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32—Thonk and Splat

Ah, the advantages of small-town life. On the third morning of the rest of my life, I returned home from registering myself and my pickup at the DMV—all accomplished in less time than it would have taken me to stand in line back in Vegas. The cats were happily exploring the apartment and comfortable enough to ignore my return. With lunch in mind, I went to the refrigerator. 

The thwuup of the refrigerator door opening was followed without pause by a thonk, a hiss, a wail, and the tiny gallop of cat paws. “kwawk,” said the bird, announcing his presence at the big middle window.

Photo by Walt Van Campen
“We’re just ignoring him,” I reminded the cats.
The bird opened his beak wide and screeched.
cd hissed from the back of the sofa in the middle of the living room.
MITTS was nowhere to be seen.

I laid two slices of bread on a plate and opened the cheese. 
The bird padded to the kitchen window and stood, shfting back and forth on his splattlly pink feet in waif-like anticipation.

I stepped into the living room on the pretense of getting the newspaper to read at lunch. 
The bird raced back to the living room window as if on a desperate mission.

I returned to the kitchen counter and began cutting up an apple and some cheese.
The bird, head and beak stretched forward, jetted back to the kitchen window, skidded to a stop, and retracted his neck into his orphan-of-the-sea pose.

I set my plate on the table next to the window.
“kwiwk,” simpered the bird.

“This Dickensian act of yours,” I said, my face to the glass, “it’s so derivative.” 

The bird began screeching, setting off the thumping in my ear that such sounds always triggered.
Impervious, I lifted some bread and cheese to my lips. 
The bird took hold of the aluminum window casing with his beak and yanked. My stomach tightened.

I’d stuck the stale pita bread in the refrigerator. But no. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be blackmailed by a bird. 
I was just going to laugh at the thonk of his splattily-flat pink feet and enjoy the antics of this little con.

Freed of the pressure, I picked up an apple slice.
The bird just stood, watching my every move. 
“It appears,” I called to the cats, “that we escaped the spiritual hazards of Las Vegas, only to be stalked by a bird.” 

No response from Mitts. 
cd stared at me from the sofa with her pinched-face disapproval. 

“kwawk kwawk kwawk,” complained the bird.  
But I simply smiled, finished my apple slice, and lifted more bread and cheese toward my lips. 
The bird let out a KWAWK and knocked on the window with his beak. I waved my arm, and he backed off but then hooked his beak into the aluminum casing and yanked as if determined to take out the window.

This was ridiculous. I came here to be free of all pressures and find peace. And I wasn’t going to let an eighteen-inch con artist deter me. Taking my bread, cheese, apple and some cat treats into the back room, I spread it all out picnic-style on the bed. The bird took off. The cats joined me—MITTS relaxed; cd, approving. 

After lunch, exhaustion from the move overtook me, and I fell into a deep nap. 
Shortly after two, I wandered out into the kitchen to revive myself with some tea. I’d barely set the kettle on the stove when I heard the thonk.

I turned abruptly and driven by a flare of annoyance stomped my foot in the direction of the window. Jolted, the bird flew off to the top of his telephone pole. 
Damned pest, I thought. But while waiting for the water to boil, I gazed up at the pole, feeling guilty for behaving so aggressively. He was, after all, only a bird. 
And I thought of Gandhi’s admonition—“Be the change you want to see in the world.” 

As if reading my mind, the bird took off, flew out over the bay, circled back in a figure eight, then dropped down onto the far edge of the roof with the most darling web-footed thonk and stood, one pink foot lapped adorably over the other.

How about that, I congratulated myself, he understands now that if he just backs off a little, we can be friends.
“kwiwk kwiwk,” said the bird with a cute tilt of his head.

31—Subverting the Dominant Paradigm

On the second day of the rest of my life, I awoke to another sunny and teal-blue-ocean day in Paradise. Or so it seemed for the first ten minutes.

The cats had followed me into the kitchen in the far front corner of the main living area. I’d filled their bowls and was waiting for my coffee to finish perking when we were distracted by a dull thonk. 

The bird had come in for a landing on the tar roof.

"kwawk  kwawk  kwawk," he said as he wadded to the large center window and peered in like someone expected for brunch. Seeing me at the stove, he dashed like a duckpin on legs to the kitchen window. 

“Just ignore him,” I told the cats.
They continued eating but warily.

“kwawk kwawk   KWAWK,” called the bird. 
Receiving no acknowledgement, he tapped on the window.

MITTS retreated to the back room. cd fluffed up and hissed. 
Refusing to make eye contact with the interloper, I poured myself a cup of coffee, then added a bit of milk. As I returned to the bedroom, coffee in hand, the bird raced across the roof alongside me. 

