“I could never have come to the present without you / remember that / from whatever stage we may again / watch it appear…” WS Merwin

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The birds come and go here just as Fox Sparrow does in his homecomings and disappearances back on the West coast. Just as truth and beauty migrate out onto another unreachable continent when trying to reason with them. Why can’t you stay here to remind me, I ask through my binoculars. Just once. Their wondrous plumage and secretive calls draw us out from the smallness of our shelters, out into the rainy forests and sometimes in communion with each other, the alive and lonely. This year all the rarest of ones flickered across my field, even a tiny, crystal-blue Cerulean Warbler that spends most of his time too high for anybody to see. A Hooded Warbler touched down too, in a darkly flooded forest where he normally does not, just for two days. Then they leave and we are alone again. Maybe that’s why I told a beautiful woman birder that I saw the rarest bird, when in fact I hadn’t seen it at all. Something about the mix of her beauty and shyness, and something about me being mistaken and humbled. But maybe that bird is still there in our minds, more glorious and hopeful than if we had even seen it.

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(Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia of Music. Sculpture by Stefano Maderno, 1599.)

What if this wave of unrelenting and invisible death was actually a grace. Except of course for the poor and vulnerable who always die for our sins. All while I suffocate in the safety around me in the anxiety that it’s never enough. Like when I impatiently told her she just needed exercise when in fact she was just about to die, swollen with failed organs, failed also by my insulated stupidity born of fear.

One time out in the twilight of a chaparral migration, stranger birds gathered in a circle. And even more strangely invited me. They had gathered in order to die. But being birds, they had to first learn how to die through song.

I listened. And of course cried too, as one does even at a stranger’s funeral. One sang of her young daughter who died suddenly. And when the mother’s song entered the abyss of dark and permanent grief, her daughter would come sing to her, to the point where I could almost hear it too. I still don’t want to know if it was an apparition of the psyche or from the other side, because it’s the same place where my own grandmother speaks to me.

This mother had brought with her the chaplain she had met in the hospital. Yes, there is always a bird there, even if we don’t believe, and here she was in the body of a middle-aged, white woman wearing a collar. The chaplain sang to me too, as I worried about my own son treading a difficult path through life. As she sung, we all sat crying for ourselves and for that mother. Her song was about just being there at the right time, reminding us that our bodies know how to die when it is time.

But the timing of the young daughter’s song, as well as this chaplain, was uncanny. Like the little 9th century bell in Rocamadour that rings when there is an incontestable miracle. Not all pilgrims who have climbed on their bloody, tired knees to that church will hear it. But in these days of fathomless doubt, I can hear birdsong from that circle of death, even if they are on the other side of the earth now.

Through all the hatred to be had of insufferable humanity, its never-ending range of evils, these migratory birds continue to love me well through certain people, strangers even. Just through their words. Through the poetic words they send me, calls to the heart that rain down on me in dark, muddy forests. In poetic words, there lies the impossibility of their birdsong — as impossible as it is to hold truth and beauty too — that living is through learning how to die. One word at a time, one song, risking itself into unreachable silence.

 

“The greater miracle of language lies not in the fact that the Word becomes flesh and emerges in external being, but that that which emerges and externalizes itself in utterance is always already a word.” Gadamer, Truth and Method.

“Art brings the finite and the infinite, the visible and the invisible, into coincidence.” Takeyoshi Nishiuchi

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The greatest injury to Fox Sparrow might be that scientists are trying to build a mechanical bird to replicate all he can do. But what a consolation it is that they can’t yet fathom his genius — that when he moves just the toe of his wing, he can change the direction of all his feathers, just so. How he can make his feathers stick together with a force greater than Velcro and then separate them at will. Not to mention his song.

And their song. The mystery that all those technical elements can create a moment completely liberated from them.

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(Here is Where We Meet, by Summer Lee, 2017. Cyanotypes, fabric, wood.)

