What’s this about April being the cruelest month?* You’d never catch a pollinator saying that! Not in this latitude, anyway. After a seemingly endless winter, with its freezing sleep, the earth is waking up—and I, for one, spend my days diving in and out of crocuses. You haven’t lived until you’ve felt the great sky behind you but suddenly distant, the violet silk of petals all around, and golden pistils lighting your way into the chambers of another world…
Okay, so I’m not a bee—but I remember vividly a time last summer when I noticed a hydrangea tree buzzing all over. As I paused to watch one bumble bee at her labors, her back legs thickly padded with pollen, something about the way she dipped again and again into the same blossom gave me a dizzying physical sensation of her motion. At a certain point, she cupped the blossom and pressed it close around her head, and I felt a kind of creature-to-creature empathy.
This became one of the activities in my mindfulness class at the jail: not to imagine we could know another’s thoughts or feelings, but to give ourselves over to the pure sensation we might extrapolate from various physical cues. Right now I’m facing a wall; what would it be like to be on the other side of the table, facing the door? I’m wearing a soft aqua sweater today; what would it be like to wear a worn gray sweatshirt instead? What would it be like to be taller, more muscular, bearded? What would it be like to hold my forehead with that tension, deeply creased? One group member was driven half-mad by a noisy cellmate, and I suggested he imagine, next time the man was carrying on, those words at that volume issuing from his own mouth.
To evoke the spirit of the activity, I passed out photocopies of this poem by Pattiann Rogers, who kindly gave me permission to post it here.
Suppose Your Father Was a Redbird
Suppose his body was the meticulous layering
Of graduated down which you studied early,
Rows of feathers increasing in size to the hard-splayed
Wine-gloss tips of his outer edges.
Suppose, before you could speak, you watched
The slow spread of his wing over and over,
The appearance of that invisible appendage,
The unfolding transformation of his body to the airborne.
And you followed his departure again and again,
Learning to distinguish the red microbe of his being
Far into the line of the horizon.
Then today you might be the only one able to see
The breast of a single red bloom
Five miles away across an open field.
The modification of your eye might have enabled you
To spot a red moth hanging on an oak branch
In the exact center of the Aurorean Forest.
And you could define for us “hearing red in the air,”
As you predict the day pollen from the poppy
Will blow in from the valley.
Naturally you would picture your faith arranged
In filamented principles moving from pink
To crimson at the final quill. And the red tremble
Of your dream you might explain as the shimmer
Of his back lost over the sea at dawn.
Your sudden visions you might interpret as the uncreasing
Of heaven, the bones of the sky spread,
The conceptualized wing of the mind untangling.
Imagine the intensity of your revelation
The night the entire body of a star turns red
And you watch it as it rushes in flames
Across the black, down into the hills.
If your father was a redbird,
Then you would be obligated to try to understand
What it is you recognize in the sun
As you study it again this evening
Pulling itself and the sky in dark red
Over the edge of the earth.
from The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing As Reciprocal Creation
* T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land.”