“KWWAAAK,” I heard as I slipped under the covers. Then, silence. Just as I relaxed, several more plaintive kwaaawks wafted in through the open window. Unmoved, I let the steam of freshly brewed coffee warm my face. 
As the distress call continued, the cats grew agitated. 

“We’ll just let the baby cry it out,” I assured them. “He’ll eventually give up,” I assured myself.
Setting my coffee on the bed stand, I opened the book I’d picked up the day before at Rainy Day Books—The Great Blue Heron by Hayward Allen, a beautifully illustrated description of the life and temperament the bird I’d chosen as my spirit guide in this new life . . . jab   jab   jab . . .  

Let him break through the damned glass, I thought. I'm not budging. 

“ ‘Look on the one that stands near the margin of the pure stream,’ “Mr. Allen began by quoting John James Audubon. “ ‘See his reflection as it were into the smooth water. How calm, how silent, how grand is the scene. You might imagine what you see to be the statue of a bird, so motionless it is.’ “ 

Yes, this was exactly what I wanted for myself—the still spirit, the singular purpose, the . . .”  jab  jab  JAB  insisted the bird before letting loose with a string of piercing KWAAAAWKs.
At last, the screeching stopped. But relief was short-lived as I heard a strange grating sound . . . ? . . . holy bird shit—the screen! 

I stormed into the living room, book in hand, waving my arms and shouting, “Shoo!” 

The offender backed away to the edge of the roof, and, after nearly stepping off into then air, retracted his neck between his tiny bird shoulders, and just stood there on those splattily flat pink feet, his sunny yellow beak sunken into his feathery white breast. I started to laugh, then reminded myself that his bird was nothing but a manipulative and irksome little con. 

Suddenly, an avian uproar broke out over the bay, birds scattering and screeching in all directions. An eagle flew by, not thirty yards from my window, its head glinting white in the crisp morning light.  Even with several gulls and crows dive-bombing the predator, the eagle soared off over the trees, unperturbed. 

Hey, I thought, maybe I should go for a raptor as my guide. Those guys can really stir things up with nothing but a simple fly over. But I’d always had issues with authority figures. 

“kwawk,” said the bird on my roof.
“Forget it,” I told him.  

With that, he flew off to join the ruckus that arose between another gull and three crows over a free lunch of chips that some tourist had tossed out on the motel roof next door. The crow and gull fluttered down to the chips that had scattered on sidewalk below. There, the crows began hippety-hopping around the gull, distracting the poor dope this way then that while scarfing up the crispy snack. 

You just couldn’t get any more clever or antiauthoritarian than a crow. 
But shiny, flip, and hippety-hop get old after a while. 
Besides, I’d come here to get away from all that. 

Meanwhile, the con had pecked the motel roof clean then flown over to the motel deck where he was now working his charms on a young woman enjoying coffee and Danish.

Peace at last. And time to subvert the dominant paradigm—time to commit myself to a solitary and mediative life, to surrender myself to matters of the spirit and a precision of movement in pursuit of some new and deeper purpose. 
As if giving me a sign, Heron ballooned down into the shallows below. 

Full of purpose, I returned to Mr. Allen's book and learned that the image of Heron’s early ancestors appeared across the globe from the wall of an Egyptian tomb to stone along the shore of a lake in Ontario. 
Of this mystical bird, Allen wrote, “Every heron has its own dance of seductio—"      thonk 

30—Will It Be Love in a Pita Pocket or Screens?

May 21, 1999—the first morning in my new apartment. And what a great apartment it was—three small but conveniently arranged mahogany-paneled rooms with a wall of windows looking out from the main living area over Netarts Bay at the Pacific. The sky was blue, the ocean calm, the air brisk and alive. And at the foot of my hill, there was Heron gliding through the shallows.  

MITTS had finally come out from the back bedroom to join cd on the window sill where they sat chittering at the swallows darting past the tar roof that jutted out over the apartment below us.  

My landlord Chuck was a round-faced affable man who’d brought me dinner the night before and moved in some furniture from the adjacent apartment until mine arrived. He’d even agreed to find some screens for my windows. All I had to do was promise not to feed the gulls. Gulls, he explained, had pecked right through every screen he’d ever installed in this apartment. Well, one gull in particular—the one that when Chuck’s mother lived downstairs and opened her patio door, would walk right in and help himself to the cat food. 

“White trash of the bird world,” my neighbor Buzz warned me. “They might soar like angels, but the city dump is their smorgasbord.”