There was a time when the mystery itself was worshipped. And that painters knew the impossibility of capturing it, but their religion was to try, for hundreds of years. But in these days, even though no one now can say exactly how a word becomes flesh, we are fed so much technical explanation about this material and that, the biography of that painter and historical event. Circular tales plunging us into neurosis. What else is neurosis but the inability to cope with uncertainty. And the delusion we can ward off any risk. They knew then, as it goes, the angel arrives even if Mary turns her head.

If ever you have held dead Fox Sparrow in your hands you also know that nothing else could suffocate life more than the self-congealing words we wrap around it. Even if it is, and it always is, to try and comfort.

Fra Angelico made a point to put the fallen Adam and Eve leaving the garden in the same scene as the Annunciation. He knew the word can separate, but also in the same scene obliterate all back into the messianic. Caroline’s poems do this many times a week. And maybe that’s why I tire you, to set out so selfishly about here with words from time to time. To remind myself, the truth and untruth of language.

To remind myself that no one can explain how the paint in my watercolor pan can bring Fox Sparrow to me. And how Fox Sparrow can leave just like that, just because I wrote it here.

Mary, in an economy of words we can’t fathom today, said,

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.

Let me greet all such incursions on my cautionary house of being with such grace. To find repose in the pain of resignation. Not a lazy resignation, but at the end of intense searching, like that for Fox Sparrow. I have read volumes on his kindred, and created innumerable treatises on all the possible places he could be when he isn’t here. Some dark and treacherous, like facing decisions I must make for my child, the lightning-lit rain pelting Fox Sparrow as he embarks in his night flight home. Some of his places are as light-filled as the clouds of Veronese, overlooking restless humanity. And sometimes as majestic as the vanishing valleys into the boreal forest I will never visit. Most of all, it’s the perch on the thin wire weirdly placed in that painting. Where he peers down on a woman who has been greeted by an angel, telling her that her life is about to be changed by no fault of her own. And of course Fox Sparrow knowing what we don’t know: that we are all fallen. And that a word could turn into flesh, spirit into form, and save us.

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Right now Fox Sparrow is under my feeder scratching the dirt in this humble coastal yard in front of my house. The more hungry he is, the closer he lets me. To see his black eyes see me, see this place, that somehow guided him here to me. Back to the emptiness.

The YWCP chorus, directed by Susan McMane.

“And the emptiness turns its face and whispers ‘I am not empty; I am open.’” —Thomas Tranströmer on Vermeer

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It’s hard to believe but Fox Sparrow says it’s best to fly in the darkness of night. Thousands of miles in just a few weeks. He might already be gone by the time I return.

The birds are named differently here, and are very wary. I follow their calls but cannot see them.

Before the war, some boys went into the forest nearby and climbed down a tunnel in search of a rumored treasure, in the days when one could dream of backyard buried treasure. When they reached the floor of the cavern and raised their lamps they saw a spectacular herd of bison and rhinos and horses running overhead from a time before history, as if it were yesterday. How most treasures are indeed accidental.

There are differences of 2000 years between one painting and another on the same stone wall. And no other change in style of line or pigment. One can compare in contrast how much the same Annunciation scene changes over 300 years. In those paintings, the perspective shifts immensely, as do the colors, and how the bird overhead goes from contour to volumetric realism. But in these caves, the paintings are almost exact, as if done by the same painter, even in caves 400 miles by foot and 20,000 years apart.

Chauvet painting, 37,000 years ago. (Photo by Jean Clotte)

What is more dystopic: life on the freezing tundra on the brink of starvation, living to kill by rudiment tool; or our tired, cynical eyes fixed trance-like to LED screens, where an unmanned drone can drop a bomb on a coordinate, our own child’s life. 20,000 years in between us and us. It is an impossible stretch to imagine a bison or wooly mammoth in this over-farmed field in front of me, but the painters were us, after all. We share some deep part of humanity, maybe if only just the underground place where we go momentarily to dream. And what is there for both of us is those paintings.

