Essays: Baltic Amber

She tells me her name. It’s a faux portmanteau of candle and mandolin. She uses her digital SLR to show me a bufflehead, a common goldeneye, and a scaup. We don’t know one another, but we are the only two people standing on top of Clinton Dam which, at eight hundred seventy-five feet, towers over Clinton Lake. We are here to watch waterfowl. That’s as good a formula for a fast acquaintanceship as any. Bird lovers talk to one another. We’re an endogenous group with overlapping interests that include conservation, education, outdoorsmanship, and a good-hearted love of birds (with a bit of competition thrown into the mix). I’ve seen folks pull up beside one another in popular birding areas to share information on what birds are present and where they are located. “Seen anything interesting” is a common refrain. That’s exactly what the woman on the dam said to me before introducing herself.

It’s supposed to be in the forties, but it isn’t. At this height, the wind cuts right through my layers. It might as well be in the low teens. I don’t feel like a warm-blooded creature. This is how the stones on the side of the dam must feel, losing all their heat to the frigid air and thereby becoming the essence of frigidity. I jump up and down to stay warm. It’s a futile endeavor. My body heat flows into the surrounding air.

Lake Clinton was built under the Flood Control Act of 1962 by damming the Wakarusa River. Funds were allocated the year I was born, just one state to the south, where we’d had a recreational reservoir since 1944. My family adored that bloated watering hole, whose creation necessitated the flooding of four towns. Artifacts from those engorged ghost towns still sit at the bottom of the lake, including marble tombstones that emerged a few years ago during a drought. The creation of Lake Clinton required destruction as well. Ten communities were wiped out with the lake’s development, as well as rich histories, such as underground railroad sites. The Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum now operates out of an old milk shed that was once part of Bloomington, one of the towns washed away when the lake was filled. The historic house the shed belonged to was razed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1981 after agreeing to renovate it.

It’s only my third trip here. I made the most recent one yesterday with my partner. Somehow, we managed to miss the turnout on the dam, which is one of the lake’s best spots for watching birds. When I got home, I realized our mistake and decided to come back out on my own. Birding is different alone. There’s something both calming and unsettling about looking for birds without a partner. There’s a kind of intimacy in finding a bird and sharing that experience with the person you love. It’s nice to run into other bird lovers, in part because they are so enthusiastic and in part because it takes the edge off the loneliness that can accompany solo birding. But it’s not the same as being out with my partner. I have more time to think, for one thing, which is both good and bad, depending on the thought.

Off to the right, the woman and I see two American white pelicans. To the left, a great blue heron flies in and lands on the rocky shore. The heron was here yesterday, too. The woman and I talk about how surprising it is to see a heron in such cold weather. My worry is evident in my voice, which cracks from more than the cold. I’m concerned that our unusually warm weather has affected migration timing and that many birds, not just this heron, are now in danger. In a matter of days, the temperature has plunged from the forties and fifties to the single digits, with subzero temperatures on the way. The woman and I talk about how cold we are before drifting back to our respective cars and cranking the heat. She drives away. I am on my own now, again.

I make my way up and over the lake to an area called Bloomington West. It takes longer than I expect. “Alone, alone, alone.” The word pecks at the deadwood in my head. I realize this is the first time I’ve done anything on my own since I experienced a period of great trauma in 2015. After that year, I retreated into what was safe and comfortable — into myself, mostly, and away from other people. I didn’t know a pair of binoculars would send me back out into the world — alone, alone — no less. This open-ended time is terrifying on some levels but also healing. I felt like the earth is putting me back together bone by bone, like a someone preparing a bird skeleton for display at a local nature center.

On the road, a man approaches from behind, fast. I’m going the speed limit, but he wants me to drive faster. Now I am not alone, and I want alone to return. Alone suddenly feels like an empty nest, safe and solitudinous. I worry about being out here at the lake and meandering through the rural areas that surround it. How easy it would be for someone to mess with a woman, with me. I feel old traumas speaking through my body, marks left by the men who have harmed me. Some experts call what I am experiencing the sequelae of trauma. Others call it post-traumatic stress disorder. The language I use is different. My trauma is subjective, not objective. It is visceral, not clinical. Psychologists don’t capture my experience any better than the authors of the DSM. I think about the eyes of the Cooper’s hawk who hunts behind my yard. They are the color of Baltic amber. I imagine my body is made of amber that, over time, has grown around what it has encountered, each occlusion an infraction — something forced, something taken, something threatened, something denied. The body is still there but so is what the body has been through, what it remembers. I have hardened around these memories.

