants desperately to just curl up in someone’s lap and be soothed, to be reassured, to be taken care of, to be fixed. But another part of me wants to smash all the old ways of taking the easy way out and needing to be good and right and perfect.
I want to find someone who can really hear me, who can listen to this deep ugliness, who will not freak out or avoid or placate me. My husband can’t do it. He says, “Oh, hon, don’t talk like that,” and walks out the door. My friends will be worried. They will tell me to pull myself together, to look at all the positive things in my life. They will want to pray with me. I don’t need those things. I need someone who has the courage to go down into the dark places with me and help me face the monsters. I need a warrior who isn’t afraid of truth, pain, rage, and death.
I find a warrior. I show her a sculpture I have made. It is the delicate porcelain head of a woman. She looks a little old-fashioned: black hair, white skin, small red berry of a mouth. But black cracks run all over her face and head, and in order to hold her together and keep her from falling apart, she has been wrapped round and round with barbed wire.
The warrior understands, and we begin the journey.