Oakland in the 1990s, I am sweating out my dissertation on a computer that unravels each day's work. Some secret worm has burrowed in my hard drive. It's like writing on quicksand. I type for eight hours, and the next day either nothing is saved, or some, or sometimes it sticks. But how do I know? Like Penelope secretly unraveling her day's weaving each night. Does this misery ever end?
I walk down to the Oakland Catholic cemetery, a mile from our house. Victoria and I go regularly. It's as a blistery blue California day. Grave stones stand gray against the bright grass and spiky pine, the divine wanders among the dead, humans leave you to yourself. I'm Hiccuping with tears. It's nearly seven years. Am I going to get through this? Give me a sign.
And YHWH, in a good mood offers a "Gideon moment": Test me. Now, I like the Gideon story in Judges 6. Gideon is no respecter of persons. The angel interrupts his secret threshing to recruit him for a manly job; take down the Midianites. Gideon basically says, "Pardon me, but we didn't make this problem." But he relents, and after a series of tests for Gideon, God gives Gideon the chance to test God. So Gideon asks for wet wool on dry ground (done) and wet ground and dry wool (easy). What's it to God? Not like parting the Red Sea. Gideon has to complete his impossible task, which YHWH says is a breeze, like a little league playing the Kansas City Royals (world series tonight). Gideon wins.
But I'm not thinking of all that when I say, "If things will be OK, I want to see an eagle and a hummingbird together." After that big declaration, I look around sheepishly and think: this is the fairytale of three wishes. You always fuck up. Which, in a nicer way, is what my mother says when she hears this story later: Don't test God. And she shoots me a strong look that I interpret as, How did I raise this one?
The good news is that my Gideon moment stops my tearful petition. It's now dusk and as the light turns rosen, a conference of birds rise up in the tangled bushes that border the cemetery. They twitter in gorgeous chaotic harmony. It's enough, I think, this bird anthem; it's answer enough. And up from the memory, I hear, first one line, then another, a song I composed in my evangelical Minnesota days.
A Malcolm Solbakken hymn Kari would love. I sing it to myself, surprised, but glad to remember it.
"Woke up drowsy this morning.
The sun was playing on my sheets,
she was elated with her light.
I breathed a psalm to the morning.
And as I closed the book,
the birds outside my window harmonized.
We've got a long way to climb
We can't avoid the winter storms
and intimately comes the night
but deeper still the greeining
the earth gives birth before our eyes.
Woke up bright from my dreaming.
Somebody called me to my feet
and I was standing in the light.
A stranger stood before me and
as he smiled I noticed something familiar in his eyes.
He said, sister, do you see me,
he said Kathryn, do you know me
he asked Kerry, do you love me?
and I cried: Lord!
He said, we've got a long way to climb
but I will walk with you
Together we will make the narrow wide
and as I love you love each other
I've conquered death so enter life..
I sing it as I walk home for supper with Victoria, and to bed.
And the next morning, I remember the last stanza of the song as I wake
Around the world people are waking
some on their mats, some on the streets
and some are waking in their cells
Lord I pray this dawn now breaking
will break into the hearts and minds of those
who keep this darkness
We've got a long way to climb...
Then I looked out our window. A wild band of hummingbirds are whizzing through the garden, never have we seen this. They circle up and down, in a crazy abandon. All morning, they buzz the air. I watch them, breathless. When I sit down to write one flies up and peers through the window. I get it, I see it!
Years later, at the Wisconsin lake, the bald eagle sits in the high branch of a white pine facing our island, I kayak out to get closer and disturb a hummingbird nest set in the dark of the lower trunk. They buzz out to shoo me away.
For years, I called this a miracle. Now, I wonder about the Gideon-God pact. What was my part of the bargain? Jesse says: beware that you honor what you've been given, and not become the fox.