Nearby, I saw her there, in her medieval castle home of 30 years, because she found a way to never leave. Even if she had been a starlet and philanthropist, her money had been drained and they dragged her away from her castle at the end of her life. There is a photo of her in that moment, sitting on the ground of the porch like a beggar, with a few belongings and some bottles of water. It was her fall, but also her protest. Because even to the end we made her perform, the exotic caged bird, singing and dancing, sometimes to our low tastes. The castle feels spent now, as if folded up after an epic performance, breathing only memories of the high days of celebrity-filled theatres, greying sequin gowns, and used toys from a line of adopted children (where did they go?). Eventually, the princess offered her a new home, and Jackie O funded her final farewell/revival show (those women understood), then she died a few days later. In Paris. But for now she prevails in that castle. Not unlike an outline of a gorgeous creature fading on an exposed cave wall.

It didn’t ring while I was here, a small 9th-century bell on the ceiling of a chapel carved into the rock of a cliff. The chapel could seat maybe 30, but receives innumerable pilgrims, for a thousand years now. Some climbed the long stairs on their knees, as if life itself weren’t cut and bruised enough. In the dark space, a black virgin carved by a hermit tenderly watches us. And we watch that little bell that is only rung when there is an incontestable miracle. A list on the wall begins in 1385, mostly for miracles at sea. The sea is a fantasy to most who lived here then, 200 miles from this little chapel. And who decided what was deemed a miracle, she asks me. I don’t know but it always involves suffering. And how miracles are also under the auspices of the accidental.

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(Fox Sparrow, when I first met him.)

It becomes obvious here that along these little roads and stone villages there are little sauvage patches of forest left, under which are other undiscovered caves full of prehistoric paintings, so beautiful because they will never be seen. Never to be paraded in front of lustful eyes. Like the birds here who continue to call and flit around, always outside the reach of my eyes.

Darkness, Fox Sparrow says. And I believe him, because all of this unfolds when words fail to contain it. How far these little words go though, sore and tired pilgrims of the darkness, in search of the miraculous.

“The true entrance into us will not occur by an act of will.” George Steiner

 

 

 

“That of a bird floating on the wind without moving its own wings, that of a bird which is flown by the wind.” Zeami, 15th Century

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It’s a flagrantly irreverent kite, as it dances a silly jig back and forth, fancy-free and a mile high in the gray sky. Shadows of swallows and swifts dart all around, you can’t much see them but can feel them hurling by just inches away.  All this high above a green river, slicing through a narrow forest, carving into the dead center of city. Just a concrete bridge, an updraft, and an insect haven for the evening hunger.

Yes but I’m not happy, he says in broken English, laughing only a little. Because even though it is a plastic-blue-Walmart-superhero kite, this is serious.

You have eagle eyes, he adds, as I point out to him where in the forest the string has hitched itself. Although I side with the runaway kite, mocking his owner, finding communion with the disinterested birds.

His little boy is concerned as his father sternly reels the string in, the father with one eye on his little boy “Vincent!” who might at any moment fall off the unrailed bridge to the rocky riverbed below.

A gray hawk does some stoic surveillance and disappears. Then a noisy plane above it.

He pulls the string harder and the place in the tree where it is stuck is made clear, revealing our finite and diminished existence. Now caught, the kite flails against certain death, surrounding leaves torn away and falling. It occurs to me this $20 kite battle means something to this man, when my kids lose toys daily without notice. And how this battle now means the world to me.

Suddenly one of the yanks frees the kite from the branches and it soars up again into the sky. He releases a shout of victory like a knight who has slayed the dragon. He retreats back into the city with his child, kite following closely like a dog with a tail between the legs. I laugh.

Then just when the whole sky seemed too vast to embrace our little drama, tiny stabs of rain give their acknowledgement and I start to cry. A mote of beauty in this world. Yet under the same sky where children were torn apart in their school bus by our bomb. The same day the sky gathered the river, made a clearing, and uttered our silently grateful birds.