Looking forward to the flow of salt air through my apartment, I went into the back bedroom to unpack. Hearing a knock, I headed out through the living area to the door. “Must be opportunity,” I said to the cats who’d ensconced themselves on the bed. Opening the door, I saw only the long narrow hallway leading to the carport. Puzzled, I returned to unpacking. 
Again, a knock. This time the cats went with me. Still, no one. What the hell?
As we headed back through the living room, there was a third knock. But not from the door. From the wall of windows. Mitts yowled and fled. cd leaped onto the back of the sofa and hissed, tail up and fur on end. Oh my God—

Standing on the tar roof was a seagull peering in through the large middle pane. From a distance, gulls had always looked, well, small. And cute. But this bird was over a foot tall. And there was nothing cute about the way he began attacking the window with his big yellow beak as if the thermal pane were an obstinate crab.

"Shoo!" I cried and waved my arms.
cd retreated.
jab Jab JAB went the bird. 

Fearing the glass might shatter, I stood between fight and flight, somewhere in the vicinity of Code Blue. 
But then having gotten my attention, the bird stepped back and began chatting me up. “kwawk  kwawk  kwawk,” he said.

And gee, he was cute, all freshly white with those cadet gray wings and that sunny yellow beak. When I approached the window, he side-skittished back to the edge of the roof on his oh so adorable rickety-spindly pink legs with their nubby knees and splattily-flat rosy pink feet. “kwawk,” he said, with a cute little tilt of his head.

White trash of the bird world—no way.

The bag of stale pita bread on the kitchen counter caught my eye. 

The bird just stood, drawing his head in oh so shyly between his cute birdie shoulders. 

What harm could there possibly be in sharing a crust with one of God’s creatures?
So I tore up a slice of the bread, slid open the window, and then placing my heart in a small piece of pita pocket tossed it onto the roof, along with the rest of the crusty crusts. 
Within seconds, out of nowhere, a swarm of gulls descended on the roof, flapping and squawking over the free lunch. I slammed shut the window and gaped at the frenzy which made junior high school cafeteria duty seem like a teddy-bears’ picinic. 

Suddenly at the center of the fray, one bird let out a shriek and then, wings spread wide, began running and screeching back and forth from one end of the roof to the other. Within seconds, he’d cleared the tar and was swaggering back toward me, his wings bent slightly outward as if he’d just holstered his pistols. 

“kwawk  kwawk  kwawk,” he said.
It was my adorable one!
My heart quickened. 

Another pita pocket in hand, I started toward the window where he was waiting for me, or so I thought until he hooked his beak onto the aluminum window casing and bracing those spindly pink legs at a determined angle, began to yank. When the metal refused to give, he pecked the roof clean of crumbs then flew to the top of the telephone pole just beyond the motel next door. There, he assumed the statuesque pose for which gulls are famous. 

Pita pocket in hand, I knew I could get him back. 
But clearly, all that little con wanted was the bread.
There was a knock. This time at the door. It was Chuck with the screens.


To: Friends and Family
Subject: Shrink-Wrapped

May 19, 1999: The cats and I are now at a Motel 6 in Eugene, Oregon. We’ve got just three more hours to Netarts, but the cats got edgy so I decided to stop. Also, I thought I might use the time to sort out all the emotions surrounding the move. Although I must say that apart from the kaleidoscope of anxieties, Moving Day went smoothly. 
I’d spent the last few months eliminating nonessentials. So in addition to my bed, desk, sofa, recliner chair, and some shelves and a filing cabinet, I’d pared down my possessions to a small stack of boxes in the corner of my apartment. As I sat waiting for the movers, I fretted over the money I could have saved over the years by not aspiring to a larger life. 

The last fourteen weeks have been difficult and strange. When I returned to Las Vegas on Groundhog Day, I sat in the supermarket parking lot watching shoppers slap across the pavement in their flip-flops. Smog coated my eyeballs and clogged my sinuses. I longed for the clean ocean air and even missed the wind and horizontal bullets of rain. Inside the market, coins clattered out of the slot machines lining the front wall. And I thought of how T. S. Eliot’s magi felt after returning home following the holy birth—“no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”

I’d left Netarts with Heron alive inside me, right there at the center with my heart and lungs, that gray and indigo stillness at the edge of the silvery peach water at twilight. By March, Heron had become a memory, an image I held in my thoughts. By mid April, the memory had turned into a bird I pictured in a distant place.

