Author's Note: This is a follow-up piece to my recent essay, "Something More." If you haven't read it yet, I suggest you do so before reading this.
There’s a phrase my mother began using in her last months: I’ll be looking out my window for you. Taken literally, she was referring to her kitchen window where she could see us when we walked up the sidewalk to the door. But I believe she meant something more...
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I think of these experiences often, even though it's been almost fifteen years. The doe that stared deep into me, the three hawks that kept vigil while I said goodbye to the family home, the fallen giant oak.
Since that time, I’ve experienced many striking synchronistic clusters and unusual animal encounters. I became intrigued, researching whatever I could find about synchronicity, especially diving into Jungian texts and quantum physics philosophy in hopes of understanding how these phenomena might occur. Perhaps it’s connected to temporal theories, with time variously described as vertical, circular, spiraling, or simultaneous rather than simply a linear, chronological progression. It resonates with me that seemingly contradictory reality constructs – time as linear and simultaneous - can coexist.
I also did my own investigations, using my life as a laboratory. I collected my mystifying and mystical experiences, placing them on a timeline, and came to notice that these especially occurred when the membrane between myself and the something more was thinned by upheaval, grief, wonder, love.
When I walked through our property at the end of Rhus Ridge Road that final time, each of those four conditions were active. And I took it a step further by inviting a state of reverie, which softens spatial and temporal boundaries, essentially creating a permeable held space. Could the butterfly, chickadees, lizard and doe sense this as they drew close?
Those animal encounters would have made for a very special parting, but the hawks took it to another level – not one, but three. Not appearing as a trio just any day during those forty years, but the very last afternoon. Did something call them in, did I? To fully convey the significance of the hawks, I need to share a bit more about my family.
I grew up in a tribe of skeptics, led by my father. He was a brilliant mathematician and electromagnetic engineer. His bible was pure logic – what couldn’t be proven didn’t exist. My mother had a very spiritual orientation, originally based in her Christian upbringing. I’m not sure if these beliefs went underground due to my father’s disdain for religion or if they naturally morphed into an almost animistic sense of a soul-infused world.
After she died, we found the poem, "Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep," by a little-known author, Mary Elizabeth Frye, stuffed in her recipe box:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
A recipe box may not seem like a logical spot for a poem, but my mother’s chapel was the kitchen, the lavish meals lovingly prepared and served her daily sacrament.
Animism can be defined as a belief that a supernatural power animates the material universe. Including appliances apparently. As my mother struggled to breathe in her last week, the furnace failed and then the air conditioner broke down. Within hours of her death, the kitchen clock stopped. During the next days, it’s as if her kitchen was literally broken by grief. The oven announced its death with a grating buzz, the ice-maker soon succumbed, followed by the dishwasher ceasing to work. By the end of the week, the phone went quiet – no dial tone. Every single machine that she used on a daily basis died a sudden death. It’s easier for me to fathom hawks and deer passing through the veil than machines bought at Sears, but this string of events is certainly striking.
During our years at Rhus Ridge, most everyone but my mother identified somewhere on the agnostic continuum. But with a twist. The truth is, though not overtly stated, nature was our god, our church. Even my father’s. When struggling with feelings or stymied by a mathematical impasse in his antenna designs, my father could be seen pacing under the oak tree or staring quietly for long periods into the canyon.
So while one would never evade rolled eyes in bringing up biblical miracles, it somehow seemed within reason to develop a family mythology around the natural world responding to human travails. Hawks became messengers, angels of sorts.
This belief system crystalized during the tragic period when my eleven-year-old niece, Markley, was dying from an aggressive spinal cancer. Many family members, including my father, spoke excitedly or in hushed tones of close encounters with raptors, both on the day of her death as well as during the memorial service.
Just like any tribal mythology, these stories would get recounted over and over, providing some degree of comfort and meaning during senseless loss. When my father died, the hawks were particularly present. And it wasn’t only inanimate appliances that showed up for my mother's death. So, given this family “religion,” why not hawks on the very last day? Why not three hawks, one for each death? And of course, landing in our beloved oak.
And that brings me to the land’s last braided family story (or is it?): the fall of the oak. I understand that trees eventually topple over and find their way back to the soil. But that tree had stood for several centuries and fell within a few months after we vacated the property. Is it possible that the tree’s life was extended by our devotion, just as our loving caretaking may have lengthened my mother’s life? In her final twenty-four hours, painfully gasping for breath, she held on until we had all gathered and my older brother, the last to arrive, said, “It’s okay mom, you can let go.” Jim is a fighter, believing any battle can be won. She held death at bay until she received his blessing to surrender, then fell into a coma and died at dawn the following morning. Root disease and cancer are relentless, but perhaps they can be mitigated by gentler forces.
The oak tree was the heart of the land in the same way that our mother was the connective tissue of the family. With the tree standing, the acreage is unforgettable and stunningly beautiful. Without the tree, it is lovely, but nothing sets it apart from the surrounding foothills. With my mother’s unmetered kindness, we gathered many times a year, ignoring distance and political differences. Without her, and without the land with its great oak tree creating a held space, we seldom all gather as a family outside of weddings and memorials. It’s not that our love for each other has diminished, but I'm reminded of the famous line from William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming:" The centre cannot hold.
It will be many, many decades before another local tree grows into similar grandeur as that special oak. Yet ironically, the tree's demise softened the pain of separation from the land and my mother’s death gave me permission to truly move on, just as my brother’s words released mom. My caretaking no longer needed, I was freed to establish my own center: to make a longed for move to the Santa Cruz Mountains and to fully embrace my own land, my house similarly perched near a ridge, with large windows giving me full views of the forested hills across the valley. In fact, each of the five children has gravitated toward land at the edge of the wild - as if this instinct has been passed down through the genes.
The hawk mythology - the belief that the natural world is responsive - still circles our lives, even if others in the family don’t consciously conceptualize it as such. My brother Ron felt compelled to meticulously render the hawk’s gaze into one of his first large works of art, shown at the beginning of this essay. It hangs in my entry, like a crucifix or mezuzah. Of course, the hawk stories are shorthand for a larger text. Like in any religion, there are the gods and prophets the faithful can point to, but to my mind, these are the deified archetypes emerging from an underlying, vast mystery.
My mom’s favorite poem is like an excavated page of family scripture, whispering a truth, alluding to the interconnectedness that informs all life. Though I can no longer physically embrace my dead, in some ways they are as present in my life as the people, animals and plants that I am attached to on earth. Occasionally the veil thins and I sense the departed in the thousand winds that blow, the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds, the soft stars that shine at night...
The land holds stories. The family terrain has truly held us, but I also hold the land, and the beings I love. This too is held space - space I cradle within me. In this internal territory, the tree still stands, the three hawks still gaze, my mother still looks out her window for us. And the hawk in the willow tree continues to guide me, as I look out my window for the something more.
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