Courage is the price that life extracts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not knows no release from little things.
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights, where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.
-- Amelia Earhart
How often have you been at a party or other social event and been part of a conversation that starts something like this; "Do you remember what you were doing when ______________ happened?" This and similar questions are guaranteed to generate interesting conversations with most people, whether we know them well or not.
We are fascinated by Before/After events because they are landmarks in time that give us pause from our busy lives. They provide a touchstone where we can inventory our lives and also notice the lives of those around us, to take a few precious moments to think about where we came from, where we are going and what does all this mean? Before/After moments define us while simultaneously challenging us to redefine ourselves. To change.
Yesterday evening was a Before/After moment for me because yesterday, for the first time in my life, I became unemployed. It should have been difficult, but it wasn't. Even though I was deeply upset about it, I was surprised it was so effortless, seemingly painless, as if I daily move between destiny and aimlessness, between purpose and confusion. After I left my office, after I clomped gingerly down the marble stairways in that new pair of shoes that had been gnawing at my feet all day, after I stepped out of the building and into the crisp evening, I entered a new life, an uncharted world. It was so easy, like stepping off a building.
I stopped on the darkening sidewalk for a moment as people glided around me like corpuscles around a clot. I was momentarily lost. I wondered if I looked any different than I did a few minutes before. I caught a glimpse of myself in my mind's eye: standing nervously on the stone walkway, head bowed for a second before looking up and turning my head slowly, shocking passersby because half my face was torn away, revealing pinkish living bone, shredded tissues and half a mouth, crimson blood blackening the front of my fire-engine red blouse and trickling onto my charcoal grey slacks.
No one noticed me. At all.
Well, this was comforting -- not. I might look reasonably normal, but I am not reasonable at all: I am becoming a crazy person. Suddenly, the image fled, disappearing with as much finality as if I'd snapped a heavy book shut: pop.
I really need to get more sleep, I sighed. For reassurance, I briefly touched my work badge and keys, my constant companions for the past two years. They were snuggled comfortably in my pocket, a promise of tomorrow.
The Before/After moments that most people talk about at parties are public events. 911. The tragic death of Princess Diana. The Oklahoma City bombing. The Challenger catastrophe. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. But unlike public events, many of the Before/After events that are truly transformative are small and personal and are lost to all except that one observer or participant who was truly alive in that instant.
Like everyone, I've experienced several transformative events in my life, most of them small and personal. Before/After my parents abandoned me to the courts, meeting my first lory, earning my doctorate, moving across the country to NYC and not knowing a soul here. Each moment was a transformation, a letting go of my familiar life and reaching for another, unknown, life. Each Before/After event was accompanied by a pause when I was redefining myself, flying free with no encumbrances, no past and no future.
But one transformation was more powerful and important to me than any other; the moment I realized I could read. Reading, for me, occurred like a stroke of lightning. One instant, I was a child making up stories to accompany pictures or I was staring at letters in newspaper ads, tracing them with my fingers, naming them and making their sounds, longing with an intense desire that was almost physically painful for the veil of mystery to lift when suddenly, a brilliant flash of comprehension exploded my tiny existence and changed me forever.
During the intake of a single breath, in the electrical firing of one neuron, my old life was swept away and almost immediately forgotten as the world flung open her mind and heart to me in a blaze of glory. This instant cleaved my life into two parts, defining me as "before" and "after" as no other event could: Before, I was a creature of soil; heavy, creeping, pedestrian, but after, I became a citizen of air; soaring, etherial, dynamic. Suddenly, I could travel anywhere, be anyone, I could explore lands, time periods, personalities, languages and ideas that I had never imagined nor dreamed of in my short life. In that moment, I was transformed into a thirsty disciple of humanity's collective stream of knowledge and experience.
The dictionary was, and still is, a close friend of mine. The dictionary eased my way into this new life. I remember reading the dictionary when I was a child, learning how to use it and then browsing its pages and learning words, hundreds of dazzling words. But more than simply acquiring words, the English language dictionary introduced me to the travels and the life changes each word experienced on its journey into the pages of the dictionary. Each new word stretched my mind, becoming part of my vocabulary and my very being when I invited them into the sentences of my stories. I pronounced these new words aloud, practicing them until they no longer rolled around awkwardly on my tongue like oversized marbles. Through them, I tasted the colors, images and music that these words evoked when I heard them or saw them in print. Words gave me all the tools I needed to truly discover the world and my role in it.
But not every important breakthrough is accompanied by a Before/After event. For example, I do not recall that moment when I first realized that birds were my one true calling, my place in the world, my future. Perhaps this is because there never was such a moment. In fact, I don't remember a time before I truly saw birds because birds always captivated me. When a child, I thought I was a bird and later, horrified, realized I was born into the wrong body, especially after waking from a dream where I was flying. A mistake had been made. I was a lost bird.
I once thought this perception was unusual, even a little peculiar, my own little secret, but no longer. When people -- strangers -- learn what I do, they often approach me and mention at some point during our conversation that they flew in their childhood dreams, too. How odd is that? they ask.
Apparently, this is not unusual at all. Dreaming of flight is fairly common, in fact. But why flight? What does flight symbolize for us? Freedom? Adventure? Filfillment? Immortality? Perhaps we all are lost birds. Perhaps this is why, throughout the ages, we all reached for the sky and all that it represents. As Victor Hugo said, Be like the bird in flight . . . pausing a while on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, yet sings knowing yet, that she has wings.
© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist