An Excerpt from Just Another Love Letter
Here's a piece of me.
There is something that happens when we die, a mystery so secret, no writings of it even exist, though it may have been perceived in dreams, translated into snatches of song like all other truths.
We live our lives, feel our feelings, think our thoughts, hate our enemies, love our friends. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we hurt, we heal, we cry and laugh until we can’t tell the difference anymore. We are full of energy, then less, then we become still. Or we are taken by surprise, our lives ending not at all where we though they would. Either way, all these feelings and thoughts and actions that go into making up ourselves come to an end.
We come to an end.
That is when it happens. The great mystery.
There is a bird. Sometimes it is a raven, sometimes a sparrow. Sometimes a dove or a hawk. It can be any bird imagined, so long as it has wings to fly. This bird lives in each of us; we each house a secret bird. That bird has one purpose and one purpose only and it happens after we have stopped. No one can see it, but when we die, our death opens the cage, and the bird that lives within us escapes and takes a look around. It tests its wings, preparing to fledge. It will fly only once, but it will fly far, far away. After it tests its wings, it looks back down at the body where it has nested. Then carefully, oh so carefully, more carefully than a mother holding her baby for the first time, more gently than a whisper, the bird reaches back into us, searching. When it finds what it wants, the bird pulls back away from our bodies, bringing with it clenched securely but oh so gently in its beak, a long strip of paper, thin and delicate as an onion skin. When the paper is safely removed, the bird tests its wings again, waiting for the wind.
You cannot feel the wind, much as you cannot see the bird or the paper, but the wind is real and it comes, lightly at first, not even strong enough to rustle the paper held tenderly in the bird’s beak. It grows to a breath, then a waft, a draft, a breeze, then a wind, and it is just enough to lift the bird on its fledgling flight. The bird rises, wings beating at your previous heart rate. It rides the current, up and up, so much as directions can be told in a place without directions. You could say the current carries the bird out, or in, for that matter. The paper flutters in the wind, with the beat and pulse of the wings, moving with the rhythm of the flight.
The bird, your bird, for it is as singular as you were, flies to where it needs to go, carrying the paper that had been its nest mate, that had been wound up so tightly inside you. The wind carries your bird to its final destination, which is a place outside of all other places, outside of heaven, hell, purgatory, and certainly our own universe. It is a place that is never quiet, and here is why.
The bird sees its destination at last, circles once, twice, its flight entwining with that of other birds – a feathered host of holy movement. Yes it is holy, this sight, this airborne dance, for it happens after death, yet precedes birth. Your bird spirals down toward a house built entirely of cedar, a place of sweetness. There is an opening at the top through which it flies to alight in the rafters beside other birds bearing other strips of paper. Here your bird will make its only sound; one small chirp, signaling to those who labor below that it has arrived, and that the paper it has carried such a great distance is safe.
Some birds are made to wait, some are called down immediately. When your bird is called, it will open its wings again and glide down from the rafters to the outstretched arm of an attending angel. The angel will smile at your bird, speak soft and kindly words, stoke its feathers. No matter a nightingale or vulture, rook or robin, rest assured, your bird will be treated with compassion.
The angel escorts your bird and your paper into the next room, where the two will be separated from each other forever. Your bird turns over the strip of paper to the angel, entrusting it into the angel’s care. If there is remorse for its loss on the part of your bird, or joy, or relief, it is not evident. The angel treats the paper just as gingerly as your bird did, holding it gently, examining it for punctures or tears; for wounds, as it were. Then also, the angel determines which instrument shall be used to play the music that is written there.
You see, the paper has recorded your life and your life is music. It is not a song unto itself but a movement in a larger symphony that plays unending in the second room of the cedar house. It is a song of immense complexity that never repeats itself, that will not be classified, it is a hymn and a psalm and a jig and a sonata and an open-mouthed cry for life.
The house built all of cedar is never silent. On the day that death ends, it will be silenced, and the crafting of this beautiful song will cease forever.
The length and complexity of your music does not depend on how long you lived, but on how much you lived. There was a Zen-practicing hermit who spent eighty-five springs on earth, whose music was composed of only two stanzas, both subtle and brilliant, while the music of one gypsy child went on for hours, as intricate and convoluted as a Celtic knot.
An instrument is decided upon by the attending angel, who is a master of all instruments, and he takes his place in the orchestra among his myriad companions, all engrossed in music making. Imagine an orchestra made up of thousands upon thousands of angels playing every type of instrument ever conceived, from two sticks struck together to a calliope. Your piece will fit, and it will be played against others, and it will all sound very fine. Your angel takes his seat, the instrument is waiting, the music stand holds your paper securely, your bird perches atop the stand to act as spectator and witness.
The angel waits for his cue and plays, and everything that you were comes pouring out in a sound so small compared to the symphony that you might think yourself lost. But it is now that you are truly found. As the notes are played, you are woven back together; you are reborn. If you were enlightened on earth, here you are enlightened. If you were small-minded and cruel, so you are now. Nothing new is added, nothing taken away. You are as you were; free to continue on, to change or not, to grow or stagnate. You have your life back, and your will, and your loves and hates and all that has made you who you are, between the opening of your mother’s womb to the closing of your grave.
The bird, your bird, listens. If it listens with joy or sorrow, no one can tell. Even the angel who watches your bird, smiling up at it between notes, cannot tell. And when the final note of your part in the symphony has been played, your bird will tuck its head beneath its left wing, and it will die.
The angel, the one who played you, will take up your bird with all the gentleness the bird showed the strip of paper, and carry it out to another house, the Vault of Birds, as it is called. He then places your bird in a niche in the wall made just for it, and retreats back to the other house; Mammisi, as it is called, or Tanjo-Ji – The Temple of Birth – to wait for another messenger with another strip of musical life. And so on.
Perhaps there lives within your bird, another bird. No one knows, so that would be a greater mystery. One thing is known, and that is that God Himself occasionally walks through the Vault of Birds, and when He leaves, the birds disappear with Him. The angels speculate on this, jumping to the natural conclusion that the birds are manifestations of the Holy Spirit. But, as we know, angels are rumor-prone.
In the meantime, you stand naked, twice-born, in the Temple of Birth. You will not remember this. Why should you? You cannot remember your first birth, can you? Another angel will take you by the hand, speaking soft words to you, treating you with compassion, whether you deserve it or not. Right now, you are as an infant, and infants need gentleness, don’t they?
Aren’t you glad?
You will be lead to a door and encouraged to take a step through it. This door will open to wherever you need to go, and once you step through, you will come to your senses again. The angel does not bother to look where you have gone. It is none of his business, and he has birds to attend to.
The angels inside The Temple of Birth have never themselves flown. Still, they are envied by every other angel who has ever sailed high heaven or swifted through ether and sky. For their life has meaning and purpose and beauty, and they are witnesses to creation, and beyond that, to hope of life eternal. With them, God shares just a little bit of the satisfying gift of formation, though they merely restore what was. They are the glass in the mirror of your reflection.
And your reflection turns and continues on its way. Your way. Go.