I turn on a street with a funny name: E 251st Diagonal Road. The man is still behind me. I turn again, onto a road that will take me to the shore. The man keeps going straight. “Alone,” I exhale, as if the word were a mantra. I pass a newly tilled field and scare up countless meadowlarks and European starlings. They skim the field’s teased surface. I continue all the way to the lake, past a sign that reads “Road ends in water.” Perfect. A road to no-road feels existential in this moment. At the water’s edge, there’s another sign. This one says parking is not allowed at any time. I see nobody, anywhere. There aren’t even boats on the parts of the lake that haven’t frozen over. I park the car and step onto a wooden loading dock. Its yellow poles are as bright as a red-shouldered hawk’s legs and feet. The rest of the scenery is hazy, as if someone is holding a sheet of onion skin paper between me and the world. At first, I hear nothing. Then, there is noise everywhere — around me, beneath me, near, far. All at once, it sounds like singing and cracking and heavenly voices mixed with ghostly nightmare cries. My heart feels like a heron slipping on a frozen marsh until I place the sounds. It’s the water freezing, the everywhere sound of solidification. Imaging one thousand people bending saws and one hundred sticks cracking all at once. This is what the Sirens must have sounded like. Enchanted to the point of being driven mad, those poor sailors never stood a chance.

Now that I understand what I am hearing, the terror turns to strange beauty. This unsettling and unexpected improvisation has reduced my lexicon to a single word: “Wow.” I say it over and over. I look up from the ice to take in this abandoned corner of the freezing lake and see a tree full of bald eagles. I say wow again. And again. One eagle flies away. Another flies in. I see one in another tree. I see one on the ice. Wow. Part of me wishes my partner was here. Part of me wishes the woman I’d met on the dam was here. I know she would love this. But those parts are easily subverted. In truth, I want this experience all to myself, and I have it all to myself. The eagles. The lake. The haunting ice. And me.

I drive by Bloomington East, past the closed Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum, before heading out the way I came in. I stop the car in front of the field where I saw the meadowlarks and schlep into the freshly turned soil, aware that I am trespassing. I watch groups of starlings and meadowlarks skim the surface of the land, first left, then right. Through the binoculars, the birds don’t look real. The starlings are on one plane and the meadowlarks on another, like two paintings on separate sheets of glass with a space between them. I feel like I’m looking at an image in a View-Master. Not 3D, not really. Not the world the way the human eye and mind see and understand it. The binoculars create a beautiful distortion that turns the world into a piece of modern art.

I turn to walk back to the road. I think I see a party limo, but there’s a casket in the back. It’s a white hearse with a dancing neon license plate cover. A trail of cars follows. Ordinary cars. Nothing festive about them. They are the kinds of cars people in rural areas drive, ones that sit high off the ground, get around in all types of terrain and weather, and are always dirty. The occupants of the vehicles look sad and also a little irritated about passing a stranger standing where she has no business standing. Heavy with impatience and shame, I wait in the space that separates the life in the field from the death snaking beside it. The procession passes. I get in my car.

My road does not end in water, not today. I drive back the way I came. Hawks perch in the trees and on power lines along the highway. They give way to rock pigeons, then starlings. I arrive home in time to see a white-breasted nuthatch and a Carolina wren in the yard. It gets darker. Only the northern cardinals remain. Then they leave. Darker still. I see a mourning dove on the edge of the birdbath. Then nothing.

Essays: Midfield

I want to tell you about the birds, the ones I’ve been watching for months now, as closely as I’ve ever watched anything. There is a stillness when I watch them — their presence demands mine. But there is everything else, too. What stirs in them stirs in me, emotions that fall beyond the reach of language.

