“The Flying Caterpillar” – First Chapter

1. Not Waving

When I was two years old, I drowned.

I sometimes wonder if this affected how I have lived the rest of my life. Unlike several people whom I’ve met since and who remember floating calmly up on the ceiling as doctors and nurses talked about flatlines and called out “try it again, Sam”, I have no memory of bright lights beckoning or of the grandmother I never met saying, “You have more work to do there, son.” In a sense, all I have to go on is an old newspaper article from the Barre, Ontario Sentinel, which talks about the incident, that and my mother, years later, saying she was always surprised that I loved swimming so much. And perhaps something else, a sense I had from as far back as I can remember until at least the age of thirty three, that I was an interloper, lying low to avoid detection, that I dared not openly express my real thoughts and feelings, because I would be recognized as not belonging in the world of confident, well-adjusted people whom I imagined entertained no doubts about the lives they were living.

Perhaps nothing reveals my lack of connection with that world so much as this belief that everyone else felt happy in it.

So, as in Emily Dickinson’s poem, the two-year old boy’s hand breaking the surface of Lake Ontario in early April was not waving. I imagine that even a two-year old must feel panic as his lungs fill with water. And the lady, well on in years according to the 1944 newspaper article, who sees that hand out of her kitchen window, runs across the slopping lawn and out to the end of the wharf, and with no thought for the shock of numbing cold about to assault her (by now, surely the small hand has already risen above the gray water for the third and final time), she somehow finds the right patch of water, fishes out the small dead body and carries it back to shore, where it is revived.

I wonder if that would have felt like a second birth for me, but coming too soon to be appreciated or deliberately undertaken. As in the Old Testament catalogue of the stages of individual moral evolution “A tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, and a life for a life”, which is routinely misunderstood as a statement of proportionate vengeance, perhaps the order of these steps really does matter. Just as a strong ego seems to be a necessary foundation for the ability to effectively care for others and to feel true generosity towards them, perhaps we really do need to be a child first (until our baby teeth get replaced by ones that fit our bigger bodies), and only after that can we exchange our self-centered eye for an eye that sees with a wider perspective, and then–when we finally learn to see our self-interests as intrinsically no more important that those of others (all those mothers and fathers with their confused and self-defeating behaviors no different than our own), can we take that final step, that step which the New Testament was written to make clear: of giving up our life for another life.

And speaking of the hand that is not waving having the power to call forth a helping hand that is, I was once riding my bicycle on the UNM campus, and not being well-versed in biking etiquette, I stuck out my right hand as I approached the right turn I was about to make (instead of lifting my left arm up at a right angle, as people used to do out their driver-side windows), and a stranger standing on the corner saw my unlicensed biking gesture as a friendly wave and cheerfully waved back.

Wow, already in my forties now and this was a revelation to me. I don’t have to spend the rest of my life, a wall-flower sitting hopelessly under the gymnasium clock waiting to be asked to dance. I can take the first step. I can be the one to greet, to acknowledge, and to share what I never thought I had to share.

And so you may be wondering, did I ever go back and look this lady up. Did I ever go and see if this lady, already well on in years when I was two years old, was still alive? No, I didn’t. You see it took me more than thirty years to even want to thank anyone for my human life. Unaware that I had a human life and that such a thing had any value, I wasn’t about to track down the person who had made it possible. Knock, Knock. “Good afternoon, Mam. I’m depressed as hell, but I just wanted to thank you for pulling me out of the water.”

It may be true that youth is wasted on the young, but it’s never too late to feel gratitude. Even if the people we would like to thank are not there any more, when we finally wake up we see that there are lot’s of people around who are drowning.

I’d already been married and divorced, and was living too soon with another chance encounter in time, when I invited my mother to visit me in Albuquerque for a two week vacation. I was looking forward to spending time with Mom, and I hoped that the two week visit would give my sister and her family a break from the woman who no longer reliably recognized Gilly as her daughter. The woman who sometimes thought she was living on a boat and sometimes thought that she had been hired by a stranger to look after that stranger’s grown daughters. I must not have been listening very well to these reports of our mother’s journey through cognitive losses, because I also had a hidden agenda for this visit. I was going to spend the time helping Mom to relearn the skills she seemed to have forgotten. Surely it was just a question of trust and of learning to reconnect with life-long skills.