It was also about this time that I became alarmed that the owner of the cabin was not sending me the two-year lease as promised. On May 2nd, his wife called. They were getting a divorce and selling the house. In a panic, I phoned the rental agent who’d set me up in the house. She called back with news that the apartment, just two houses north of the house, was still available. I’d looked at the place and thought it fine but preferred the house. Now, with moving day set for May 18, I was stuck. I called Chuck, the landlord, made a deal, and decided the outcome was a blessing I had yet to understand.

Around ten on Moving Day, a van, the size of a high-roof boxcar, arrived.

Vinny, the mover, was a short square man. He surveyed my load. “Good job boxing. Piece of cake,” he observed, his muscles bulging with an eagerness to begin lifting and hauling.

“So what happens if the van can’t make it down my street?” I asked. “I mean, we’re talking a back-alley-small street.”
“We just rent a truck and bring it in,” Vinny said.

The cats tucked away in the bathroom began wailing and scratching the door.
“What if there’s no truck rental available?” I asked, my stress mounting. 
“Can I make a call?” Vinny asked as he began pushing the buttons on my phone. 
“I think I bought some sort of insurance for this type of emergen...,” I was saying when an African-American man in a wildly flowered shirt of many colors wandered through the door with a gigantic roll of plastic wrap. 

“Hi-ya,” he greeted us in a Carribean lilt. “Name ees Richmond,” he added with a big half-moon smile.
“You're late,” Vinny snapped.
Richmond shrugged, peeled open the plastic rap, and began shrink-wrapping my sofa. 
I recalled the dire warnings of Dr. Helen Caldicott who’d come to Las Vegas to lecture on nuclear disaster but spent more time on the threat of carcinogens leaching from plastic wrap into our muffins.

“Yeah,” Vinny was saying into the phone. “I’m over here at the partial. She says there might not be no truck rental in . . .” he extended his arm, drew back his head, and squinted at the moving orders.
“Knee-tarts,” I said.
“How far’s Astoria?” he asked me.
“Seventy miles,” I told him. 
Vinny rolled his eyes and repeated the number into the phone and waited. “Yeah, you do that,” he muttered then slammed down the phone. "New dispatcher can’t tell her elbow from a destination rental,” he said.

Richmond stood over my recliner scratching his head. “The back come off this nice chair?” he asked.
“Not that I know of,” I replied as he grabbed the back of the recliner by its sides, then jerked it upward and off. 
“Yah, man,” he said.

Anxiety swarmed over me like ants. Who were these men dismantling my life? And what had possessed me to move?

“I can see you upset, little lady,” Richmond said. “You go in the bedroom. Sit. Breathe slow and deep. We take care everything real good.”

In the bedroom, I lay down on the bed and for first time in five years felt myself falling irretrievably into the full grief of everything I’d lost. I was saved by the ringing of the phone. Dispatch. Yes, there was a truck-rental facility in Tillamook, I reported to Vinny as he and Richmond lifted the sofa out the door as if it were a balloon.

Several hours later, I watched the van disappear with all but my most essential and valuable possessions, which I then packed in the back of my truck. Being what Vinny called a “partial” meant that my belongings were part of two larger, more lucrative loads so that I’ll be the last delivery, in about three weeks, if I got lucky. 

Finally able to let the cats out of the bathroom, I understood their terror as they ran about in search of the familiar and found only bare walls. There was nowhere to hide. The place was spotless. Sterile and impersonal. For all the turmoil, we lived easy. For all the struggle, I’d left no mark. 

All evening friends called with their goodbyes and best wishes. My voice echoed off the walls of the empty apartment. My favorite Buddha Delight take-out now seemed flavorless.

Around eleven, the cats and I burrowed into my sleeping bag. At two, I realized I was not going to sleep and decided to stave off anxiety by leaving. The cats, seeming to understand, walked into their carriers. By three, we’d begun our gradual ascent up 95 North. The town of cards glittered for a time in the rearview mirror like a fallen galaxy. Then the lights blurred into a small shimming amber light that vanished abruptly into the night. The high beams of my pickup streaked through the shadows lining the road like the set in a dark theater. 

Perhaps I’m dead, I thought, sent off in my old truck Egyptian-style with my beloved cats, all my favorite possessions tied up in the blue tarp for my next life. As I sped through the night with the stars, I wished I’d spent more time learning their names.

Daylight convinced me I'm alive. And the drive through the desert to Reno was heart-wrenchingly beautiful because I know that while something has called me to the Oregon coast, the desert will always be my spiritual home.
Here, now, at the Motel 6 in Eugene where I am neither here nor there, I am now asking myself if feeling “called” is just my rationalization for dipping into my retirement savings to make such a drastic move with so little thought.

Or might there really be such a thing as destiny? 