It started with desire. For years, I’d wanted to know the names of birds, to be able to identify them. To know things, we must start with learning their names. Only then can we unlearn the names and understand the thing being experienced, as well as the thing doing the experiencing — that thing we call the self.

A pair of binoculars arrived in the mail this fall, along with a set of bird identification flashcards. Both were gifts from my partner. I spliced memorizing the cards with staring out my window through the binoculars. My days were woven in this way: memorize, stare, memorize, stare. I ran my fingers over the birds’ printed forms while saying their names. Fox sparrow. House sparrow.1 Lark sparrow. White-throated sparrow. I had no idea there were so many sparrows. At first, my yard only offered up house sparrows. Eventually, a pair of white-throated sparrows arrived and dazzled me with their black-and-white helmets. Thrilled that I could identify them, I screamed their name in the style of a blue jay’s alarm call: “White-throated sparrow! White-throated sparrow!” The soundwaves my voice created hit the glass in front of me. The pane indifferently refracted the vibrations.

My world swelled after I realized there was more than one type of sparrow. How crude was my perception that I had lumped so many species into one? I widened my search from my backyard to area parks, meadows, tallgrass prairies, wetlands, and wildlife refuges waiting for the quiet to be parted by a sound akin to a flutist trilling while playing wind tones on her instrument. No note, just the airy pairing of consonants amplified by the flute’s long silver body. “Trrrrrr, trrrrrr.” The trills lasted a few seconds, long enough for a sparrow to move from the meadow to a nearby tree, or from a blade of grass to the water, or simply to move away from me. “Trrrrrr, trrrrrr.” A scramble of wings. Most of the time, I saw no more than a smear of color, like someone swiping oil paints with his thumb. Then nothing. Silence returned. It was a companion, this silence. I came to feel as if both of us were waiting for another bird to stir — to relieve my disquiet and to relieve silence of the burden of being silence.

Not every sparrow was a smear. I saw my first savannah sparrows at Heritage Park, where they foraged in patchy grass near an old brick silo. Like an accent color used sparingly, yellow patches above their eyes elevated their otherwise drab appearance. I first saw Harris’s sparrows at the Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve. They scurried into a group of shrubs as my partner and I drove past. They seemed to pose as I trained my binoculars on them. One had the darkest face and crown of any Harris’s sparrow I’ve seen so far, features that would ensure a high rank among his quarrel. The wheat-colored spots on either side of his head made him look like he was wearing earmuffs.

I saw white-crowned sparrows for the first time at the preserve where I saw the Harris’s sparrows. They were part of a flutter mobbing the feeder outside the educational center. My first fox sparrow surprised me at Longview Lake. I hadn’t heard its trill as it left the meadow, but suddenly it poked its head out of an evergreen just above me. “This is the red sparrow,” I thought. “Red, red, red. Red like the fox.” That was the same day we saw a rangy coyote on the side of the highway. How slow the animal seemed, how sapless, a stark contrast to the birds in the meadow.

Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Preserve gave me my first song sparrows. My first chipping sparrows hugged the water at the KCP&L Wetlands, a visit that was also notable because of the racist and anti-Semitic graffiti someone had carved into the bird blind at the wetland’s entrance.

Baker Wetlands offered up the shy Le Conte’s sparrow, whom I happened upon as I was taking a photo of the switchgrass next to a mowed path. He balanced between two blades, one foot on each, exposing his blond breast and white belly. He sang, but I don’t remember his song. I was overcome by his beauty: his soft gold face and striped crown, the patchwork of browns on his back that reminded me of the mottling on a hawk, his cocked tail. I was also overcome with how blithe he seemed, surfing in the grass, body shifting and shifting again in the air. “Alive,” I thought. “This bird is alive, through and through.” I had been reading about the Le Conte’s sparrow the day before visiting Baker, though I didn’t make the connection until later. What I read described them as being difficult to see because of their secretive nature. The phrase “secretive nature” made it sound like the Le Conte’s was a gumshoe, a spy, or worse — nothing like the glib creature I had encountered.