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(Detail from Lorenzo di Credi, The Virgin Adoring the Child, 1490. British National Gallery)
——
Love by Czesław Miłosz

 

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

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(Detail, Follower of Joos Van Cleve, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, 1530. SF Legion of Honor)

“Summer’s ardor was confided to silent birds and due indolence to a priceless mourning boat through gulfs of dead loves and fallen perfumes.” Rimbaud

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Fox Sparrow is still here. But I know it’s soon. Almost now.

I have seen bodies float down that river. And I have let them pass, even though they took parts of me, right from the heart.

We stand at the banks, birdwatchers most of us.  An improbable fellowship of a strange generosity. They will run to tell me they just spotted something beautiful and rare, just over there. They delight in sharing stories of the ones they saw many years ago. And I delight in every one with them as if I had been there. How words awaken that. Sometimes a personal story will spill out like a loose feather, like why he remains unemployed. How after her mom died a slow death,  she and her sister call each other about what miraculous birds they have seen that day. One boyish teenage-girl alone for years under a tree told me which of two almost identical species of obscure birds was way up there, just by hearing its call.

Once I walked silently into a group of men bowing their heads crying, their cameras off as if in mourning also. It seemed one of them had been expecting me, because he plainly said that he had accidentally scared a deer into that river over there and it drowned.

Many years ago, he had asked me about Virginia Woolf’s drowning before he took his own life and so I was determined to walk to that river, to see if somehow my response was at all valid.

After a long hike through pastures outside the village, I walked her to the muddy embankment of the brown river running. She has been in and out of my life, even the last few lives too, and when she felt it she didn’t trust it. But there we were. A long curve of river surrounded by lifeless and flattened swales of fields saddled by fog. After a moment of taking in the dull scene, a white thing in the distance pierced through the grey. A majestic swan aflight squeaked its wing feathers in a steady beat, and glided the course of the river past us, down out of sight. Flight and not stones, even if fear changes her mind. The birders among us will understand.

Because this bird knew where I needed to be. In this word. Sometimes I lose my patience with it all, as if I could turn the direction of an entire sentence. But life just runs over my impertinent hands and through my doubtful fingers. And will eventually take her too. And another bird might drift by, or flit onto a branch right here along the way. On its own time.

Like Fox Sparrow who is still here. He knows it is now. He also knows it is not.

(Joan Jonas, performance entitled “Merlo,” 1970’s Tuscany.)

“The birds were fluttering in and out of the open door; the photographs were tumbling over the tables; and, lying before a large open window, Mrs. Cameron saw the stars shining, breathed the one word “Beautiful,” and so died.” — Virginia Woolf.

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“With total rapture and delight he talks about the birds which he can see from his prison window, and which he never noticed before, when he was a minister. Now of course, after he’s been released, he doesn’t notice the birds anymore, just as beforehand. In the same way you won’t notice Moscow when you actually live there.” — Vershinin in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.

The power of Art seems to tear up the one experiencing Art, all at once, from the connection of his life, yet at the same time to move him back to the whole of his existence in this world.” Gadamer

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It is almost time for Fox Sparrow to leave.

Yesterday a red cargo ship full of containers from Asia approached our coast. It happened on a glassy, high-blue light day as the Bay Area can be in February, so that even the frothy wakes along the ship could be seen crisply miles away. And how the crew must have seen the land from miles away also, how that green and gray brown alights after a month at sea. The welcome that builds after days of an interminable emptiness on the horizon, in every direction. Maybe a terror of openness, but the warmth of possibility. Lonely yes, but connected to the ocean and the sky, feeding on inward mornings and memory — connected to all things, connected even by our loneliness. To be on an endless sea — yet, as Caroline said, to feel lucky waking in the morning unafraid, to get up with the desire to get up, for another day of open and empty horizons.

After ten epic years at war, and ten more at sea, Odysseus reaches home where no one can recognize him except his dog. He is washed by his childhood nanny, who discovers a scar on his thigh, revealing his identity. His scar is the doorway to homecoming.

