I have a familiar ritual that follows the storms in my life. It goes something like this:
1. I cue up a song—one with mantra-like capabilities—and with a touch of a finger, instruct artist du jour to sing over and over and over again. For today, it’s Ingrid Michaelson:
All that I know is I’m breathing. All I can do is keep breathing. All we can do is keep breathing…
By the time I’ve heard it 43 or 10,000 times, the mantra has become a temporary filler to the gaping holes in understanding that rendered me bewildered and ill-equipped for this journey… to the feelings buried in the rubble that I’ve yet to name.
2. Next, cue up old photos… holidays, birthdays, sepia-toned images pre-dating my existence, studio and candid versions of the people whose voices collect to speak the truths I mean to live by. They speak in shiny boxing gloves, in top-hats of a yester-year, in pearls and aprons, in Mary Poppins garb. They say owe nothing to anyone but yourself, Jannie Kay. Let no one do your thinking for you, and find humility and strength and courage in the ambiguities of not knowing what can’t be known.
3. Finally, cue up the stories. The ones that might inform what can be known in this moment. Literally, metaphorically… What does the narrative say? I start with the stories I’ve offered to posterity on this blog. Stories of fear and courage, of coming out, of breaking up, of jobs lost and found, of magic potions and the confidence of a five-year-old cross-dresser. They say of this moment that the honesty of childhood is fleeting but that it returns when you seek it out; that courage isn’t something one has from beginning to end but it shows up when we understand, finally, that there is too much to lose in its absence.
Then from the blog, I turn to the stories contained in old letters and collected emails… from two years in Japan, to and from an ex-husband, from ex-lovers and friends and family. And my rummaging turns up this sentence from an email I sent a short three years and four months ago: “Remind me to tell you about a certain black-capped chickadee…”
The story of the chickadee began on a camping trip some ten years ago. It was an interesting campground that merged three ecosystems… desert, wetland, and mountains. C1 was 10 at the time and had a passion for birds, so the marsh area presented a unique opportunity for bird-watching relative to typical Colorado landscapes. Our plan for day one was for C2 and Bob to troll a nearby lake with their rods while C1 and I hit the trail to the wetland with our binoculars. But before we took off, we stopped by the visitor center for information on what we might see—information which we got in the form of pictures. Of the slithery kind. With rattles for tails. Photographed just days earlier in the very desert we would be hiking in route to the wetland.
I have exactly two fears of the physical world: heights and snakes. Spiders, mice… couldn’t care less. But a snake by any name and most certainly a venomous one—that’s a problem, compounded by the fact that should feared critter present itself, I had my son to protect.
Dad’s woodland voice comes to me: “Rattlers are shy; they don’t want to get close to you. Give them fair warning and they’ll take off.”
And for all the noise I made, it might just as well have been New Year’s Eve or a sporting event complete with horns and obnoxious voice effects. I stomped out my strides and talked to C1 like he was a half-mile away, and in the distance, over the marsh of our intended destination, we watched what we imagined to be loons or herons or cormorants soaring far from the cacophony of humanity marching their way. Apparently, they too are shy. And they hear well.
“Mom, I think you scared all the birds away,” and sure enough, we arrived to cattails and grasses swaying silently in the gentle waves beneath them, no fowl in water or tree to break the shadows they cast over this marshy habitat. “I’m gonna go fishing with Dad and C2 at the lake,” C1 tells me. And I watch him walk back through the desert, certain now that the snakes, like the birds, are far from the trail he follows.
Now, at this point in the story, the metaphor that presents itself is something like fear and the ways that it reduces our opportunities. I could apply it to racists and homophobes and say that their experience of the world must surely be limited, similar to the way that I’d just let fear limit my own opportunities and those of my son. But it would be the wrong metaphor. For one, if I played it out, it would make the snakes (what is feared) the gay community or people of color. That’s a problem: Rattlesnakes are actually dangerous; they bite and they’re poisonous. Last I checked, non-dominant sexualities and races represent no such dangers. In fact, the metaphor works better in the opposite direction. When the culture of dominance prevails, when marginalization results in isolation and the members of those isolated communities have to beg for acceptance with all the rights to protection and opportunity afforded dominance—or worse, members of non-dominant factions hide in fear of retaliatory scrutiny—that humanity can be naught but depleted in its resources… in the support it needs to thrive and find joy. It’s a metaphor that is closer in meaning to this moment of crisis, but the story doesn’t end with the snakes so the metaphor isn’t complete.
After C1 left in search of his dad and brother, I found a smooth boulder from which to do a little journaling… watch the cattails bend in the breeze. I’m not sure how long I was there before I heard a high-pitched rhythmic twittering from somewhere in the cottonwood tree not far from where I sat. I took the binoculars from my backpack and began searching the boughs for its source. It wasn’t a long search, and I recognized her immediately as a chickadee, assuming, at first, the mountain variety. But retrieving a field guide from my backpack, I realized that the solid coloring of her head betrayed a different chickadee… a little less striking in the absence of a white streak across her eye and one who preferred lower elevations and simple broad-leafed foliage to a tree line between forest and tundra. “Hello, little black-capped wonder. Nice to meet you.”
That meeting was a profound experience for me. Chickadees are prolific in Colorado, so this little gal carried none of the thrill or grandiosity of a heron or a crane or a loon. The significance was simply an identification that separated her from others like her, and once naming her, feeling somehow connected to her song and to her experience of this little water habitat. It was intimate. I sat listening to her sing until she flitted off in search of fatter bugs or spaces unencumbered by human-kind.
And there’s my metaphor.
The dust has now settled on what was some of the most intense fear I’ve known in my life—on a depression so venomous as to land us inside hospitals (plural) and to have this mother wake in the middle of more than one night uncertain whether her son was still alive. A few days ago we met for lunch.
“Honey, I know you. I know your confidence. When you were five, you could dress up like Mary Poppins and say you didn’t care what people thought. And I watched you come out at sixteen and go on to do amazing stuff.”
“Mom, I was any five-year-old.”
“No, there are plenty of five-year-olds who would fold to the bullying you took.”
“Okay, maybe. But somewhere it stopped being true.”
“It didn’t stop. If it was there then, it’s there now. But I can’t argue with what you feel.”
“Is it possible, Mom, that both stories are true?”
And, of course, it is possible that both stories are true.
It is as sure in him as it is in me… that courage and fear, tenacity and timidity inhabit the same frame. And failing to see the full-feathered black cap, the absence of a white stripe… failing to see a more complete picture of him—the glory and the fury—for the picture I wanted to see, I failed to connect… to love him more fully and to make the noise necessary to protect him in an environment that would not always be kind. That’s not to say, of course, that I’m blaming myself entirely. Depression is a wicked disease, and there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have mattered what I did. I know, too, that there are things that I will never know, and not knowing is a piece of any genuine intimacy—it is the space of humble curiosities. But this reflective ritual begs me to ask how I will move forward. And it is just this… in the loving fullness of all that can be known and the wonder of what can’t.