The Relationship Of Our Lives
One early weekday morning when I was 7 my mother called my sister and me to the back door of our family home. With a particular euphoria I have only ever seen in her, she said “Shhh....just listen....” I leaned in, and in that space I heard, in the distance of the thick New England woods, a hollow rhythmic high-pitched staccato hammering. I had no idea what I was listening to but its effect on me was profound. It was like this sound, made by what I found out moments later was a Pileated woodpecker, was drilling holes in my heart. My mother kept us home from school that day, to stand by the door and listen – reverent sentinels – to the insistent, incessant pounding of this great red-crested bird. It was years later that I noticed she had an Audubon print of these hard-beaked wonders in our dining room, along with Blue Jays, Red Tails and Snowy Owls. I have these prints now, hanging in my home.
My mother was the first person who taught me about relationship. Though she could not manage relationships with people (a thing I have great compassion for, having my own version of this), she lived deep in conversation with the wild. Her own paintings of the beloved Adirondak mountains she considered her home are in my living room. This is deep relationship.
Two nights ago the great blue heron came again, to the pond here at The Center. The pond has fish in it. He is, of course, in a constant search for dinner. Here it is, in a small perfectly designed space. Not too deep. It’s like a buffet table for the heron. The fish are not too wise, having just made it through a winter during which their brains froze and thawed half a dozen times. What is left of their critical survival thinking can’t be too impressive. Curious and mesmerized, I watch him as he lands on his spindly gunmetal-gray legs, tucks his wings, 7 feet across in their full spread, and makes his way across the yard toward his goal. His head does not move. Only his legs articulate at the knee, backwards. He gets to the edge of the pond and dips his right foot in, almost as if he’s checking to see if it’s too cold. Apparently it’s just right, because he steps in with both feet and makes his way to the deepest part of the pool. He does a little dance, almost imperceptible, lifting each foot minutely, while never losing sight of what is beneath the surface. Then efficiently he dives his head under and comes out with one of the two largest fish. Helpless. It writhes in his beautiful pointed beak. He tosses his head back, opens his mouth and down goes the fish. Head first. That’s it. It’s perfect.
But at that point, I’ve seen enough. The pond steward of me takes over. A blur of awe and fierce protection swirling in me, I open the door and let the elkhound out. These two know each other well. Coda chases the heron off the property and all the way down the two fields to the east. I watch them as they go out of sight, the heron barely off the ground – the elkhound’s nose right at his dangling webbed feet – I am seeing something about relationship. They are both utterly alive here. As alive as they each get.
I feel it in my heart later as I imagine that plump perfectly-hand-fed orange fish slowly digesting in the heron’s belly. He ate one of the fish I have been raising for two years now. I am inextricably bound to this bird. A consummation occurred tonight.
Here is where the tears come. And they come furiously, stinging my face. This is the place where we humans have a choice. To stay in this relationship or to end it. To risk everything of our own impermanence and vulnerability or to commit an egregious act of suicide. This is, of course, what we’re doing everyday. This heron has stepped in. (Or maybe I invited him?) It’s true that if fish were cheap I’d stock the pond for him just to have him close, to get to know the way his wings sound when they tuck under themselves at landing. To hear the water under his magnificent taloned feet as he steps into the pond. To see if his pupils dilate as he spots the fish that will be his. To watch, from less than two feet away, as his throat expands to accommodate the fish going down. This is what I’m after. Nothing less. This fills my entire body with a desire that cannot be satisfied by anything in the constructed human realm.
The orchestra of the death, the birth, the great gulping swallowing moments of one thing consuming another and me, standing here in awe and horror, realizing I must simply get wiser, smarter, more involved. My job not to truncate this process but to make myself a greater version than the one that stood at the window watching the heron. To find myself stepping in and demanding, in that gesture of moving closer, that the heron does just the same. And the fish too. And the lilies. And even the mallards, waiting patiently for the carnage to be over so they can take their evening bath.
But let me tell you – it isn’t always beautiful. It doesn’t always feel good. If we commit to leaning in, we must lean in to everything without judgment. Last night I sat with my son at our dining room table, just the two of us here in this heaven of a sanctuary that holds so much without hesitation. Today he goes to the clinic to see if he can get on Suboxone. But in the meantime, it is a relationship and he will stay high on heroin. It is not ok with me that he shoots up in his bedroom. That is not the power I will give to the heroin - that it can have my son to itself, that it will feed his shame in secrecy. And, if Henry is serious about wanting to end this, if he is serious about choosing his life, then he must stay in relationship with life during this whole process. He doesn’t get to split himself off into particle pieces. It’s all just him - beautiful Henry. He brings his stuff out and sits with me. I sit, breathing, trying to remember to breath, as I watch my first born, the grown body of the baby boy I fought so hard to get out of me and into the world 19 years ago, as he puts the sliver of enslaved, unearned euphoria - a thing so fucking small and deadly - into a little tin cup, boils it down, pulling it through a tiny cotton ball to filter for particulates. I watch him as he draws it all up into a syringe, as he looks at his arms, already tracked with darkening veins, searching for the right spot then putting the needle into his arm. I watch as he goes down the rabbit hole here. As whatever pain and discomfort was in him is now wiped out, obliterated, along with any hope – for this moment – of his righteous involvement in this life of his. But this is also mine. This is no different than the heron. This heroin is a foe I might want to murder without remorse. But it’s my responsibility to stay in this process, to do whatever is mine to get my son back and get wiser, get bigger here. Love more. This is our human responsibility. To love in ways we never imagined possible while feeling things that could easily tell us to run, to scream, to withdraw. We cannot expect that it will always feel good. It will not. It will not always feel good.
Step in. Step in here. We must step back in. May our relationship with Life bring us to our knees today.