How life’s experiences, like words, cut and divide while gathering its skins into a scar.

I hope while at sea, I would delight in the unrepeatable colors, and how ocean water defies all predictable pattern, and what fog can create with light. That I would relish in all the inks and brushes I have, not analyze those I don’t. And maybe there is a bird, the courageously pelagic amongst us. At home without terra firma, the beings of the utmost unhousedness.

Does anyone else wonder where Fox Sparrow is when he is not at my feeder?

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(Ma Yuan, Studies of Water, 1190-1224)

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in the sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no rain; without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

 

No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real; the thread is life. — Loren Eiseley

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I’m sorry to Fox Sparrow. Because the dark became darker, and for primordial reasons no one knows, he returned. How did he reckon with the absence after so many years. His ancestors knew of my frontyard and told him somehow, so that he trusted it as a place for sustenance, to fly thousands of miles for this one square foot of shrub. And one year there was nothing.

Now I return to Fox Sparrow.

The figures on top of the architecture here look down, disdaining on our frenzy. They have stood there so long that no one identifies them, relegated minor celebrities now ignored except by erosion and pollution. Sacred space, he said. What do they say from up there about down here. Fox Sparrow flies over them, and I bustle under them, from one cathedral to another, one painting to another.

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(Rimini 1300’s, Padova)

And how thanks can be welcomed now, now long enough on this cobbled plaza to understand most of life is forgettable tasks and losses and then precious bursts of presence.  The self-flight of wanting the outside world to adapt to my needs. When really life is all that I needed, even if I only realize it now, hundreds of years later, says this old dusty part of the world. The other drivers madly suicidal, pressing against an imagined self-important destination. So many masterpieces, they blur.

The sum of history, the robber barons and politicians and corrupters careless in their selfish deals, so that an Angelico or a Bellini could escape. Luckier still that someone noticed something there after the floods and the rot. There is art in there, after all.

That is no way to say goodbye, to be stilled in the instant of loss and mourning. In a back room they discovered his final and unfinished Pieta. Who is holding up who, and whose arm is lifting what. And how it looks as if it could topple at any second.

A flight of memories all of them loving even the cruel ones, thank you. Grief is here, too. He tells me, yes the continual parting from which all thought emerges, but it’s the same place same thing that greets what I hold close to me. Sometimes too long. What breaks the heart is mostly heart. And laughter and flesh and thanks. And sometimes catching the ecstatic edge to all this openness, the immense out there, the terror of all possibility. And then having to pack yet another school lunch.

Our performance, this bird and this life, the reverberation is aliveness. Where the play is the only thing to watch and engage — not the players. If only we let ourselves be forgotten. Then we can return to ourselves, however no longer ourselves, but Fox Sparrow. The unfolding self and an empty tomb, completely miraculous. Empty without obligation.

I’m not a believer in anything except Fox Sparrow.

 

(Performance, “Annunciation.” From Requiem: Welcome Home to Un-Home, 2017. By Summer Lee)

 

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The Dialogue with the Dead Cannot Stop Until They Hand Over the Future that has been Buried with Them. — Heiner Müller

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I am not ready to talk about their immigrant bones, or the difficult stories that each bone box tells. And besides, most are missing, disappeared on the wayward routes returning home, displaced even after death. Or they are in almost-forgotten fields marked by stones that don’t hold names anymore, nonetheless narratives. Sometimes just numbers, sometimes just the memory held by someone’s grandson who saw him bury them over there under there somewhere. And in there could have been my non-existence. As we peered into one unearthed bone urn, the top exposed to the sky cracked open by neglect, he said, there is the way into the underworld.

I need to listen.

I am aware that each word here is an act of listening, opening a new space for the next word. And of my failings of projections and memory and desire and convention, so that some words spill out overwhelmed by chatter and are already dead. Listening, like love, comprises a reverberation between self and other, where words and acts seem to fall out gracefully and illuminated and are received as a welcomed guest.

“It takes two freedoms to make one.”

