In the yard of my childhood home, a robin drunk from devouring over-ripe cherries on our tree, flew into our bay window that must have held an attractive illusory world, so much so that more than a few birds met that hard, bludgeoning reality. And after struggling for air on the ground below, it became still and lifeless. My mother, sensitive to the meekest of life forms, gathered the corpse and her two fledgling daughters for a funeral. A hole was dug, and as I watched the corpse of the bird descend into the dirt void, my mom said words, words of ritual, wishing that this bird would be in peace.
That robin’s life, unlike the other carcasses of animals on roadsides or worse, was made sacred to me, and the abyss into which some part of this bird, the part besides feathers and flesh, inhabited when it was into the ground became the eternal question mark.
My mentor describes the pre-classical Chinese pictogram of sacred as a person standing on earth, on one’s toes, reaching for the sky, the heavens. The sacred cannot be without the earth, the mundane requirements of being human, but it also has the urge for beyond such knowing.
Eventually and logically, that became the case for those beings lying unceremoniously in rotting ditches who by my eyes were not made sacred. And a moment of heightened attention in a car passing by was, and continues to be, my attempt to sacralize, because it feels necessary that we would all be given the mere gift of attention as we disappear.
Finally this week, it was this scene that appeared to me in my own ritualized space of art-making in my studio, where I stared upon the flocks of quiet, often dissolving, single, little dead birds I’ve painted over and over for the last 7 years. After enduring the dissonant if not polite questioning and dismissal from others and myself — amidst a cultural popularization of cute birds on every sundry item available (“put a bird on it”) — I was partially decoded.
And luckily, also this week, I read an essay by Susan Sontag, who fully understands the impulse to make art “towards the ever-receding horizon of silence.”:
“One result is a type of art which many people characterize pejoratively as dumb, depressed, acquiescent, cold. But these privative qualities exist in a context of the artist’s objective intention, which is always discernible. To cultivate the metaphoric silence that’s suggested by conventionally lifeless subjects (as in much of Pop Art) and to construct “minimal” forms which seem to lack emotional resonance are in themselves vigorous, often tonic choices.”
But my recent writing/searching has drawn my attention to the fact that all things, especially the experience of love, are of a continual parting. Perhaps that impossible constant attention to that coming and going, the making sacred of every moment and every thing that makes a heartbeat, that presences and reaches into us, and then dissolves into silence — Heidegger’s clearing and gathering and clearing — that is a glimpse into the untranslatable state of Being.
For now, I can only handle my little birds.
“It seems unlikely that the possibilities of continually undermining one’s assumptions can go on unfolding indefinitely into the future, without being eventually checked by despair or by a laugh that leaves one without any breath at all.” Susan Sontag