For a week now I’ve been in conversations with a bird. She is a small thing. A perky little honeybird who steals from Leonard Cohen … Oh darling, little, sleeping one, what if the wound is really the crack that lets the light come flooding in?
I want to write the story of the soulbird and her magic. It may not be the best told story I have offered, this one. It has come down my river like a twig in a rapid, all tumbling madly twixt a rubble of heavy logs, dead dogs, dangerous curls and snarling black water over the last few weeks in Bali.
As writers all know, some stories are not so much born, as arrive by eruption. This work came that way, and insists on being told, despite its tattered wings and a case of slight concussion. The thing is, as writers also know, there are some stories that have sharp lights in their eyes, pointy little teeth and which do not care about their scars and imperfections. They just want out! They have wild business to do.
Woe betide a writer who stands in the way of a story like that.
For, as we all once knew, and I hope will soon remember, words are charms and stories spells of the beautiful wise, unbridled world. Every now and then, a writer is snatched by a giant squid of the deep, and that ink pressed though them, like it or not. We don’t always know what enchantment is afoot, and the results can be messy. But here it is. A little Leonard Cohen pollen, mixed with wild inks, bird magic and a heaped cup of sorrow.
~ * ~
For twenty years, maybe more, I’ve traveled the fringes of a culture that boasts a higher technology, greater equality and more death, misery and greed on its slate that any other on Earth. I know it’s not a pretty topic, and there are many who won’t face it, but it seems to me that within our wound may well be exactly the medicine we need to cure ~ not just the woe of our humanity, but the myriad violence, betrayal, cruelty and madness we are inflicting everywhere because of it.
In my life I have seen many wonders, known delight and sorrow, and through all of that been cursed as well, with the strange gift of being born to listen. As we know, not everybody does, is willing or maybe able, and that is, perhaps, why the song of the world is not quite getting through to all of those who crave it.
I was a girl who loved rabbits, singing, Pooh Bear and the Muppets. But my earliest dreams roared with the thunder of buildings collapsing. I would fall asleep into a city besieged, chaos everywhere as the rubble tumbled, and spend my nights running, running, running thinking only… I knew this was going to happen.
When I was around other people, even strangers in the street, if my attention landed on them, I could hear them as well. The songs inside of them. This went on for years and years, until in my mid-20s I couldn’t bare the sadness of it, and learned to fold those petals down.
These whisperings that things were wrong, and going to get worse, landed when I was very small. They alighted gently, built a nest and have had a permanent perch from which to serenade my inner world forever. When I began to avoid the stations that tuned to other people, and instead sought either silence, wild places or the company of creatures, the whispers drew together and composed a little bird. She has been with me a very long time. Come to apply her tender torture, to court my ear and tune my soul to the song of the living world.
I have been writing about her here, through the equinox, as spring sets buds along her bower. I’ve been listening very deeply, surrendered to this songbird, to see what comes of it.
The first thing: that familiar dread. She wants to take me down, down into my own fleshy world. She wants to put me back in bed, she wants me all to herself. She has no care at all for my busy day of yoga, smoothies, lunch dates, work plans, money out, money in, five year plans, vision boards and whatever rickety structures and glittery things I might feebly manage to ‘manifest’ and call my life.
To listen to her I must first feel the weight of the dirty old sack coat I have made for myself over the long long years in her company. This companion, dread, with its stench of isolation and its pockets full of hurts, I slowly realise, is not the whole of the message. This coat of dread and gloom, that makes me angry, weak and cracks its folds like gunshot, is really my way of just refusing the whole of the soulbird’s song.
When I relax into listening, let my whole body tune to her, there is a moment of struggle, then a settling, and soon I am dissolved in a melancholic bliss. And so here I am, sitting at my rough desk, the frangipanis bruising gently as they fade around the water glass, crickets whirring, the neighbour tapping with his busy hammer, listening to a sonnet I have heard my whole life now. It is delicate as a love song, extravagant like opera, and painful, like blood in the water.
Hers is is a beautifully eloquent story. She composes it from the nature all around us, to the nature that dwells within me with the bright, clear, simple message that the whole world is alive. But more than that, the minor chords, the woeful riffs, she’s singing to me of grief. The whole world is alive, she trills, and feeling. My soul, yours and every thing are bound by praise and longing. We are perfectly intertwined, she sings, and woman, you must know by now, that we cannot harm one without deeply wounding the other.
The last few days a real world bird, with black wings and a bright yellow breast, curved beak for honey sipping, and dainty little legs has been visiting me every day. She is here now, perched directly in my line of sight on a rope that hitches a bamboo blind above the pretty cascade of rice paddies, tropical blossoms, swinging palms, swelling papaya and the sun polished silhouettes of Balinese farmers that is the view from my little shack in Ubud. She is staring at me. Sideways.
