BIRDS OF A FEATHER
If you didn’t mind listening to her snore, or breathing the heavy air that hung like a dense fog in the cozy nest that was her bedroom, you could perch quietly in the corner by Mariel’s bed every day of the week, Monday through Friday, and watch the same scene performed over and over with only occasional, minor variations. At 6 o’clock every morning, Mariel’s alarm clock signaled the workday with a cacophony of pre-programmed noise. In exactly three seconds, Mariel blindly reached over to silence it, swung her legs over the side of her bed, sat up, rubbed her eyes, and stumbled into the bathroom, all in one seamless arc of motion. Her morning ablutions and preparations to leave for work had become so ritualized over half a lifetime of repetition that they required no thought on her part – not so much perfected as practiced, streamlined by the necessity of efficiency required that early in the morning at a time of day well before clear thinking informs action. And, like any habitual occupation, Mariel adhered to the formula even though the original intent had long been mislaid somewhere back in the cobwebs of a cold dark morning without electricity or when an extended holiday or a bout with the flu interrupted the normal flow of activity. Change occurred subtly over the course of decades, but it did happen, and often it was so gradual that Mariel was not aware of it.
Lest you should mistakenly assume that she was just not a thinking person, on the contrary. Mariel was a very active thinker with a lively imagination. And so while she went through the motions of getting ready for work each day, for all appearances incapable of logical deliberation, you’ll just have to grant her this: that after a night full of vivid dreams after a day of constant intellectual exertion, these first hour of acting by rote rather than by intention gave her mind just enough space to rest and relax before meeting the many challenges of the day ahead.
Promptly at 7 o’clock, Mariel was standing at her front door going over her mental checklist for the last time, ticking off all of the things she needed to have in hand before locking up. At this point, her thoughts were just starting to organize, but not enough to prevent the occasional lapses of memory such as forgetting the hot coffee thermos or bagged lunch on her kitchen counter, her ring of office keys, or the checks she needed to drop in the mail. As if on auto-pilot, she soon found herself behind the wheel of her car and, like a fish swimming in and out of its school along the eddies and currents flowing around islands of commerce, Mariel joined the formation of cars traveling to their workplaces. By the time she was parking her car, walking into her office building, unlocking her office door – doing all of the very same things that she did every single day of her work week – her critical thinking was in full gear. For the rest of the day, she would occupy space in two parallel universes: one that relied solely upon the instinctive muscle memory of decades of repetitive work and the other that required her to think about completely unrelated things, evaluating and anticipating this or that or something else that had happened or was about to happen. “Triage,” she liked to call it, taking care of putting out the brushfires that required quick thinking while she simultaneously continued to carry out the other functions of her job, like a memory-resident program that is constantly running in the background.
There was a lot of consistency in Mariel’s day from week to week, month to month, even year to year that caused a certain degree of complacency. But, because she was a thinker, even this observation set up an interesting question for her to be bothered by for quite some time. The question was: which part of her repetitive day was the most important? To frame the question, Mariel parsed the hours of each workday into clearly defined blocks of time. Once this was done, she likened her day to a liturgical celebration, with the separate blocks of time representing rites within that liturgy. To what other image could she better compare the work of living than something sacred, something that held in one place all of the richness of symbol and belief and sensation? Mariel came up with the following list of the order: Rite 1: INTRODUCTORY RITE – Rising and going to work. Rite 2: PENETENTIAL RITE – The procession to work, work, and the recessional home after work. Rite 3: EUCHARISTIC RITE – Discretionary time after work/before bed . . . because she was oh so thankful for this time of her day! And, lastly, Rite 4: FINAL BLESSING AND DISMISSAL – sleep, obviously!
