Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Sea Gull

          The two words I heard most often in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were “devastation” and “God.”
          On the night of the storm, listening to people call in to the one local radio station that remained broadcasting — some on cell phones in attics that were filling with water — I heard constant pleas to God. “Please, God, help us.” And in the aftermath of the storm God’s name was invoked for strength, guidance, blessing. God dead? Hardly. A natural disaster turned people’s thoughts heavenward. They spoke His name.
          I came back to my apartment three days after the hurricane. When I got out of the car, eyeing the roof shingles that littered the grounds, a furtive motion caught my attention. There was a large bird on the walking path that wound around the manmade lake in the middle of the complex. When it saw me it strutted rapidly out of my line of sight. Why didn’t it fly off, I thought. Something about the bird being there struck me as odd, even unsettling (I had just driven through an ominous landscape, altered by destruction). But I hadn’t time to investigate. I hurried upstairs to check out the damage to my apartment.
          There was none. My place had survived intact. Others in the complex were not so fortunate. In the next weeks carpeting, sheetrock, refrigerators, mattresses, couches, tables — all manner of furniture — accumulated near the overflowing dumpster. Yet I didn’t even have a water stain on my ceiling. Some claimed that the storm was punishment meted out on the sinful by God (another way His name was used); does it follow that those spared devastation are the virtuous?
          The next afternoon I sat on my patio — I live on the third and top floor. I was reading the collected stories of William Carlos Williams. For forty-two years the author had been a practicing physician in a city in New Jersey. Mostly he treated poor immigrants, and his stories were often about his patients. I mention this because perhaps my reading that particular book has meaning.
          I looked up from its pages and saw the bird, again walking on the path around our scenic lake. I recognized it this time as a sea gull.
          A sea gull, five miles from the sea? — in this case Lake Pontchartrain, which separates the small city I live in from New Orleans. I studied the bird intently. It darted about, pecking at the grassy verge of the walkway. Searching for food — that basic necessity for its survival. I waited for it to turn, so that I could view it from the other side. When it finally did I saw that the right wing jutted out at an angle, clearly broken.
          It was all there for the imagination to recreate. Snatched up by the wind, the gull was swept aloft, carried inland at a speed well over a hundred miles an hour; then, on a sudden downdraft, slammed onto the ground or into the wall of one of these apartments. It could have struggled to this little lake, for it could still fly — though only for short distances; I witnessed one floundering flight from the walkway to the water.
          I watched the bird carry on its strutting search. It looked okay, active and alert — except for that wing. Its plucky vigor brought to mind something a vet had told me years ago, in regard to my newly-stitched up cat. Injured animals will try to carry on as they normally would; thus my cat, if she felt herself observed, would likely continue to jump up on things. In this world of claw and fang, instinct tells animals to appear fit and able, so that they are not spotted by the eye of the predator as the one to pursue. I thought of how we humans are so coddled by kindness. We complain, seek help and sympathy even from strangers. Dumb animals suffer dumbly, alone.
          There was nothing I could do for the bird. I knew that if I approached it on the walkway it would make its pitiable flight to the water. Anyway, there was no veterinary office open. The city was largely abandoned. I shrugged inwardly — such is life — and looked down at my book: Dr. Williams treating with tough compassion the sick and the dying and those giving birth.
          After that day I would never see the bird again.
          The next morning the phone rang — a surprise in itself, for service was rare; the man on the line knew my name. He informed me that he had just taken my mother to the emergency room. She had fallen and broken her arm. “It’s pretty bad,” he said.
          She had called out to the stranger as she stood in the doorway of her apartment. She held her right arm against her chest; it was the least painful position she could find. He had immediately driven her to the hospital. She spoke of him later as her “guardian angel.”
          The young doctor and nurses were kind. Their most generous act may have been to give her a morphine drip. I watched her tense face relax; this smoothing out of her features happened in seconds, right before my eyes; the shoulders sagged in relief, a serenity took over her being. She sighed.
          Morphine, I thought, for future reference.
          But this is not a medical narrative, nor an examination of the personal dynamics between a mostly-helpless eight-seven-year-old woman and her aging son. This, rather, is an inquiry into the supernatural.
          Was the sea gull, with its broken wing, an omen, a prophetic sign?
          A surprising number of people I’ve known have had experiences with the supernatural. One person, kneeling at Dostoevski’s grave, felt herself infused with a message from the Master. Others can summon up memories of previous lives. Many have felt guidance from an invisible source. Stories about premonitions abound, often involving animals. A friend’s dog was found curled atop Granny’s quilt in the linen closet, a place he almost never went; the next morning a phone call gave them the news that Granny had passed away in the night.
          When I observe the world around me I see it teeming with belief in, or at least fascination with, the supernatural. It's even a common subject of television shows. We humans want, perhaps need, the existence of another dimension.
          I have remained unremittingly earthbound; when I jump into the air I always return immediately to the ground. In my life nothing has occurred of a supernatural nature. So how do I react to the stories friends tell me? Silently; but disbelief and, increasingly, anger lurk behind my nodding smile. It’s their complacency that bothers me — why should they be granted the security of a universe that cares about them?
          Of course, skepticism is a common response to the type of tale I’ve related. And it’s socially acceptable to scoff at levitating swamis, tilting Ouija boards and pin-studded Voodoo dolls — to the whole world of the occult. But there is one point to consider: The smallest belief you hold that is outside the rules of the natural world is a supernatural one. You have passed over a line to the Other Side.
          You are in a realm that is dominated by religion. The domain of both God and spirits.
           I read parts of the New Testament recently and was struck by how many miracles Jesus performed. If I lived back then and I was in one of those dusty, sun-baked villages and I witnessed Him — as it is written by His disciples — cure the sick, restore sight to the blind, raise the dead, walk on water, I would have followed Him. I will follow Him now, tonight, if He will give me a sign — maybe a luminous cross on my bedroom wall. I only ask that I witness the miracle with my eyes, with my senses.
          Or grant me any transgression of the natural laws; a passing, however small, over to the Other Side. At least I will know it exists.
          Which caused me to contemplate the sea gull.
          Was the bird’s plight meant to be an omen of my mother’s? Broken wing, broken arm? Was there supernatural meaning for me encoded in the events I’ve described?
          I actually toyed with the idea. But — no. The story I’ve related, unembellished, has no meaning beyond the natural events themselves. An odd coincidence occurred. A sea gull was injured in a storm; days later my mother tripped and fell. Her arm healed. And the gull, with its broken wing? As I said, I never saw it after that day on my patio. But there are feral cats in a wooded area not far from these apartments, and fish over three feet long have been caught in the lake — predators, capable of dragging down the vulnerable.
          In me only a passive pity prevails. Life — the natural world that holds sway over us — is cruel. I give an inward shrug and return to my book.
          Where does this lack of belief leave me? No place good. I understand that fact more forcefully as I grow older. I am left with the bitter quotidian, which offers no answers, no solace. And which presents me, ultimately, with a handful of dust.
          About a week after I returned to my apartment I drove the five miles to Lake Pontchartrain. The lake had been the source of the huge surge of water that had done most of the damage. As I got within three miles of its shore I began to truly understand the word “devastation.” I was driving through a landscape of unrelenting wreckage.
          At the end of the road, on the rocky bank of the lake, I got out of my car. Around me, like bones picked clean, were posts and studs, all that was left standing of waterfront homes. Perched on them were sea gulls. When I walked toward a cluster of the birds they lifted off on strong wings.

(Originally appeared, in a different form, in Arts and Opinion)

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