28—Phantom Limbs

To: Friends and Family
Subject: Phantom Limbs

This afternoon, I’m writing on battery power as gale-force winds swirl around my house. I’d hoped to spend the evening watching heron and the seals as the silvery peach hue of sunset slipped away into my last night here. But with the horizontal bullets of rain blasting in from the south, my window on the world is a blur. 

With the furniture back in place and all the dusty fake flowers, ceramic chotchkies, and crocheted knickknacks I'd stashed in drawers now filling every nook and cranny, the house has that feel of death that comes after the spirit that once inhabited it has gone.

cd is annoyed that the angle of the sofa no longer gives her comfortable access to the window. Mitts is confused at finding a table in the spot where she always meowed and sat up for her evening treats. And I’m dreading the next four months of urban pollution.

While I’ve always had a rich dream life, my sleep here has been dreamless. It was as if every morning I woke to a dream—the dawn of each day like Genesis with the spirit of creation moving across the face of the deep, revealing the old myths in a new light. Living apart from the system, I experienced these myths not as a collection of spiritual relics or emanations of ancient truths increasingly inaccessible to the modern mind. What I did experience was a fullness of being that has changed the way I relate to the world in ways I'm only beginning to understand.  

This morning on my way back from Tillamook, I pulled my truck off the highway and sat looking up at the clear cut I’ve passed so many times. As clear cuts go, this hillside is not a big one, just an acre or two of tree stumps, conspicuous along the wooded road like a smile with a missing tooth. As if still alive, the fresh stumps radiate a warm ruddy light. Between the stumps lay tangles and scatters of the small and commercially useless brush called slash.

An impulse drew me from the truck and up the slope through the slash toward a big stump in the center of the cut. If fairy tales were real, this is where Princess Rosamund would have been lying among the thorny tangles, asleep for a hundred years under the spell cast by the resentful woman not invited to the baptism feast for the princess. And why? Simply because there weren’t enough plates! For this trifle, the entire kingdom fell into a sleep with the beautiful and virtuous girl at the fateful prick of her finger. I felt a similar eerie stillness had taken possession of the clear cut. 
Trampling the thorny tangles of blackberries growing around the stump, I eased myself past the spikes of the jagged hinge where the tree had fallen way from itself and lay down on the sawed-off surface. I fit perfectly, except for the soles of my feet. 

The wood was damp and cold. I sat up and counted the rings inward, piecing together the spruce’s history through the wavy marks of the chain saw—a dry, narrow season here, a rapid spurt there. I stopped at ring fifty-six, my age. It had been an average easy-going year. With three times as many rings to go, I laid my hands across the sawed-off years. 

Sliding down over the dark, elephantine roots, I felt something under my boot and lifted my foot. Up boinged a tiny tree, not more than six-inches high with a tiny curl to its top branch. A hemlock. Reaching down to apologize to the little tyke, I realized the ground around me was covered with these little trees and even tinier flowers, delicate pink stars covering all the open areas between slash and thorns. On every bit of walkable ground between me and the road, there was no place to step with impunity. 

Suddenly, from all around the clear cut, phantom limbs reached out to me from their stumps. In an anxious blur of the real and abstract, I began my descent and sank into a tangle of slash covering a narrow gully. Like an animal caught in a trap, I sank waist-deep into my own struggling. Blackberries poked through my jeans and socks. Several cars sped by on the road. I thought about yelling, but who would hear and how silly to have to be rescued from a pile of twigs. I pulled the sleeve of my sweatshirt down over my hand and grabbed hold of a branch. A thorn hit a nerve in my hand. Pain radiated through my body. I held on and after willing myself free, fled the grief of the phantom limbs that bid me stay.

We’re scheduled to arrive back in Las Vegas on Groundhog Day. It’s hard to imagine what shadows I might encounter between then and my move back here in May. I’m in somewhat of a quantum state, that strange place where the math for moving forward is the same as for moving backward. 

The other night, Jane and I went to Art Space, an art gallery and restaurant where I enjoyed acorn squash ravioli marinara, salad, and peppermint ice cream pie with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. The place was bright white with polished wood floors and maybe dozen people dressed in their best fleece and flannel, all oblivious to the giant plastic tarp hanging over the entrance to the art gallery where the roof had come crashing down during the recent rain. 

Not since I left Las Vegas has anyone told me to have a nice day. Nice here is a blend of fatalism, fleece, a reliable pair of water-proof shoes, and humor, both dark and light. Candles are still used for ritual; but on nights like this when the wind drops trees over the power lines, ritual becomes indistinguishable from life, and chain saws cut right through philosophy.