Sunday, April 12, 2009


Where there is no doubt, there is no understanding
Where there is little doubt, there is little understanding
Where there is great doubt, there is great understanding.

---Buddhist teaching

My friend and I climb to the top of the old stone tower on Mr. Constitution. I look down. Orcas Island lies below me---cedars and fir, mottled green, oval patches of cobalt water. The San Juan Straits are malachite, the other islands lesser green.
I am barely present. I feel as though I stand before the veil into a new world. My friend seems to be on the other side of the veil. I cannot imagine how it would be to be him, to move through life with trust.
My friend laughs. “There’s one,” he says. I know he means an eagle. He is a man possessed. Eagles come to him.
I’m a different bird. Ravens have accompanied me for days, but from here I see none. They were with me on the road, looping in each time I had thought This is a mistake. What if the charm that held my friend and me is undone? What if the task of fitting my words with another’s is impossible? The ravens would streak across the road, turn somersaults, arc against the light and disappear.
My understanding should be great if the Buddhist teaching is correct. I am a skin sack of doubt. Still I manage to watch the eagle spiral in great curves up from the tree-tops. Two others rise into the air on the east side of the tower. A third joins them.
My friend gazes past me toward the south. “There are two more, three, five, six.” I turn and look up. My eyes are older than his. The sun glares through the cataracts. Cataract. Veil. I see two eagles, no more than that.
I feel damaged. Inept. A woman much nearer exponential losses than her friend---though he has lived through a cancer that might have taken him all the way into nothing. A man from my past comes to mind, a man who became necrosis.
My friend watches the people below us. “They just don’t look up,” he says. “They’re missing so much. Why don’t they look up?”
“Habit,” I say. “Fear. My last partner could not look up…or maybe it was me who couldn’t.”
My friend looks past me. His eyes are cool. “They’re gone,” he says. “All those eagles in the south just disappeared.” He looks at me. I’ve not seen his gaze this intense. I look South. There are no eagles. I know in that instant why the eagles are gone. I believe he knows. I feel ashamed. I want to descend from the tower. I want to go home.
I manage to stand my ground. Something greater than shame holds me in place. I shouldn’t have talked about that man,” I say. I breathe hard out into the cool bright air. “There,” I say. “That’s finally out of me. Never again.”
I’m turned away from my friend, but I hear him laugh. “The eagles are back,” he says. “They just reappeared from nowhere.”

Later, we talk for a long time. I tell him that I had believed he was chastising me for being careless, and when I stood my ground to find my own knowledge, I understood something about him and the eagles---and a great deal more about myself.
“I went through a veil,” I say. “I have come up to that crossing again and again in my life. I’ve never crossed over till now. I still don’t know exactly how to be here on the other side. I won’t know for a long time.
“I do know this: you did not judge me in that moment. You were only telling me what was important.”

Even later, I open my e-mail and find the daily message from Word-A-Day:

1. Transparent, light, or delicate.
2. Vague or hazy.

From Latin diaphanus (transparent), from Greek diaphanes, from diaphainein (to show through), from dia- (across) + phainein (to show). Ultimately from the Indo-European root bha- (to shine) that is also the source of beacon, banner, phantom, photo, phosphorus, phenomenon, fantasy, and epiphany.

I forward the entry to my friend with this message:

In Vietnam during the American war, one of the most feared weapons was burning white phosphorus. It would char down to the bone.
I think of our book as I write this. It will be a book with more than a few words that will char down to the bone, written so subtly that most will never smell the smoke.