with the great oceanic question mark from which we momentarily crest
Hello. This post is about Death & Birds.
I have cried with happiness twice this year.
As you know, Norman the Sparrow and his crew arrived and settled into the aviary. Five of the seven Sparrows were ready for release not long after arriving—so I set about the task of separating them. Norman, whose development has been slower than his friends, was an easy catch; the others were near impossible. To cut a long and stressful story short, not five, but six Sparrows ended up back in the wild; leaving Norman alone, and me devastated.
I tried desperately to atone for my failure by making Norman’s space as cozy as possible, adding little houses in an attempt to distract him from his newly found solitude. Technically, he was fine. He wasn’t stressed, he was eating and drinking, but he had never been alone before, and I was nauseous with guilt and self-recrimination.
Early the following morning, David woke me to say that there was a Sparrow sitting on top of the aviary, chirping away at Norman . I went down, and was able to feed this little fellow, but he was jumpy. He would tentatively bite a little baby-bird food from the stick and then dart off into the ivy-covered trunk of a nearby Oak tree, he and Norman tweeting back and forth the whole time. Catching him didn’t seem like an option, so we put some foliage and seeds and water on the wire-mesh roof of the aviary.
All day and into the next, this Sparrow would dart from Oak to aviary and back, he and Norman squeaking at each the other all the while. That evening I went out to find him sat on top of the aviary, his beak poking through a hole in the wire, and Norman, inside, on the highest branch he could possibly reach, stretching upwards towards him. The pair an inch apart, making little mewing noises.
Aching at the sight, and with little thought, I rolled a heavy wood stump from nearby to stand on, and took off the shirt I was wearing. Thankfully, David was nearby and had clocked what was happening so quietly came over, ready. I stood statue, hardly breathing, before quickly throwing my shirt over the top of the aviary, scooping the Sparrow up and, with David swiftly opening the door, putting him back inside. The relief was exquisite.
We went indoors to let the pair settle, and when we came back to check on them, the two were squished so closely together that they had almost formed one bird. They were frantically preening one another, each nuzzling into the others neck, making identical little squeaks back and forth. It was clear, now they were side-by-side, that the other Sparrow was Simon—Norman’s brother. I stood and cried with relief, with happiness at their happiness.
Earlier this year, David embarked on a ‘Dark retreat’1. This involved travelling to the French countryside to spend six days, alone, in a room designed to maintain complete & utter darkness—his meals delivered twice a day through a specially constructed hatch, ensuring no light could enter the room.
The concept of Dark retreats is ancient, originating from the Bon religion (arguably one of the two types of Tibetan Buddhism), and involves spending extended periods of time (up to months) in total darkness, so that one might prepare themselves for ‘the Bardo’—the liminal space that these arms of Buddhism believe is traversed, following Death.
Weirdly, it wasn’t until the evening before he left that it really dawned on me that we wouldn’t be able to speak for those six days. I had known, logically, of course, but it hit me viscerally that night and I was rigid with anxiety. It had been fifteen years since we’d gone so long without contact and I felt as though I was about to have a limb removed.
I knew things could get difficult in there. Prisoner’s cinema, the phenomenon whereby sensory deprivation provokes a light show in the minds eye, the forms of which sometimes take on human shape, is not an uncommon experience in Dark retreats—and, on around day four of total darkness, the brain begins to release compounds which can cause intense hallucinations. So, twice a day, I would light a candle and sit quietly, with one of my hands stretched out in front of me, picturing David sat opposite me, my hand on his heart, and I would recite his favourite poem; Defeat by Kahlil Gibran2.
On his fifth night in the dark, I dreamt that he stood at the side of our bed, telling me to wake up. I reached out my hand and said “You’re out?”, he held it and said, “Yes! Wake up! I’m out!”. I did wake up, frustrated that I had to wait another day to hear his voice—then I turned on my phone, and David was calling. We excitedly whispered “Hi!”, “Hi!”, back and forth, giggling, elated to hear one another’s sounds again, crying with excitement and relief.
A day later, I stood in St Pancras station waiting for him to walk through the exit doors of the Eurostar. Someone was attempting to play ‘Greensleeves’ on the public piano there. We hadn’t agreed that I would I meet him there, but he knew I would, and before he had seen me I could see him, eyes darting around, searching for me in amongst the crowd of other people waiting for their beloveds. His eyes found me and we mirrored grins. He looked a decade younger than he had when he left. We wrapped around each other, our faces in each others necks.
Norman and Simon’s reunion reminded me of mine and David’s—and I found myself pondering the blissful, and seemingly sacred, nature of reunion. My therapist recently talked me through coming back into my body—something which I thought I had been inhabiting quite successfully. I was wrong, it turned out. My awareness was either entirely neck-up or external, and I realised that I had had little experience of my body for days. The return to it felt good, like a homecoming—and I was shocked. Historically, my body has not felt like a comfortable, or even a safe, place to be—so to come into my physical self and experience relief was new, and exciting. Another successful reunion.
Naturally, I found myself considering all this in relation to Death. Whatever your personal belief, it’s hard to deny Death as a reunion. Whether it be reunion with a Divine creator, reunion with loved ones passed, reunion with the great, oceanic question mark from which we momentarily crest—or, simply, a reunion of the elements out of which we are made with the planet, and the cosmos, from where those elements came.
I’m curious as to your experience, or expectation, of reunion; be it with yourself, a beloved, a place, a state of being, perhaps a passage of a book which held a deeper truth for you upon your return to it…
In the meantime I am sitting in the reverberations of joy at the reunion of Norman and Simon, and with the image of Death as return to the Mystery from whence we came.