Lake Perry is not where I had my first or even second American tree sparrow sighting, but it is here where I had my most meaningful experience with them. I found them where the edge of the lake fed a small inlet. There, surrounded by trees, the tree sparrows (and a few song sparrows) pulsed and trundled at the water’s edge like sprites. They were bathing, and I was watching without their knowledge. I’d crept across a rough-shorn field and made my way through unkempt trees to bear witness to this ritual. All along the section of the shore, as well as in the inlet, sparrows bobbled, sending a volley of water droplets in every direction. I’d never seen anything more joyful, and that joy found its way into my body. “This little world,” I thought. “What have I been missing?” I felt like I’d been born the wrong size. The human-sized world was not nearly as enchanting as this Lilliputian one.

Not unlike the Le Conte’s sparrow, I am becoming more secretive as I watch birds. I skulk about in their world, which has no need for me. I move slowly. I crouch. I crawl. I sit motionless with my legs crossed until parts of my body go numb. I stand looking out and out, seemingly at nothing. My partner makes line drawings of the landscape as he waits for me. Or he listens to podcasts. Or he goes on walks that loop back to where he will find me, still sitting or standing in the same place.

But I am not in the same place. The stillness, the watching — and what I am watching — is changing me in ways that words can’t properly express. Basho’s come close:

               Midfield,
               attached to nothing,
               the skylark singing.

Perhaps that’s it, or at least part of it. The birds are attached to nothing. I am attached to nothing. There we are, held together by the field, singing with life.


Notes
  1. I just learned that house sparrows aren’t actually sparrows. They are weaver finches.

Essays: Wings and Air

Leaves from our red oak appliqué the lawn. The fall-blooming plants have lost their flowers, save for two azaleas. Butterflies and moths have been visiting the azaleas since the butterfly bushes started dying back. Above, I see woodpeckers from time to time. They dance up and down the trunks of our sweet gums. I’ve seen a slate-colored junco on two occasions. Both times, he was sneaking over the fence to take a dip in one of our birdbaths.

We have three birdbaths. Before we moved to this house, I never paid attention to birds, at least not close attention. The birdbaths came with the home, a gift of sorts from the previous owner. The birds who visit our yard regularly were also a gift. Shortly after moving here, I decided it was time to do something about my long-held desire to identify the birds I saw. I got my wish when I was given a set of bird flashcards and a pair of binoculars. The View-Master effect of the binoculars made the whole world pop to life. I couldn’t believe such wonder existed right outside my door. I’ve spent countless hours not only watching birds but also examining trees, the sky, squirrels, the texture of all manner of surfaces, the shrubs at the back of the property that lean into each other like old friends, and so on.

One of my favorite birds is the junco. I remember them from when we lived here years ago, before we moved away (and subsequently moved back). They frequented the yard at our first house. I remember that time fondly. My trauma was about half what it is now, though those earlier traumas were closer to me, more deeply imprinted, less smoothed by time, effort and consideration. Now, the most recent traumas are the jagged ones. They jar me from sleep at night and intrude on my waking hours.

I’ve been fighting for a long time, for myself and for others. For the most part, I feel unheard and unseen. I am frustrated by the lack of literacy around trauma, oppression, discrimination, and other issues that profoundly affect people’s health and well-being. I am frustrated that neurotypicality is imposed on all levels and that social constructs are mistaken for truths.

The birds help. Immensely. They don’t give me answers, and that’s the whole point of paying attention to them. They allow me to stay on a little island called here and now, unaffected by what’s happened in my past and unburdened by the extremely difficult work of being heard above the din of prevailing beliefs and values.

In these small slices of time, there is nothing wrong, nothing at all. The world is wings and air, and I am part of it.

Essays: A Secret Order

In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.
 
— Carl Jung

This morning, my chihuahua threw up on me in bed. I was curled up in the fetal position, and she was behind me with her chest against my back. You could say she was the big spoon and I was the little spoon, as preposterous as that might sound, given that I am approximately eighteen times her size. But there it is: big spoon = chihuahua, little spoon = human.

