But I know, too,/That the blackbird in involved/In what I know.-Wallace Stevens
Though much is taken, much abides.-Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Three gifts–words spoken by friends.
The first–I am sitting cross-legged on the floor of my living room. We are talking about spirituality, my friend and I, about meditation and presence. She is one of the few friends who does not think it strange or even noteworthy that the only furniture in my living room is a small bookshelf. I know without asking that she understands that with nothing else in the room, I can see the mountains better. I ask her about meditation. Meditation fascinates and terrifies me, with its giant silence, but she is not afraid of it. She tells me about her spiritual journey, and then she says, looking out the windows, “Living here, you are always meditating.”
The second–I am standing on a friend’s porch, about to leave. A crow’s harsh call rings black against the sun-warmed air. We both startle, but I am the one who smiles. She asks me if I like that sound. That harbinger of autumn, of cool nights and the heady spice of dry leaves–I love it, of course. She clearly does not. Crows frighten away the songbirds at her feeder. Then I notice that the crow is limping, holding one foot at a wrong angle. My friend melts into concern: “The poor thing.” I ponder a crow-napping and a trip to the Wildlife Hospital. And then the crow takes off, its flight improbable and perfect against the sun-drenched sky.
The third–I am standing in my garden, surrounded by small children who are gleefully pulling up carrots and discovering parasitic wasp larvae (you know you’re living an alternative lifestyle when your son’s kindergarten teacher brings the class to your house for a field trip). The teacher turns to me and says, “I love your life.” “I do, too,” I say reflexively, but it is one of those reminders that I sometimes desperately need.
I need it because of the losses. Three losses–because this meditative country life, as lovely as it is, is brutal, too.
The first–I am driving to my son’s school to have lunch with him. I swerve around a black mass in the center of the road–a vulture struck by a car while feasting on roadkill. I remark it as a bit sad, a bit ironic–and then, just as I pass, it moves. I will be late for lunch, but this bird is dying on the asphalt, and in this moment I cannot think of a more horrible place to die. I turn around, go back, pull over. There is a blanket in the trunk of my car. I throw it over the bird. The vulture is surprisingly heavy. My jostling shakes something loose inside its body, and it vomits out something–what it was eating? itself? I nearly lose the lunch I haven’t even eaten yet. It is horrible. In this moment I cannot imagine anything more horrible. It reeks of death. I carry the bird off the road, into the grass, and leave it there. There is no helping it, but at least it can die in green grass. I don’t know if I’m doing this for the bird, or for myself. The bird is probably past caring.
The second–I spot a snake in the raised garden bed by the front walk. It is a beautiful thing, its long sides streaked black and gold. I am entranced. Snakes seem so private to me, so elusive, so shy, and there is always something a bit magical about seeing one. They are creatures from another world, almost. I call my boys to come see the snake. Then i’s head curves around, and I see the toad in its mouth. The toad’s mouth emerges from the snake’s widened jaws, a mouth within a mouth. It reminds me of the Alien movies. The circle of life is freaky and messy. Then, impossibly, the toad’s throat swells and its mouth gasps open, sucking in air, sucking in life. There is a spot of red, bright as a jewel against the corner of the snake’s mouth, and I realize as it inflates that it is an eviscerated lung, still intact, still connected. I stare in horror at this car accident of nature. Again the toad’s mouth opens within the snake’s jaws, and again. Again and again the glistening ruby lung swells with air. My children and I watch, mesmerized by the awfulness.
The third–I am finishing up the yardwork. I am almost done and just about to have a date with Keats and a cold beverage in the perfect sunlight on the back porch, when my dad stops by. We talk a little bit, and then notice that my cat, Sam, has caught a chipmunk. I know cats are supposed to play with their prey and yet, when he lets the chipmunk go, I root for it silently. But it doesn’t run–it staggers as if drunk, reeling across the grass. Sam catches it–again and again, and suddenly I cannot stand this anymore. It’s one thing to play with your food to hone your skills, but another entirely to torment it, to terrorize it. I make up my mind to kill the chipmunk, to remove it from this horror. I stand up, walk across the lawn, and look down at Sam. In this moment, he is my least favorite creature on this planet. I try not to think about what it will feel like to kill something with a backbone. But this chipmunk is suffering. And then, in an unbelievable flash of little white stripes, the chipmunk zips from Sam’s grasp, up my boot and leg and arm and onto the top of my head. There is a chipmunk IN MY HAIR. This is deeply weird. Its little claws are very, very scratchy. And then, with one enormous burst of adrenaline, it launches itself from my head into an oak tree. It has escaped. All is well. Until it comes flopping down out of the tree. This is too much. I am done. Sam grabs it again, and I cannot see straight. I go for a bucket, and scoop up the chipmunk. It spends the night in an aquarium full of leaves and sunflower seeds in my basement. I am sure it will be dead in the morning. I just want to give it a safe place to die, away from terror.
Now, I am weighing my gifts against my losses. Much is taken. My heart aches for the vulture, for the toad, for the chipmunk. This world is dark and violent. It is terrifying. I am angry and small and impotent against it. I can’t save lives, can’t give life or mend it. The most I can manage is to ease death. I know that death is necessary, that it is part of everything. But I can’t wrap my head around suffering. What is the point? Is there a purpose to the long, drawn-out death-throes of the small and weak–the agony of a vulture that wanted only to eat, the last lingering gasps of a toad, the feeble stumblings of a hunted chipmunk? It’s enough to make me want to resign being human. This is too hard. Maybe I can just be one of those glass-eyed predators, one of those cold-blooded things that don’t care. I wish that I could feel as little as a cat, a snake. I want to be as hard and impervious as the bumper of a car.
But much abides. There is still compassion, and perhaps this is what it means–to care despite the horror, to care against it. I don’t know. But I know that my heart swelled when my blackbird-hating friend found compassion. When my five-year-old said, “I’m happy the snake gets to eat, but I’m sad for the toad.” “Do you want to pray about it?” I asked. He nodded. So we said a little prayer–Please, God, don’t let the toad suffer, don’t let it hurt. A prayer for a toad. A prayer for all of us. And my heart swelled when I lifted the battered vulture in my arms, because I had always thought that vultures were hideous, but in that moment I saw that they are beautiful, God, they are beautiful, their wings wide and full of the glory of flight. And my heart nearly burst yesterday morning, when I lifted the screen lid from the aquarium and somehow, somehow, the chipmunk’s head popped from the leaves, bright-eyed and ready to live again, to return to the world and all its terrible beauty.
It’s hard living here. In the country. On this planet. It’s brutal, and the beauty of the world is tinged with and built on suffering and death. I think about these things as I pull weeds in the garden this morning. I rip life up by the roots, and I wonder what weeds feel, what they know. I wonder if I am any more enlightened than a cat or a snake or the bumper of a car. I am killing things to make way for myself, tearing them up and flinging them aside to die gasping in the sun.
I don’t know how to make sense of this–of this messy, gorgeous, horrifying world. But I cling to the knowledge that there is compassion, there is love. Maybe this is the great mystery, the question the answering of which would offer up to us the Meaning of Life. What is the purpose of suffering? How can it exist in a world that is also unspeakably beautiful? How do we reconcile these things?
I need to think about all this some more. I need to grapple with it, though I’m sure I won’t win. But I also need to extend to myself a little of my own compassion. So, for now, I’ve got a date with Keats on the back porch, in the perfect sunlight of an early autumn day. The truth isn’t always beautiful, I think, but there is an incontrovertible truth in the beauty of this world, in the flight of a bird and the coils of a snake and the skipping gait of a chipmunk as it disappears into a drift of autumn leaves.