So there I was at the Albuquerque airport on a fine day in early June, watching as a stream of passengers poured out of the gate. After ten minutes, the flow slowed to a trickle, then an intermittent drip. After another few minutes two American Airline attendants emerged with overnight bags rolling behind them like well-trained black sheep.

Maybe it was time to put out a trace on a sixty-nine year-old woman, five feet eight, English accent, who may think she’s Activities Director on a cruise ship.

Then suddenly she was there, coming up the boarding ramp, arms linked with a statuesque flight attendant, whose flowing red hair stole my attention for a moment. Both women were laughing, carefree. Mom saw me and waved and I waved back. Neither of us were drowning.

I am now almost the age my mother was back then, some twenty years ago. I have one son who started college this year and another son who started high school. My eighteen-year old was born the year after my mother died. What is it about my side of the family? Do we have something against allowing our parents to see their grand children? My mother did the same thing. She came to Canada when she was sixteen, after both her parents had died. In her case, she waited another decade before starting a family of her own. In my case, I waited about forty nine days, the traditional time period in Tibetan Buddhism that a soul waits in Limbo (the Bardo Realm) before finding a rebirth.

So, is my eighteen year-old son my reincarnated mother? My wife has never been a great fan of that idea. In fact, the entire notion that anything other than her own autonomous will could have been responsible for her coming to my office after work one afternoon and saying, “I want to have another child before it’s too late and I want it with you,” seems ludicrous and untrue. Yet, who can say where our impulses come from. We like to think that we are the authors of our thoughts, just as we can choose to breathe or not breathe. But the air is breathing us, and our thoughts visit us like swallows tarrying for awhile in the branches or our minds.

The problem I have with the thought that my son could be my mother reincarnated is not metaphysical at all. I just wold be amazed if my rather child-like, impetuous, high-spirited mother could have reappeared on this earth as my rather anxious, unsociable son, who once climbed out the window and down a tree in order not to have to say hello to some family friends who dropped by unexpectedly. Intelligence and a quirky take on the role of humans in the world, they do have in common.

Come to think of it, my son is rather like I was. So we can count out reincarnation. Simple nature plus nurture explains it just fine. And it’s no more than fitting if my son blames me, as he does, for the uncompleted condition of his life. Whereas I blamed my mother for imparting by her example the habit of daydreams, which has taken up residence in my mind and thereby crowed out any real purpose towards which I could have been taking actual steps, my son blames me for doing everything for him and thereby leaving him entirely unequipped to make his way in the world. Come to think of it, the outcome is not so different. And it doesn’t have to be a permanent disability. In fact, perhaps it can be actually useful to notice the limitations of your parents and to deplore the residue of those limitations in yourself. It can drive you into taking the initial steps on your own journey.

Starting to write down some thoughts and memories from my life these past few days reminds me of another journey. When I was almost thirty-three, my ability to think of my life as having any meaning or purpose collapsed. By some touch of grace, instead of descending into death or a broken spirit, I ran. I ran from my job, from my apartment, from the city I had lived in all my conscious life, and I kept running. After years of writing computer programs in the cubicles of various large companies–where both the systems and the seating arrangements emulated the honeycombed world of worker bees–I now found myself picking tobacco, unloading scallop boats, chasing bulls out of fields that they had broken into, with me atop superbly-trained quarter horses who certainly didn’t need me sitting on their backs, pale-faced and white-knuckled. I drove giant tractors, towing wide-swathed cultivators over fields a mile square, watching as the rabbits packed-up and headed to new home sites further down the road, as the inexorable blades came ever closer. Not so different from me I might have thought, but probably didn’t.

What I did think of at that time, during the first nine months after I left my life-time home in Montreal, was that I couldn’t go back. Never far from the surface was the fear that this new life was intrinsically nomadic and that one day it would run out, and the rubber band on my back would tighten and drag me back to Montreal and back to the person who had panicked there for lack of a soul that could breathe. So I kept putting off a visit to my sister who lived on the west coast, as I worked on farms and ranches in Alberta and an open-pit copper mine in British Columbia.

Perhaps I feel that way abut what I am writing here. I don’t want to be in a hurry to make sense of this lifetime, to record the final meaning of all these floundering efforts to be the person I would like to be, because when I have finished, it will be time to be called home.