It has been this way for a week between us. I come to the view, in all states of hope or disrepair, and she stares. We have danced this little waltz through the last glow of the fully waxed moon, through dark eves leading into equinox and as the monsoon rains swell up from the south, brassing the world and tossing the hibiscus wildly. This little bird, she stares as the honey light burnishes the mud in the paddies each dusk, and as the garden rises up each dawn, aloud with every singing thing. She cocks her little head left and right, dancing along the rope, she guides my view over the rice farmers and whispers to me sweetly,
This – this beauty here. This loveliness is poverty?
and seems content to fly about her business only when I sit down to write.
Then she explodes into flight. She wheels off into the jungle, and I am left here with the more subtle, constant inquisitive gaze of her sister, my soul bird, softly singing.
On this one I have slammed the window many times. I have tried myriad ways to shut it up, shoo it off, blast it away or hack down its branches. I have turned up the music, tuned out the tweeting, but the little bird remains, peering at me gently, sideways, and singing songs of praise and sorrow.
A bewitching lullaby. This song is so native to my life now, I often wonder if it is hers I know so well, or my own of which she has come to remind me. She sings to the rosy dawn of day, she sings to the miraculous weave of the breeze. She sings of the nectars in every blossom, the festival of life in the bark of each tree, the exquisite cathedrals of rain she has known, the bliss of wild air, and the wound being made in all of this.
Hers is the song of all things. And because of that, my lifetime as her muse has been both my inspiration and my sure defeat. For in my inner world, as in the world around me, she is my constant sweet reminder that all is not in balance, all is not well, and there is a very real and constant appeal for something large to rise or crumble.
Here’s her constant whispering,
‘come out, come see… the radiant beauty, one and all,
For we are full of love,
and so, indeed, are you.’
And then there is this, her pitch amber, like cello,
‘come out, come see… the threads are pulled, the weave unfolding fast,
We are love, made visible,
Oh, why do you forsake us so?’
She rocks the heavy pendulum that is my superb and humble astonishment at the magnificence of the world, and the crushing, dizzy-making horror at what we are doing with it.
And I am not the only one.
Among those qualities I could call my virtues, I am a good listener, I care about animals, I care about people, I have time. It is because of these things, and a lifetime traveling and sharing stories, and especially recently, as a coach to writers, healers and people who are driven, even desperate to contribute a positive change to the world, I have come gently to the threshold of an awesome taboo.
There is an irresistible rising of pain among us. It is everywhere. It is accelerating, and most of us are ashamed to admit it.
The pain in us, from which womb all other dramas, fiascos and disaster issue, is probably the biggest taboo in the modern human story. It’s being designed that way, and kept that way, because as it happens, your pain is your passport to citizenship in this synthetic reality we keep making.
A swelling discontent, this bruising of the life-force is well abroad, demanding a language, hunting the right words to name itself. You can catch its form behind our political despair, our guilt about war, displacement, poverty, violence, and the rage directed at men, patriarchy, multi-nationals, science, medicine, money, aliens and corporations.
It is, for now, being treated as a hiccup in human progress, a failure of weak individuals to rise to the age, and a fertile new market worth trillions. It is being treated as if it is a glitch in psychology, when this, it is really the love song of our precious and whimpering wild.
From the last intact forests of our deepest belonging, on this earth that made us, has come, gently, fiercely, this last beast, pain, ambassador of our own wild nature, and it is lurking the borders of our increasingly artificial lives. We are terrified to face it, because of guilt and fatigue, but if we could look, truly, soberly, across the nightshadow garden where our pain-beast is waiting, we might find she has come not to devour us, but to show us the wound in her side.
She is walking beside millions of us. Some call her the black dog, but for me she is more puma, more jabberwock, more fairy beast than that. She is rammed into our furthest corners, for fear she will tear us asunder, send us mad, or rip our masks off savagely. But there she remains, faithfully, wondering why we need ayahuasca ceremonies, tarot readings, lithium, iphones, fancy wine and LSD when she has come, our spirit guide, our medicine, our actual rescue, at the radiant hour of need.
You can catch the glint of her mane in every yoga class, the flash of her eye in every beer bottle, bookshelf, travel brochure and botox shot. We feel the silk of her pelt under starlight, on those sweet and lonely beaches, and under the caress of whatever true affection we are capable of. There! the tug of her hard muscle, as we stumble out in the morning and discover joy alight among the grassblades, and There! the flash thrill of finding her real live paw print, pressed against your own cheek those nights you wake at 3am to the dread lament of your own sad soulbird.
For me, all the rest of it – every ‘cause’ we push and all the outrage, are shards off the essential truth of things. The world has a soul. The Earth has a soul. To be estranged from that is misery. To betray it, become indifferent, issue violence, contamination, abuse or neglect toward it is to sew the seeds for sorrow everywhere.
And is that not your experience too? Have you also felt lost, ashamed, despaired? have you also watched, bewildered, as the culture reflects all of that in a plethora of industries for ‘healing’ making fast buck out of you and all of us in this situation, everywhere?
