Saturday, April 5, 2008

Southshire Pepper-Pot author Shawn MacKENZIE Nominated for Short Fiction Award

Congratulations to Shawn for her Spectrum Award Nomination for "Lost Among the Tuna Trees" included in the Roundtable's anthology Southshire Pepper-Pot. Read more about the Spectrum Awards and vote!
The Spectrum Awards, 2008

A Bird Wearing a Brown Polyester Shirt

by Marie White Small

I’ve been waiting for years to edge past mid-life; a seemingly odd goal in a popular culture that reveres youth and painted beauty. I joke that I was born to be an old lady, not as an antidote to death - but to be white and wizened. As a child I was always fascinated with older folks. I was transfixed by their white fly-away hair, soft near-translucent skin and a kind of humor and patience that few had for my solemn questions: why is there water? Why can’t I fly? I was a kid bound to thoughts I had no words for- who knows why, perhaps a natural wistfulness and an aptitude for flashing thought.

The idea of flight, soaring just above the treetops, or slithering through the water on the back of a wild salmon was the thing I craved. It seems a longing born to humans, descended as we are from finned and winged creatures, be they flying fish or angels. I dream of flight in nighttime wanderings, and remember lying in the tall grass on a warm day and watching the swallows turn and swoop above my head. It was curiosity and a childish arrogance that drew me too close. A concept Daedalus understood.

But where does this calling come from? Answers may be found in literature, folktale, and myth; some are well-known, others more obscure. All of them speak to flying like angels or slithering through the oceans.

From the Inuit mythology comes Sedna, goddess of the sea, who spurned all other suitors to marry a bird. Fish to bird and back again; it was an alliance that did not last. Mixed marriages, as that bigoted coinage warns, are prone to failure.

In African American folklore there are tales of the people who could fly. Slaves in field up and disappeared; their ability to fly away comes from ancient and secreted wisdom passed from one African to another. On the surface it is a story that explains death or runaways to children in a magical way that gives hope, courage and a sense of peace to small ones left behind.

Literature too, is filled with allusions to flight. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, insurance agent Robert Smith takes flight wearing home-made blue fabric wings from the top of Mercy Hospital on February 18th, 1931, Morrison’s own natal day. Mr. Smith descends to his death, and later in that same hospital a black child is born, one Macon Dead. At the end of the novel, Macon, too attempts flight. “Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees - he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, too, speaks of flight: “But what a point, my lord, your falcon made, And what a pitch she flew above the rest! To see how God in all his creatures works! Yea, man and birds are fain of climbing high.”

These passages bring to mind freedom, escape, a wider view of the world, godliness; a reality few know as we stumble along our earthly paths. As Emily Dickinson said, “I hope you love birds, too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”

The enchantment of air and water are similar in connotation only. But what of these definitions, because after all, the meaning is the thing, isn’t it?

In flight through water or air the mythological and symbolic become supernatural: the deities, oracles, tricksters and mediators. They point to transformation, knowledge, eternity, and creation itself. The great mother of sexuality and reproduction is symbolized by Ichthys, the offspring son of the ancient mermaid-goddess Atargatis and is in time turned sideways, away from it’s fecund depiction of the vagina and womb to become a Christian symbol of salvation; the parable of Jesus and the fishes. It is no accident that the twelve who followed him were fishermen.

Yet, I still wonder: how does a child born mid-twentieth century share the same longing, the same daydream cave dwellers did seven million years earlier? Cave dwellers did not have books, or humankind’s rich history at electronically enhanced fingertips. Well that’s easy - yes? What early man had is what we retain - the ability to dream.

Ah! you say. That’s it. All tied up - a comfortable easy to understand sound-byte twenty-first century explanation; easy to look-up in a pocket guide to dreams On to the next task. There is always more to do…
But are you satisfied?

Indeed, we can begin by reading about our dream images in guidebooks. We can study ancient fables, or examine keen and witty literary interpretations. All of these models may serve as guideposts, but no more. It is only the deeper look within that can provide valid understanding: it is the task of modern man to see, to learn old wisdom and to find therein explanations that resonate with substantial personal truths. The undertaking is not to imitate the feathered and finned, it is to become them.

Ah - A Zen thing, you say. Becoming one with the birds and fishes.

Maybe. But I think it is more a matter of acceptance and not interpretation. Modern man misses out when he explains and defines. We are an ancient people and have forgotten knowledge that had been oral tradition. There are no Africans in the fields of modern America who can give us flight instructions or the wisdom and responsibility inherent in that.

Though someone in the world must know.

I cannot yet fly because I have not allowed myself to become the bird I long to be. I cannot swim for days and weeks below the surface because such a journey would bring a death I do not wish.

My hair has whitened and I get closer day-by day to that soft translucent skin all the while becoming increasingly bewitched with mythology, fables, tall-tales and the like. Fiction itself is an enchantment - a willingness to suspend tangible reality. Did Macon Dead really fly?

It is a sunny day here in early April. I just talked with my eighty-three year-old mother from her hospital bed; she had knee replacement surgery yesterday. She is doing well, all things considered, and I will spend a few days next week taking care of her and my elderly father.

This is what I can do.

The sunlight streams through my window as I daydream and write, listening to a Ben Folds Five song, “Still Fighting It.” The song begins:

“Good morning sun. I am a bird wearing a brown polyester shirt…”

©2008 Marie White Small
All Rights Reserved