It wasn't Icarus, but a yellow tennis ball that flew across my mind, and I saw it lost in the tall grass at the end of its glorious flight, arcing high over the chain-link fence. If you came upon it lying there, say, in a year – muddy and moldy after the snows and the thaw – the idea of it would be so inaccurate, so one-sided. Because the moment when it sailed over the fence, and everyone on the court watched it with awe – like the people standing, quiet and respectful, on top of a cliff watching a condor being set free after its wing has healed, holding their breath while the bird, perched on the edge of the cliff, turns its head to them as if to ask, "Do you think I can do it?" and in their silence the people are answering, "Yes. Yes," and then it turns back to look out into all that empty space and leans its head forward until its body follows and its enormous wings push down on the air, and it rises and soars and tears burst out on everyone's cheeks – flight is what you wouldn't see.
There were moments in the darkness of a stage, lit with a single light, like the moon, and the people in the seats invisible in the dark like ancestors, when I felt my wings pushing down on the air and I sailed out over the canyon of my doubts. And the closeness with all those I couldn't see felt like velvet. Like I was held in the fabric of humanity.
There were moments in the presence of a man – or even in just the presence of his voice over the phone – when the force that drove his story like a muscle, like a motor, and the one that drove my own, in the same restless, nameless way, joined together like a thing and its reflection, like two slightly battered wings – some feathers missing here and there – we leaned into the void and risked the fall.
It helps me to think of tigers in a zoo – or elephants, or anyone, especially the birds. No cage can ever be large enough, no aviary high enough. Because, like salmon, we all are given the imperative to seek the magnetic stream in the planet's grid, that track that pulls us home. It's lateral, it's spatial. It needs room to get lost in, distance and dimension. And when it finds the path of its migration, there is the sweetness of aligning with the nature we are given. We have chosen. We are meant to be by meaning it, but its truth has nothing to do with duration, as Edward Muybridge proved by catching the fraction of a second in which all four hooves are off the ground: that horses fly.
For all of the times that I trusted the wrong person, got into the wrong car hitchhiking on the wrong road; accepted the invitation of my professor to discuss my paper in his office; or trusted the hardened version of myself that was currently playing on the diner jukebox in the middle of the hot and dusty highway of my life; there were a handful of jewel-like moments, crystal-clear like a mountain stream, like a bird in flight, like any animal in its element, purely itself, and I wear them strung together in a necklace now, a talisman more holy than any relic – even than the bead containing fibers from the Tibetan coat of Changchub Dorje, my master's master, the hermit healer who gave out medicine to the nomads and introduced seekers to their natural state, famously transmitting it in the act of hoeing the garden or building a house for the poor person who had just arrived in the village – more precious because they are mine.
There are times when the words and the paper come together like those two wings that lovers make, and I have come to feel in that joining the weightlessness of the bird, or even the tennis ball at the top of its arc, when its identity, its essence, is revealed, if only for the length of time Muybridge needed to reveal the truth no one could see. The indelibility of the fleeting is good enough for me. In fact, I have given up wine for water, and discovered how delicious it is, every bit as interesting as the wine I loved too much, the one making the other one possible.
For most of my adult life, I took comfort in the metaphor of distillation: that, as in making whiskey, the years would alchemically transform all experience into an intoxicating golden elixir – the longer the time, the stronger the brew, and the higher the proof. But like so many metaphors I have fallen in love with, it only goes so far. I have left the party of accumulation, and now choose instead the activation of the inner shutter that stays focused on the moments when all four hooves are airborne. It is not the body of the salmon that holds its story, epic though its journey is traversing the ocean, mysteriously able in the end to find its native stream. It is the flash of a moment when it whips itself into the air and leaps above the falls.
Photo: Daniel Sachse