Beating My Head

“Some incidents in my life have seemed far more allegorical than actual; they were so significant that they plainly served no other use . . . They have been like myth or passages in a myth, rather than mere incidents or history which have to wait to be significant,” Thoreau writes in his journal, and then goes on to describe the significance of tracking down the purple azalea. Yesterday an event observed through my window had the same sort of significance to me. While grading in front of the fire, I watched for hours as a vivid red cardinal made swooping passes back and forth between our two vans, parked no more than a yard apart. It perched atop one van, then at 2-8 second intervals it flew straight into the window glass of the opposite van, flapping its wings wildly as though it were using the tips like ladder rungs to flutter up the height of the window to gain the roof of the van. Once atop, it paused only a few seconds, probably clearing its head of the beating it had just endured before it dove off again into a dipping arc that repeated the process on the opposite van window. Hours. Back and forth, with no apparent purpose. Evidence, certainly, of dementia in the bird world, for what animal would deliberately and ceaselessly repeat behavior that was destructive to mind and body unless something were short-circuited within?

We do. I do. The human animal, despite our wanting to think ourselves well above such skull-smashing behavior, nevertheless practice it fairly often. We acknowledge it as sickness in drug addictions or scarring relational dependencies–sometimes–yet more often than not, we normalize most of its other occurrences.

This winter, I have been that bird, smacking my head against the frozen fact of winter, not swerving out of the mind arc that pounds. me. into. a. whining. pulp.daily. It’s easier to fall into a rhythm, even a destructive one, because it requires no strength of will, and after a while, the beating begins to feel comfortably painful, oxymoronic as that is.

After a couple of hours, the cardinal had improved its technique, broadening its swoop so its body hit the window closer to the top of the van, requiring less thrashing to attain the peak. Yet still it continued: Perch. Pause. Swoop. Smack.

But my own head is throbbing, enough pain to serve as a signal to swerve. And again, Thoreau helps me here, as poetry often does. Later in the day, I read again from his journals, a passage that sees winter in such a different light than I was able to that the wonder and awe fairly glitter on the page. Snow. “What a world we live in! where myriads of these little disks, so beautiful to the most prying eye, are whirled down on every traveller’s coat, the observant and the unobservant, and on the restless squirrel’s fur, and on the far-stretching fields and forests, the wooded dells, and the mountain-tops. . . . these glorious spangles, the sweeping of heaven’s floor. And they all sing, melting as they sing of the mysteries of the number six,–six, six, six. He takes the water of the sea in his hand, leaving the salt; He disperses it in mist through the skies; He recollects and sprinkles it like grain in six-rayed snowy stars over the earth, there to lie till He dissolves its bonds again.”

Today, I see that the cardinal is back to its bashing flight. But I have swerved. I think instead I’ll take a walk in the woods.

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