Each of the rites or sections of time took on more or less significance at any given time, depending on the circumstances of her life, at times outranking the rest, at other times receding back to lesser emphasis on her scale of importance. But, Mariel wanted to know which section in particular was overall the fundamental and most important in the grand scheme of all things. Could they be isolated one from each other in order to determine which was the most important, or were they simply inseparable? For most of her adult life Mariel had considered Rite 2 to be the greatest in importance because without the successful accomplishment of a day at work, there would be no paycheck to fund her existence, no place to rest her head at night. Rite 1 sometimes advanced in her esteem, but usually remained as a close second behind Rite 2. Mariel reasoned that without getting to work on time and sufficiently prepared for the day, the impact upon Rite 2 could be unavoidable and devastating. Rite 3 took on increased importance in her life during the times when she was involved in a romance or taking a class after work or working on a project or doing volunteer work. But, only recently had Rite 4 emerged in her ideas as being perhaps the most important part of her day.
Apart from remembering her dreams the next day or waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, Mariel realized that the hours when she was asleep were the most mysterious part of her day. It was nearly inconceivable to her that such a long period of time went completely unobserved by her. It was unseen and unknown. How could she measure the importance of this vital part of her day? And, without the ability to think and reason while asleep, what was she doing all that time which required nothing more than animalistic instincts? Even in her Rite 1 pre-thinking daze, at the very least, intuition or some innate sense would startle her into recognizing the centipede crawling in her bathtub before she stepped into her morning shower. But, once she closed her eyes at night, what happened remained completely shrouded in the secrecy of sleep. It could be very well that this total loss of consciousness, this complete separation of mind from body, left her not only in her most vulnerable state, but perhaps also in her most valued state. How could she know?
Mariel was thinking about all of this one day when she left her office for a little fresh air and exercise. She loved to walk around the office campus each morning just before all of the shops opened and the sidewalks filled with the hustle and bustle of other people’s daily activity. Every morning at 9:00, rain or shine, she took 15 minutes to treat her day to this little diversion. She crossed the parking lot and followed a path that ran behind the parking garage. The shady path was lined on either side with tall pine trees and sugar maples filled in the spaces between them. The pines gave an aromatic scent to the air and the maples provided indicators of the seasons with their changing foliage: the pale green new leaves of spring yielded to the deeper green, denser canopies of summer. In the autumn, the path was carpeted with layers of deep red, dusty orange, and sunny yellow leaves. By the time winter made the scene, bare branches and twigs entwined overhead forming a lacy black pattern against a frosty, grey sky.
Once Mariel was in the trees and out of sight from the windows of her office building, she transformed into a bird. It happened every day. One minute she was the well-dressed woman, professional in appearance and decorum; the next minute she was a bird. To look at her, you might wonder if she was some rare breed of fowl. She seemed terrestrial, was low to the ground, and silent. She had wings, but these were always folded at her sides, and she had never attempted to fly. She continued walking on two spindly, birdlike legs and feet, strutting along the path, cocking her head from side to side, listening for insects on the ground and using her eyes to their fullest advantage, facing outward instead of forward. Mariel was outfitted with brilliantly colored plumage and a lovely crest on top of her head. Her feathers were canary yellow and arctic white, long and silky. Her tail feathers were also yellow but blended out into a soft sage green and the ends were edged in sapphire blue. She only knew this because occasionally there were cars parked near enough that she could see her reflection in their windows when she hopped up onto the wall of the parking garage.
Mariel had no idea why this happened to her, but, like the other recurring events of her day, she just accepted it. It was but a rubric in the second rite of her daily celebration of her life. It happened every work day. It happened every time she took her morning walk. She did not turn into a bird on the weekends or when she was on holiday. This daily transformation was not borne out of volition or will except perhaps for the fact that Mariel did keep up her daily walks. She couldn’t remember when this had first started and she couldn’t remember ever missing becoming a bird on any workday. It was just something that took over her, it happened without thought or consideration on her part. As Mariel pondered the questions that occupied her mind – about what happened when she was sleeping – she did think for just one brief moment of the possibility that maybe she turned into a bird while asleep, too. What a silly idea! She chided herself for even entertaining such a thought – as if someone could turn into a bird when they were asleep!