Even if my grandmother has been gone for twenty years, she speaks to me in a certain way. When she was here she couldn’t explain anything about her childhood or her crossing to the United States, except that she had a favorite brother who died young, she didn’t know how.

By dint of so many unlikely arrangements to explain here, she brought me last week to a 700 year-old village in southern China. A group of villagers greeted me with their own generous hospitality to take what evidence I had and prove it was her home. Easily, she could’ve been from a village destroyed long ago, or one where no one could help. Instead, she knew somehow. What they wanted of her to want of me to know. So I could sit in front of her burned brick house with the gift of her brother in a bone box of a suitcase I brought from his grave in Chicago. So I could witness as nothing and everything took place. I had given nothing. In a long string of no’s, I just had to say yes.

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(detail from Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, Prado)

They asked me if it felt like my homecoming, and it didn’t. I don’t belong there in any way, or really anywhere these days.  For now, I feel I belong to her retreating voice hurled through different time zones. Or when my sons resign their sleepy bodies near mine. It wasn’t my homecoming but it was his, and hers to give him. At the modest home’s ancestral altar, she had returned her sweet, young brother to where he had just left months before he died, at age 21. He knew of no other home. Even if that year was 1924, it was last week.

In that moment of offering inside my grandmother’s childhood home, and earlier on that slave mountain where we hiked for hours with that suitcase to their humble tombs, I asked about home. The calls of the flightless geese from the farms surrounding the village were deafening. Eventually, I understood that he belongs with my grandmother on her mountain overlooking this ocean. Some migrations are irreversible.

There is a lot of fear in listening, of unanswerability, of surrendering to silences too long to bear. In her words, it is the absence that the child can tolerate from the mother and no longer. It wants to choose a withdrawal into a security rather than the uncertainty of new countries, new losses, a new home. Maybe in those spaces created by fear is where unhousedness began, because security is a delusion we need to rest in.  The beginning lines of a tragedy. But a great awakening is at the bottom of a tragic flaw. Tragedy reminds us of our human dignity, opening us up to all possibilities, whereas fear has us only hear what we don’t want.

In southern China where my grandmother is from, more people have left than live there today. Thousands of years ago, her earliest Han ancestors brought their family bones when they migrated from the north to the south. Still now they practice a second burial tradition, where years after the first funeral, bones are cleaned and moved to an ancestral tomb. During the first waves of overseas immigration, arduous arrangements were made for those who died abroad to have their bones returned to their ancestral villages, tens of thousands of bone boxes crossing oceans and borders. But then history changed and almost all of the bones don’t come back anymore. Some I visited are stuck in transit and have been for a hundred years. The odds they will go back to their ancestral homes are near-impossible, but they are a living-dead memorial that continues to cry out for all of us, I want to go home.

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(Bone boxes in Tung Wah Coffin Home, Hong Kong, awaiting repatriation.)

So I can forgive those who won’t go, won’t listen, whether they immigrate or not. They don’t go, because maybe the risk is just too much unknown, too much disappointment, the fear that some pain is bigger than us. The greater the connection, the greater the vulnerability when it becomes absent. When I think of moments when I didn’t think I would survive, I remember the scary way my son was brought into the world, when I wanted to be nowhere near what I was experiencing. After losing a lot of blood, I asked my mom to not let me cross over. I discovered then that the over there is so close. Even though I bore it, it was too much to bear.

An angel appeared soon after and spent time with me.

I expected she would say, oh stop, you weren’t even close to going over.

Instead she said, you were close to there, and you could have gone over. But, she added, I know you would have returned. It wasn’t your time. And it shifted something and the nightmares ended, but I understood. We all have our mundane annunciations.

“The wisdom of love is that it isn’t always safe but it is always truthful.”

