That Feathered Thing

Nesting Junco – photograph by Paul Gallo

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. – Emily Dickinson

This virus. It’s all over but it’s never over.
It’s gone and then it’s back. Some of my friends are getting sick. Some people never have. Some people never will. And still.
It’s the side effects that are most troubling. And I don’t just mean the medical side effects.
There’s something else. Something concerning. It seems the pandemic has disclosed a much more lethal toxin that has been in the air among us for some time.

It’s fear, a lack of motivation, and despair. It’s the loss of hope – that famously feathered thing that’s supposed to perch in the soul. A close friend and I have been talking about this lately. He was telling me about Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, in which she draws a distinction between hope and optimism. Optimism seems to me a denial. The notion that everything is fine, everything is going to be fine, seems baffling in these times – probably at any time in history. And pessimism, don’t get me started. Pessimism I guess is a quirk of the personality. The inner Eeyore that says we’re all doomed no matter what. That grumpy dwarf that only Snow White could cheer up with her crazy optimism. Polar opposites.

There is another difference of course. Pessimism can be tolerated. “Hey, it is what it is.” But a loss of hope can mean something much more serious. A pessimist doesn’t lose hope. You can’t lose something if you’ve never thought to cultivate it, to nurture it, if you’ve never received it. Hope is a dynamic thing. A living thing. The loss of hope is despair. And despair is crippling, life threatening.

A man I knew some years ago took his life last month. He was a stocky, warm, kind man with watery blue eyes and a secret. He had two beautiful children and a gorgeous wife. He gave up hope. Reminds me of that Joni Mitchell song. Was he “Just shaking off futility or punishing somebody?” Later she says, “It seems we all live so close to that line and so far from satisfaction.” Really, though? Really? How much satisfaction are we after? Maybe we want too much. I don’t even really know what I want in the grand scheme of things. Maybe that’s why I try not to think about the grand scheme of things for very long. I do wish there had been some way for this man to have gotten whatever it was he really needed somewhere along the way. I wish somebody could have seen the secret in those blue eyes.

The only person I’ve ever known who told me she wanted to die was dying at the time. Actually she told me this twice. The first time was when she was post surgery in 2006, I think. I literally ran up the hill to UC Hospital to see her, somehow feeling an urgency as soon as I woke up that morning. “Would it be okay with you?” She asked me. I tried to put a generous spin on imagining living without her. I said something like, “Of course, darling girl. You’ve been through so much. You’re tired. I’m here.” She knew I was full of shit but the moment passed. She didn’t want me to cheer her up. She was very adamant that she did not appreciate cheerleaders. She didn’t really want me to say anything. She wanted me to be there and to hear her, to really hear her. The second time was in 2017. This was after twenty-six years with an aggressive disease, twenty-six years of surgeries, radiation, and various recurrences. Chemo was finally the last treatment option left. She was weak and incredibly sick. “Can’t I please just die?” she asked me for the second time, with those deep green eyes on me. I just held her close. This time she got her wish. And her wings.

They say people know when they can’t go on. Of course they do. Cats and dogs know. It’s the way of things. Yet nature again and again and always and forever under more or less normal circumstances pushes life forward, provides countless ways to preserve life. So to willingly give all that up seems an aberration. We don’t get it. Just like that morning in 2006. I had no idea what my friend had experienced and probably would experience in the years to come. All I knew was my own attachment to her and the way having her in my life made me feel about myself. We don’t get it because we don’t know, never can know what someone else is going through. All we know, need to know, is that, for someone to end their own life must certainly mean their suffering must have been extreme. All we can do, need to do is be there and listen.

I can’t imagine living without hope for more than a few low blood sugar hours on a rough day. And no, I am not an optimist. I realize there are countless realities from injustice to climate change to corruption to senseless cruelty and violence. Life in all its glorious mystery is all around us and we are constantly bombarded with more and more instances of nature, of life so callously disregarded as humans plunder the earth’s resources, take full advantage of any weakness in others for the sake of greed or power, and seem everyday to become more mean spirited and arrogant. I see the news too. And I feel its weight. I’m not an optimist, whistling my way through life planting daisies and baking cookies with a strained and grotesque grin. I know there are bitter winds blowing that fatigue the soul and sicken the heart. Yes, yes. I try to be realistic but I don’t think I could ever be a pessimist. It’s like my buddy in Toulouse said recently when we were talking over Skype, “I don’t believe everything is ever totally black. Just maybe a dark grey at times.”

Something like hope is stuck to me, tattooed, a song stuck in my head. It’s that feathered thing inside me “that sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” I only wish I could trace how it came to be there so I could figure out a way to make it available, like a shot, like a booster to attack the infection of despair. Maybe it’s that I feel fortunate rather than ripped off. Maybe it’s the fact that I have a garden to sit in where I can watch the juncos and warblers court each other and then raise their children, where I can plant things and water them and watch them grow and bloom. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised to expect things. But no, I don’t mean to preach. (“There are starving children in the world! Eat your potatoes.”) I really think it has to be that along the way I’ve always had someone around who heard and saw me. There was always someone – or the vivid memory of someone – who was around when I was young and may have faltered. I have to say I’m pretty sure the presence of someone I knew I could trust with my secrets was often far more reassuring than anything they said.

Maybe this metaphorical feathered thing is like any other. Maybe it’s useless to chase it. Maybe it only comes around if you sit still. Only it can make a difference if someone else is there too. See, I figure we’re all playing to win all the time and we forget to enjoy the game, the running around with your teammates, the practiced and graceful lob that sends the ball into a perfect arc toward the basket. We picture the Warriors bringing home a golden trophy after a grueling season. We all deserve to bring home something shiny after the past couple of years. Some glimmer of that “invincible summer” Camus speaks of finding “in the midst of winter.” But some just don’t. Somebody loses. Somebody always loses. Most of us chase a ball up and down the court but some play dodgeball – that sick game some bully made up to organize the torture of that one skinny kid who’s, you know, different. It’s a tough game if you’re the only one on the court and the balls just keep coming. But I’ve always hated sports analogies. The last thing we need is some sweaty, paunchy guy with a whistle urging us to walk it off.

But this is what we do to each other constantly and this is what we do to our kids. We give them coaching or we offer a cheerleader or sometimes a therapist – someone neutral. But it isn’t neutral our younger friends will need as they grow – it’s drive. They need someone patient and encouraging in the passenger seat beside them saying, “You can do this.” Or saying nothing when they need the sanctuary of quiet. More and more children are losing their lives to despair every day. Somehow we have to catch them before they fall, or before they jump. We do a great disservice in not noticing the pain of the young. We expect so much from them. Recently someone on social media posted one of those annoying survey questions. This one asked, “If you could give anything to kids today that you had, what would it be?” The answers were pretty shocking – must have been coming from folks who don’t know much about children. “A kick in the pants,” was one reply. “Manners,” was another. I said, “Hope.” Hope, that’s what we had that they’ll need. Hope and teammates, somebody on their side – somebody who will listen, who will let them know without words that their secret fears are heard.

See, we’re on this tiny blue ball and it’s way out in space. We’re just dangling here at the edge of an insignificant galaxy for a minute. Somehow we came to be alive. I love you, Joni, but I just don’t agree with you this time. I’ll go along with something Patti Smith says: “All is but an intermission of sweet and tender consequence.” I pray for those whose souls are tormented with despair, hanging onto a little ball dangling in space. I pray someone will take them to sit in a place where there are some very old trees, timeless trees that know a thing or two about life. I pray there will be juncos or warblers to sing a sweet and tender song without words and that it will get stuck in their heads and never stop at all.

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