01 November 2015

Flying Lessons from an Unlikely Angel

    "The world had been sad since Tuesday." Gabriel Marquez grabs my attention with this line in his short story, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." The sad world expresses itself with ash-grey skies and sea, three days of constant rain.

     During the downpour the parents of a newborn baby find an aged man lying face down in their backyard. His bedraggled wings are stuck in the mud. They’re amazed at first, but then. . . . well, the man is ancient, bald, nearly toothless. He speaks what they guess is Norwegian. They take him for a shipwrecked sailor—until the wise woman of the village points out the obvious: he has wings; he must be an angel.

"Club him to death," she says.

    They lock him in the chicken coop instead and call for the priest. He finds the winged man suspect. The old geezer smells terribly human and doesn’t understand Latin, the language of God. A crowd gathers. Curiosity-seekers gawk and jeer. Pilgrims pray and petition. The homeowners fence off their yard and charge a nickel admission. The line stretches as far as they can see.

    The angel ignores them all. Eventually, the visitors and villagers lose interest, distracted by some new wonder. The courtyard falls silent. The angel’s hosts don’t mind. They’ve made enough money to better their situation.

    His eyes rheumy with age, the angel wanders house and yard, bumps into posts, seems not long for this world.

    Then one day the wife sees him attempt flight. He careens about the yard, crashes into the shed, ploughs into the vegetable garden. At last he lifts off. She breathes a sigh of relief, both for herself and for him, watches until he becomes a small dot on the horizon.

    End of story. And the beginning of its impact on me.

+ + +

    We human beings have such a messed up relationship with the divine. Sure, drop an angel in our laps and we’ll take notice—then take advantage or try to turn a profit. Soon enough our attention wanders. Magic unfolds beneath our noses and we count it beneath our notice. We’re messed up, indeed.

    Or maybe not. Maybe we’re simply human. T.S. Elliot writes: “‘Go, Go,’ said the bird. ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’”

    The birds I live with keep driving this message home. Every day my pet chickens present me with fresh eggs—the stuff of miracle and mystery. Yet I take them for granted.

    You’ve seen the inside of an egg. Nothing magic there. A yellow ball of pus sailing a translucent sea of snot. Mmm. I’ll have mine over easy, please.

    But put a fertile egg in our home incubator—as we did this spring—and 21 days later a baby chick emerges. Mouths open, my husband Dave and I watched life literally unfold, take a deep breath, start kicking about and knocking into things.

    This little winged miracle has since lost its luster, become just another chicken in our home flock. Another mouth to feed and water, another bird to lock in at night. Another reason to clean out the coop.

    Chicken shit happens. And human kind cannot bear too much reality.

+ + +

    I might as well have been a Norwegian castaway dropped with a thump into the middle of my very straight, very conservative church-going family. It wasn’t wings but horns they thought I’d grown when I came out as a gay man. What to do with me? Club me to death? Call in the priest? Lock me away? They tried everything they knew.

    Not until my wings grew strong enough, not until I could unfurl them, careen about the place, finally take flight . . . not until I became a dot on their horizon did my true nature show itself.

+ + +

    Maybe that’s how it is for each of us—we are born with tattered feathers, thrash about, run headlong into walls. Only when we recognize the reality of the divine within, the miracle of our being, only then are we able to cut loose and fly.

Image: Louis Tiffany's window, "Angel of the Resurrection" (1904), Indianapolis Museum of Art, compliments of Wikipedia

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