Understandably, being woken in this manner led me to believe I might not be in for the best of days. As I took care of my dog, got myself cleaned up, and cobbled together all the linens that needed washing, I felt defeated before I’d even brushed my teeth. Then my centralized pain set in, along with intestinal distress because I dared to eat out yesterday afternoon. As if that weren’t enough, I felt like I was being strangled. Yesterday, my new thyroid surgeon examined the scar on my neck from the thyroidectomy that my old thyroid surgeon performed last fall. He needed to assess how much scar tissue was present. Turns out, there’s a significant amount of scarring, and manipulating the area has made it extremely tight and painful today.

I needed to get it together, and fast. My first session with a holistic therapist was scheduled for noon. This meeting was important to me. I didn’t want to arrive at the therapist’s office sweaty, whiffling, and redolent of dog vomit. I needed to be lucid, solid, maybe even likable. (The last one is always a longshot for me, but I hold out hope with every new interaction.)

I made it to the session with my pestilent body in tow. A sack of pain I was. The therapist put me at ease by pointing out her Carl Jung action figure and saying, “Not everyone has one of those.”

“They don’t,” I thought. “But they damn well should.”

She also had a stuffed Yoda on her desk. He was wearing spectacles. I should probably show her my bright orange, 3D-printed Yoda head at our next meeting. I don’t have any Jung tchotchke to share, but I do feel Jung at heart, so at least I have a pun lined up for next week’s session.

The therapist knew things were serious when she began charting my immediate family, and I was in tears by the time she asked me what my father’s name was. I would have totally lost it if she’d asked my mother’s name. (It was Merry, which is heartbreaking considering how much trauma she was born into and lived through. Given her life circumstances, my mother’s name was a cruel, impossible demand — a mirthful adjective that would never find its occasion. What were my grandparents hoping for, beyond hope, when they fitted her with that albatross?) In short, I wasn’t able to mask my physical or emotional pain, and that made me feel as vulnerable as a fledgling swallow leaving the nest for the first time.

The therapist asked how I was feeling. I told her I was a burning tumbleweed careening down a hill, setting the countryside on fire.

She seemed to understand.

I asked her if she thinks there’s more merit to the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress than other DSM diagnoses. She said she doesn’t give a hanging chad about diagnosis. She only cares about hearing and seeing the person in front of her.

“You are not a diagnosis. You are a human being,” she said. “What I’m hearing and seeing is you.”

I tried not to cry because I don’t want Therapy Dana to be someone who is weepy throughout an entire session. But I’m not sure I’m in charge of who Therapy Dana is or isn’t, let alone what she does and doesn’t do.

I chose the Jung quote above because it makes me think about the DSM and its litany of disorders. The DSM is a dead end that never leads back to order. How do you make your way out of that book once you’re in it? My therapist says you have to stop looking at the disorder and start looking at what will help you heal.

I don’t always know where to cast my gaze, but I’m looking.

Essays: Trauma as Mineralized Body

If you cannot find it in your own body, where will you go in search of it?
 
The Upanishads

This morning, I felt like a length of fossilized wood, my body having turned to stone. I was lying in my bed, white sheets a blanket of fresh snow glinting near my mineral-laden bark. Every time I imagined getting up, my torso and limbs tightened. I was stuck. I wasn’t able to move for more than an hour.

My freeze response this morning was kind of like this, but without all the great scenery and gentle animals. A Fairy Tale, by Arthur Wardle, oil on canvas. Image used in accordance with U.S. public domain laws.

This happens sometimes. It’s one of my responses to trauma. Most people have heard of fight and flight, two physiological reactions to threats and perceived threats. There are two other, related responses: freeze and fawn. Many people who’ve been traumatized have some combination of these four responses. I’ve experienced all four, but my primary responses are flight and freeze.

Of the two, I like flight more. Much more. At least with flight, I’m in motion. I feel like I’m getting away from a threatening situation, my body moving, machine-like, under its own direction. Freeze is worse because I have all the emotions associated with flight, yet I have to experience them wherever I happen to be when the freeze response starts. Inside, I might be saying, “Just move. You’ll feel better if do. Start with a muscle, any muscle.” Yet I can’t move. I can’t speak. I can’t even think properly because my limbic brain has sand bagged my neocortex, which can only watch on, enfeebled.