All of them, alive or in bone boxes, are telling me stories of un-home and home, and underwriting my own restless search for one. Home is certainly not in these small houses of cautionary being, toppled by each new intrusion of life. If so, my sons would not be here. I wouldn’t be here either, along with all the moments when immense gratitude and beauty overwhelmed me. Home seems to transmute from the relentless feeling of loneliness and displacement. Nathan said maybe we hover home, and reminded me that home, if it exists, enters only in the here and now and leaves. And it does seem to be a here of reception and not fear, even if the guest turns despotic or worse. “But without the gamble on welcome, no door can be opened when freedom knocks.”

Who knows what I will hear next.

In leaving China back to my temporary un-home, I followed her original route over an uncertain ocean. And I could imagine their bone boxes passing, going the other way. They pass by me, holding things I realized I had also lost, maybe continually losing as I keep living, and they are returning to the spaces I just left.

The same man who taught me most directly about tragedy, and therefore the beautiful fragility of presence, gave me a life-long address for this route: In welcoming a guest, you have found your home.

“Such a caring for death, an awakening that keeps vigil over death, a conscience that looks death in the face, is another name for freedom.” — Derrida

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Dai Wan Village cemetery, Toisan.

Welcome home to un-home.

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Non Omnis Moriar

The first bird I met here was half-dead. A Cape May Warbler, my first ever. It had collided with a Chicago building like thousands that do every year. It stood frozen still on the rooftop as I toured the 11-story, urban school for my son, as if warning me of the impending experience there. The Cape May is one of five million migrants and dwindling, but in this season, they still show up as clouds on weather radars every evening as they take into the darkness and as they rest to feed by sunlight.

They must survive the buildings, but also the endless Midwest miles of recently invading soy and corn fields, where there is ironically no food for them. They trace along the lakefront, which is where I found my cathedral among the starving and vulnerable. This church is simple, and the faithful are sensitive souls as they gently but enthusiastically ask me, did I see the black-throated blue warbler over there?

It’s true that in the end love is why. And also, as she crystallized in fragile words, nothing brings so much pain as love.

A third of the first shipment of bone boxes from the United States back to China were empty. Most immigrants back then wanted to be buried in their ancestral homes. They were also not welcomed here. Despite vast impoverishment, the family associations made arrangements to clean the bones and ship them on a 30-day ocean journey via Hong Kong, from where they would be delivered into China. The empty ones were soul-summoning boxes, when their were only names, when bodies could not be located. Something had to migrate home.

Some never made it back. Some are stuck in transit, in boxes in a storage house in Hong Kong, where they opened an empty one for me. When I saw it, I cried uncontrollably. And when I came to, I remembered Faure’s requiem.

Some are still waiting in my hometown, like my great grandmother. And here I had thought the Chinese village name on her tombstone was for biographical purposes only. When in fact, like so many others, it is an unkept promise of a more final return home.  No matter how many children they birthed and raised on this soil, the burial here is temporary. Address labels with no postage, the stone mark of their villages is a question mark of an eternally unanswered request, beseeching unwitting visitors, please take me home. The village name, possibly of a village that doesn’t exist anymore, is a way the dead stay alive. Yes, never dead if your progeny visits and honors you. After all, if someone remembers you, you still exist. But here it is not ancestral worship either, just an endless restlessness for homecoming.

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(The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, 1425-6)

The neighbor in Chicago to the right voted for Trump and the grumpy one on the left asked to take down my bird feeder because it was bringing woodpeckers to her yard. I never saw a woodpecker at my feeder in California, who knows why not, but there are four kinds here. You wouldn’t understand what it is to stop feeding the birds of my home. There is no one now to track their yearly changes as well as their disappearances. To no longer hear their version of truths about migrations and the space they know between heaven and earth. So I set out to ask the strange birds of my new home.

It is cold and rainy as I hold my camera up to these birds. We join together in the hopeful uplift of these visitors, knowing also they won’t be here much longer. And I realized maybe this is the reason I was brought here, and why I must now live between two homes.