And what do I want to be when I grow up? That question lights up a landscape of time in a way that is no longer the fearful enumeration of disappointment and alienation. It is no longer is a forlorn pointing to a mythical future, which I secretly don’t believe exists in my universe. The question of growing up, of becoming someone more like who I want to be, feels now like a work in progress, and the time of its flowering like a meadow situated somewhere under an open sky. My journey might appear–in the rear view mirror of memory–like a single track winding across a wider terrain, a terrain the extent of which I can’t know because my journey never took me there, but that is not the nature of lived time. Time is much more than the linear chronicle of moments recorded in our private and shared histories. In the fullness of the living present, time is like the breath that sustains our lives, and like the breath I take now, which has been around the world many times before coming into me, the time that animates this moment has been around forever.

But back then, when I was running from my dead-end life in Montreal, there was no touch of the infinite in my days, no rumors of a golden note sounding deep in the forest drawing me forward to a happier future. The companions on my flight, breathing down my neck at every step, were the ghosts of a past I dared not allow to catch up with me. That the energy of my flight was itself the energy earned by the person who had dared to leave Montreal, and that therefor I did not need to fear this person coming to rest–this was the farthest thing from my mind. Such insights were someone else’s department. Not the one who only knew how to pace the cubicles of yet another workplace maze, not the refugee now on the run.

Ah, Time. May you come into the room where I am writing now, and bring with you the people I have been. For even though time may be one, like the uncounted drops that make up one ocean, it does seem, looking back, that I have been several people across the stream of time. And which one wishes to speak now, to be invited in to tell his story?

Perhaps the one who left Montreal, on the run, trying to escape from his life and the person he had become in it. Since that is as impossible for all of us as it was for Satan in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, who remarked “Hell is where I am,” there clearly needs to be some other strategy for change than simply leaving the scene of the time. If that other element of change doesn’t occur, then it seems inevitable that the same issue will strike roots where we happen to land. That is surely a pretty familiar dynamic to everyone. But sometimes a happier outcome arrives at our new doorstep. Sometimes a change in circumstance ushers in a new time of growth. Why is that? Is it just some kind of dumb luck, further evidence that some people are lucky and others are destined to be miserable? Perhaps, yet if the outcome of such flights from the intolerable is something we can influence, who would not want to learn that trick? Who would not choose to be happy and fulfilled, if it lay within their power to be so? Have we not all had that momentary impulse to listen in a new way, and then there it is, clear as daylight, the sound of a bird bathing the world in a fresh light, or the sound of a creaking tree trunk deep in the forest, bidding us to pick ourselves up and follow?

Sure enough, right on schedule, the rubber band tied to my back stretched tight and I had to clutch the small table in my Calgary YMCA room in order not to be immediately pulled out the window and back to Montreal, gnashing and wailing all the way, back to the life I had three months earlier so narrowly escaped. This was my deepest fear, and it lay coiled within me. Those feelings of accomplishment and transformation, which I had believed were occurring–as I pitched hay bales, rode horses in pursuit of ferocious bulls, drove huge tractors towing cultivators,–now showed up in my mind as superficial fantasies. When the farm jobs, which now appeared to be the temporary bounty of an autumn harvest, started running out, and my visits to the labor pools left me loitering in waiting room, looking hopelessly at cork bulletin boards, I looked within and found an old fear, proclaiming I had run out of options.

Whither had flown the delight in doing new things, learning new skills, working with different kinds of people than my old fellow denizens of claustrophobic cubicles? The future once more looked like someone else’s department. It once again looked like I was still sentenced to endless repetitions of the past. Like Sisyphus endlessly rolling his giant bolder up the same hill, only to watch it careening back down the foot of the hill, I had failed to develop any new possibilities. As the harvest shut down for another year, so was the brief flowering of enthusiasm and belief in change that had briefly bloomed in me.

This might sound like an excessive swan song to craven weakness except for two things: first, I’ve noticed that these kinds of feelings are the daily companions of many other people, and second, something rescued me in that Calgary YMCA room more than thirty years ago.

It must have been Grace.

But perhaps something else opened the door to that Grace, something that anyone could teach themselves, including later versions of myself. That could be important to know, if those dark forebodings of annihilation once more return to take up roost.