There were enough things in her life that did not feel good or that just left her feeling numb that made Mariel relish being a bird for a short time every day. Being a bird counterbalanced these things, it released something positive that was pent up in Mariel, and it made her feel good. It felt as natural as not being a bird. It fulfilled some inner longings that Mariel didn’t recognize until she was a bird. And, it made her feel complete – as if she were seeing something rare and beautiful about herself that was usually hidden, something that no one else could possibly know about her and that she was fortunate to know about herself.
As Mariel continued her walk –sometimes hopping up on the parking garage wall, sometimes walking up the side of a tree, she became steadier on her feet. The shady path ended at the side of a lake with a lovely fleur-de-lis fountain far out in the middle. Mariel was still a bird at the lake and she sometimes hopped onto the water’s clear surface and paddled out to the middle, feeling the mist from the fountain spray over her. It was refreshing, especially on hot mornings. She felt the air ruffling her feathers and, being so much lighter as a bird, a strong breeze sometimes blew her across the water. Mariel enjoyed this and when it happened she felt like laughing out loud, although she did not. It was a great treat to be so freed from the constraints of her predictable life.
Once Mariel had traced her steps back along the same tree-lined path, she emerged in full view of her office restored to her human shape, looking exactly as she had when she first left her house that morning. She resumed her day as she had yesterday and as she would tomorrow. Things and days came and went as they had for years with no indication of dramatic alteration of any kind.
So, it can be of no wonder why Mariel looked at birds differently than, say, you or I or anyone else who does not daily find themselves transformed from a human being into a bird. She was especially kind to all birds, not knowing if this might be a person she worked with or a relative or even her best childhood friend. Who could say? Mariel was a strong advocate for birds and left birdseed, suet, and dishes of clean water wherever she had the opportunity to do so. Always mindful of the kindness shown to her while in bird form, Mariel felt it was her duty to be as fair as possible to the birds that she came in contact with.
But, all of the routines and rituals of her life were about to come to a halt. For several days, Mariel had increasingly been thinking about the rigid patterns of her life, wondering about sleeping and being a bird. Things just weren’t adding up for her and finally, one morning, she went for her walk on the tree-lined path behind the parking garage at work, and she decided to see if she could fly. She wasn’t exactly sure what kind of bird she was, but she knew that she had wings. She wasn’t even sure if she could make a birdlike sound, but she wanted to try and to hear what her birdcall sounded like. Mariel waddled down to the end of the path and hopped onto the smooth surface of the lake. She felt her light body buoyed on the water, bouncing up and down on the crest of a wave pushed along by a chilly autumn breeze. Suddenly, Mariel exerted muscles in her back and sides. To her surprise, quite large wings extended on either side and instantly caught the upward draft of the air. She felt herself being lifted from the water, her wet feet dangling beneath her.
“Wow!” she cried out in ecstasy.
To her amazement, Mariel herd another voice nearby answer her, “Wow!”
Mariel flapped her wings to steady herself midair and, as if born to it, flew higher, spiraling around the lovely fountain below her.
“Wow! Wow Wow Wow!!”
“Hey,” she called out to the other bird nearby, “do I know you?”
“I don’t know,” she heard the other bird call back to her. “I work in that building over there. I sell life insurance.”
“Wow! Wow Wow Wow!!”
“Hey, do you want to get out of here and go somewhere?” Mariel asked, surprised at herself for being so forward with a complete stranger.
The other bird glided effortlessly nearer to Mariel, circling around her. From the tilt of his head, Mariel could tell that he was giving her the once-over. “Yeah,” he said, “let’s get out of here. By the way, my name’s Bert.”
“Cool!” Mariel answered. “You lead the way. This is the first time I’ve flown. My name is Mariel.”
“Wow! Wow Wow Wow!!