It was also cold and rainy when I found him at the nearby cemetery in an unmarked grave. The Hong Kong assignment led me to review my grandmother’s INS interrogation from 1925. In it, her father describes burning the documents of her oldest brother at his gravesite. To erase any reminder that he had died in Chicago, the year before in 1924, at the age of 21 of a sudden illness that is of poverty. The confused clerk looked at me strangely, the white lady who presented his romanized Chinese name, but soon enough they found him on a hand-written map. Minutes later, the groundsmen took me to a field and paced off the coordinates — and there in the middle of fucking Chicago, I had found his bones.

She said, it’s as if I had to become displaced to find my family.

(In my imagination my grandmother’s family experienced one Chicago winter because thank you god they quickly moved to San Francisco.)

And if you have ever uttered a word thinking your dead would hear, you understand the birds. And you also know that all real happiness sets you on the edge of loss. As Judith and I ended our two hour phone call, a Cerulean Warbler flitted across my driveway. It was here and gone so quickly, it exists in the realm of doubt. But somehow my grandmother knows I am listening.

____________________________________

ANNUNCIATION

Even if I don’t see it again – Nor ever feel it
I know it is — and that if once it hailed me
it ever does–

and so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as toward a place, but it was a tilting within
myself, as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where it isn’t — I was blinded like that — and swam
in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.

— Marie Howe

“Philosophy is really homesickness; the urge to be at home everywhere.” Novalis

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(A deconstructed bird nest for a new art project.)

When we turned the car west, the miles of snowy Sierra pines and stone pushed into greenly-wooded foothills and then into rolling brown scrub of the Pacific. Only a few birds can make a home in all three geographies, as most birds are specialists. As we flew along, something was being pulled from the middle of me, the fragmentation that occurs in the process of becoming not at home.

They would hold him there until I could arrive to say goodbye. Goodbye to who or what I am not sure, but we kept on driving because a monument was in the making.

This is what comes to mind right now as the fog is peeling back over my coastal mountains from which my plane is turning on the runway. East-bound, a one-way route.

John Berger says home is the vertical line between the gods and the buried dead. It’s one that can move along the horizontal of human mobility, but he admits some emigrations disconnect. Nomadic tribes no nothing of this. Home travels with them. Birds neither. They build the most tenuous nests for their most profound task.

I have written here before about needing to be at home in the state of unhousedness. When there is an ambiguous loss with nothing to bury, and no effable one to pray to. This of course means that there is so much glory here: laughter that stung my eyes, the epiphany of childbirth, improbable resonances with strangers, friends who are fixtures at every milestone, family there in an instant, and moments when the art came and made me disappear. Not to mention this light off the ocean. And it all is tied to this home.

I met a homelessness back in China several months before I knew of our move. It was there that I discovered something true that I still have no words for. And in this, I found myself lonely. In consolation, the thick bamboo forest offered me a dark and aching embrace, but there was nothing to hold on to. When will I learn that an attachment to loving moments quickly drains them. This resistance is the artist’s mischief and rebellion — to try to extend the present moment, to give presence, to still a nearing god.

That moment in China, as is happening on this plane, something fell undone into her pond with the splash of a thousand fish about to be dinner. She built a life story inside ten kilometers of that pond, and I was from ten thousand kilometers away. The epiphany of scaffolding, smothering beliefs, and cloying security falling away. And resulted in the terror of a new vulnerability and uncertainty. A deepening of the divine recognition of fragility.

I am making this goodbye a self-indulgent monument, lovingly constructed of the small numbers of my childhood address held by the eucalyptus and coastal sage in the evening breeze yesterday. Also the threshold of every door and every word through which I greeted you and you greeted me, in the company of language-less ghosts who don’t seem to age. It leads one to draft absurd postmortem directions for the body, a future tense when I am no longer present, long after the goodbye. Here also are the wounds of possibility.

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(Detail from my painting of cremated hummingbird, 2009)

“Inhabit vulnerability as a generous citizen of loss.” David Whyte.

“Only when we learn to transcend our earth-bound selves in love, learn to take ourselves not too seriously, do we begin to truly live.” — Karsten Harries