So let me look more closely at that evening in the YMCA room, when I suddenly felt as hopeless as I had ever felt in Montreal, and perhaps even more so, because in between I had tasted freedom and the beginnings of a belief that I could actually belong in the world.

In the previous week or so there had been daily visits to the same Labor Pool that had opened the doors to those exciting jobs in the great outdoors, the kind that gave you callouses on your hands (no small matter to hands used only to a keyboard) and arms able to heft hay bales and wield a pick and shovel. But does it help a person’s confidence to notice that, in addition to not being able to make a go of a new beginning, you are also spineless in the face of a despair that descents like a bird of carrion waiting for you to stumble? Not especially.

And that was a clue that came home that evening. It began to dawn on me that what I was experiencing could not possibly be unique to me. In fact, wasn’t it the case that I had not been alone at the labor pools looking in vain for work? Memories of men and women standing around outside, smoking, chatting, waiting to see if something turned up, came back.

Why was I so special? Did my discomfort in the face of the unknown warrant this collapse into full-fledged panic? Not only was this clearly a colossal overvaluation of my relative importance in the overall scheme of things, which in and of itself does not tend to count much when we are already shaking with fear, anymore than a rabbit can be reassured by being told that the coyote panting nearby also has is own problems. Such as that he is faint with hunger, maybe?

No, awareness of the universality of our condition can only create an opening for another kind of awareness to enter. And this other awareness came to me like this: the unknown future that rose up before me like a giant serpent coiled at my feet, or like a black fin cutting the surface between me and the shore, was precisely what I had yearned for as I paced the warren of cubicles in my last Montreal programming job, rehearsing the deadly sameness of thoughts and feelings, and staring out at a future of more of the same, a future so monstrous that I could scarcely breathe late at night. And there I was, greeting this unknown future like an enemy. And suddenly a leaden weight was lifted from me. I was exactly where I was supposed to be! I only had to rise up and step through the doorway to an unknown future, a time not yet lived

I stood up, left my room and went down to the sitting room where, paradoxically, the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics were playing on the local Calgary TV. I had been seated for about five minutes when a man walked into the room and said, “Anyone want to earn $20 loading empty bottles down the street?” I was on my feet, at his service, probably before anyone else had even registered his presence. Later that evening, I went to the Calgary Stampede fair grounds to discover that it was closing down for the season. Again, out of the blue, I found myself loading the metal beams and struts from carnival rides into eighteen wheelers for the next few hours, with more folding money in my wallet as I made my way back to my room.

Perhaps good things really do come in threes. The next morning, on my way to the labor pool, a station wagon pulled up along side and a man rolled down his window.

“Do you know where the Labor Pool is?” He asked. I started to tell him that I did, because I was headed there myself when he interrupted me.

“Actually, I’m looking for someone to help me put up some balcony railings. Interested?” Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.

It seems so obvious. All we have to do is watch how a baby has everyone hooked merely by reaching out and smiling, making no judgements about who is to be trusted, or what failures might cut him down to size. Come to think of it, a baby is already down to size, having recently arrived on the scene through a rather small doorway.

It would be nice to hold onto whatever insight rescued me that day in Calgary, but I expect holding on too tightly was the problem in the first place. Oh, no, not one of those damned paradoxes again. Why do they keep coming around just when you think you may have finally figured something important out? So I guess I have to let that go too, not only the hope for final certainty, but the hope that an act of grace might be captured, bottled, and called up next time I need it.

But, at the very least, it may help to recognize that, just when I feel most imprisoned and buried in the darkness, all I really have to do is look slightly to one side, past the frozen images of a “known” past, which have congealed so tightly that they completely cover over the future; into that aspect of time that is eternally ready to welcome me into the infinite richness of the “unknown”. It may be that the only thing we are ever really afraid of is that the already known has trapped us and has thrown away the key. Do we ever say, “I don’t know what will happen in the next moment, but I’m afraid of it?” No, I don’t think so. What we say is “The think I’m most afraid of may come again.” But that’s the past claiming that it is able to invade the future. And it can’t really do that. The future is the realm of infinite possibilities and it will always remain out there, ahead of us, shining a light onto the path we are travelling. And if we can let the energy of that never-to-be-born, always-beckoning, future seep into the eternal present moment that is our life, we might find ourselves free at last!