You wouldn’t have known what you were seeing if you had walked in on me this morning. You would have seen a woman in seeming repose staring at a ceiling fan, its faux-wood blades smearing with soothing regularity.

Aside from the discomfort of the freeze response, I hate freezing because it’s triggering. The first time I froze was when I was thirteen years old and my father’s best friend began molesting me. I also froze in 2009 when I was sexually assaulted. Powerlessness, shame and despair are associated with the freeze response. It’s no surprise that people who freeze when being molested, raped, and sexually assaulted have higher rates of post-traumatic stress than those who don’t. There’s more self-blame associated with freezing than with the other responses to trauma.

I had physical symptoms this morning, too. A migraine. A tinnitus flare-up. Burning mouth syndrome. These issues, along with my freeze response, were my body’s way of dealing with distress I experienced yesterday. Along with three other psychiatric survivors, I was invited to share my account of abuse within the mental health system with a local healthcare organization. As I listened to the other women’s stories, I felt like my heart was being fed into a meat grinder, stuffed into a casing, and sewn back inside my chest. Those are the strongest, bravest, most intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure of sitting alongside in a long time. The day took a toll not just because I shared my story, but because we shared our stories. Nobody should endure what we and so many others have endured. Nobody should have to live with the trauma that led us to seek care or the additional trauma that seeking care can lead to. Nobody should have to face the very real risk of being retraumatized every time we tell our stories in the hope that healthcare might improve, that others might understand us, and that we might be able to speak and write our way back to life.

Though I still feel crystalline, I am moving, albeit slowly. I’m writing slowly, too, with my fossilized mind.

Everything I need to know is in my body and always has been. The body is a great teacher, and I am trying to learn from what it is telling me rather than vilifying it. The more I can see why I am freezing, as opposed to resisting the response, the more I am able to see what my body wants me to pay attention to. Today, I am paying attention.

Essays: Throwing Roses into the Abyss

Throw roses into the abyss and say: “Here is my thanks to the monster who didn’t succeed in swallowing me alive.”
 
— Friedrich Nietzsche

I am alive, despite having experienced trauma for years. You could say trauma is my monster, a hydra that’s reared various heads over five decades, from infancy into middle age. Sometimes all the heads appear at once, like a giant air balloon tied to another, identical balloon — and another and another — a train of memories and flashbacks as real as the window I’m looking through now at the world beyond. But there’s never glass between me and the trauma, not a single pane. I meet it with no shield and no weapons.

The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888), oil on canvas. Image used in accordance with U.S. public domain laws.

Nietzsche says we can’t live as the vanquished. We have to live as the victorious. To do this, we must show our thanks to the monster for not knowing how to devour us. We must throw roses into the abyss. For him, the monster is what lies within us. For me, the monster is both internal and external — and never exclusively one or the other. A thing happens. As a sentient being, I respond. Now the “thing” is within me, kneaded into my response, often long after it has raised its tail and returned to its bottomless lake. This works in reverse, too. As a sentient being, I can’t perceive anything that happens without being informed by my lived experience. The external is never simply external, and the internal is never simply internal. Within is without and without is always necessarily within.

Trauma starts outside us, but it twines its way through each of our two hundred six bones, ninety-thousand-mile nervous system, and more than six hundred forty skeletal, visceral and cardiac muscles. The sequelae of trauma are significant and can include disruptions to nearly every system in the body, behavioral and cognitive changes, high rates of retraumatization, changes in our core beliefs and values, difficulty with living a “normal” life, and much more.

So the monster is not just internal. It is also external. And the two are perpetually engaged in a simple but exquisite water dance. For me, throwing roses at the abyss performs three functions. First, it’s a way to honor the parts of me that have worked together to survive. Second, it’s a way to begin forgiving the monster that is trauma. And third, it’s a way to bring greater presence and beauty to my past, present and future — even if trauma continues to be there, hissing in the margins.

I am alive, and this site is where I throw roses into the abyss. Let them fill the chasm.