I had the charming experience, chatting about all of this one night last week with a young friend of mine. We were talking about the spiritual quests we are all, one way or another, trying to be on in Ubud, and the vicious side-effects of that everywhere here. We had noticed, and a few others had cheered when we admitted, that as individuals purge, banish, starve, sublime, tantrify or intoxicate their way out of the weird cocoon of the pain that brought them to town, if they can wriggle away from that very human suffering, they become, unanimously, almost instantly, notorious snobs.
Precious few return to hold a line to others. If they find a story better than despair, or find a way to profit from it, they ditch the meek like lice, and flee the pain like missiles.
Blanking of others, ostracising rivals, sniffing at those not as ‘elevated’, and disposing of friends unlikely to be useful is behaviour on hi rotation in Ubud. Even on the inside circles. Which makes me wonder if the one who claim to have the answers, are just relived to have found their way to the profitable side of the problem.
We were pulling out our thorns over this together, asking why those who want most credit for being healed are also most likely to inflict wounds on others. What happened to human kindness, to unity and all that, I said, “I thought the idea was that that we could all learn to be ourselves, and that would be enough.”
To which my little friend replied, “You mean you thought people were actually wanting to be authentic? Drop down their masks and show what’s inside? Are you crazy? That’s a nightmare idea! Myself, I cannot think of anything worse.”
One of her mates said the same thing last night, “Naming of the problem just amplifies the problem,” he declared. “Me, I am sick of it all. Just name the positive, be committed to that. Head toward the light, my friends, turn up the music and know that it is good.”
That might work for the short term, but we are cottoning onto it now – the great over-arching cosmic hangover of living life without real tenderness, it is coming for us all.
The Earth pours out an infinity of delights and I am sure we were all – furred, feathered, cloven footed each, born to receive them. But the truth is, and I could see we were a part of it then, as we partied through the night to industrial techno and other naughtiness, that humanity has begun to devour what we could have savoured, relish the finite juices, lick our chops and toss away the husks with spite.
We are in a paradise of forms, finding not praise or even kindness bubbling up within us, but a ferocious hunger and livid insecurity which manifest an avalanche of abuse, cruelty, violence, litter, fumes and unhappiness that plunders every nook of the visible world, and of which we are well aware.
And even still, as we see the consequences all around us, and fear the end, if not the utter degradation of life around us, it is the brute wisdom of our times to severely reprimand, isolate and then medicate those unable to own and at least quarantine their anxiety. Suffering is to be understood as a personal failing. It is not an appropriate response to the world. It is not a useful ‘emotion’. It is not respected as a valid reaction to our experience of things, let alone as the calling card from that living world, desperately trying to turn our attention to itself.
The soulbird is not welcome here, and so the wound gets larger.
But what if we just started there – with the discomfort. What if we just settled in there a while, tuned in deeper, quit flying into the windows, and waited…..for the light to come?
Instead, every one of us who wrestles with dis-ease is separated from the whole, either by choice, or therapeutically, and gently tortured into accepting that their suffering is only the mutant fruit of their own infantile rages, repressed needs, kinky life experiences and failure to properly individuate. And there we lose the possibility that our pain might actually lead to something beautiful.
Our competitive, survival of the fittest, capitalist myth has detoured us absolutely from this blessing. It has written off our intuitive fear, that scent we have sniffed on the breeze of the times as a simple ‘Failure to Thrive’. There are other labels too, and more fast coming. They included being weak, lazy, sensitive, bipolar, autistic, melancholic, selfish, chemically imbalanced, traumatised and negative.
But, if you have the strange gift of listening, if you spend any time at all being able to actually hear the person next to you, and if there is any trust at all – you will very soon catch a glimpse of that dark eye, the pain inside them. The sense, very often, that they do not belong. That they feel isolated and unheard. That they want to go home.
Here’ s a fact that needs sharing – almost everybody feels it. Almost everybody feels lonely. There is a wound in the human soul that cannot be properly explained by the nicks of our pasts, and the narcissism of our era.
Billions are plugged in to therapy or meds or booze or porn or tv, and each one is privately annexed into the guilty spell that their problem is not culturally meaningful. They are told their anxiety has no valid basis at all, but is merely the dysfunctional flower of a personal failure to ‘let go’, ‘create forward’ or ‘heal’. At best, we are all told to reframe our anxiety as a special invitation to the psychotherapeutic Laundromat where ‘what doesn’t serve us’ can be bleached out so we can get back to the orgy of creating, consuming and being ‘awesome’, with immunity to foreboding of the actually quite serious consequences of all that.
But some of us, a few among these disoriented billions, championed by beast and bird, we are coming to the beautiful moment, we are finding words to say, as we cast off the shame, refuse the blame, and point out what is spectacularly obvious already – that our wounds are wild and precious. That our ache is not the pain of failure, but the cry of the soul of the world, desperately bidding us home.