by Carolyn Weber
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Where does the line blur between the moment and the momentous? When does one become the other? When does a moment become anointed?
How does it move from the near unconscious smooth assumption that one undertaking will follow another, to the arresting of time, space, thought, breath?
Trauma, impact, accident, cruelty, misfortune, all such things have this effect.
But wonder does too.
Awe in that old sense of the word. In its original meaning. In the invocation of both fear and amazement, terror and wonder. Such paradox! This taking of the breath by the same hand that gave it to us. How to find words for this force that gives and takes away, whose ways are mysterious, whose peace surpasses all understanding?
I stand stalk still in the kitchen, a bunch of bananas clutched in one hand, a tinselly bag of Goldfish crackers crinkling in the other. Under my arm is tucked a roll of holly-patterned wrapping paper, since I just ran out last night. My knee cuts against the hard edge of a box of diapers, but I do not move.
Only moments before, I had been unloading groceries from the car – but not just any groceries. Christmas groceries. Groceries intended for parties and school events, for a large family dinner and days upon days of baking. Flour and eggs and baking soda and clinking jars of maraschino cherries. A gigantic frozen turkey, pre-stuffed, thank you very much, rolls off my counter with a bang, just missing the few extra boxes of chocolates I picked up on sale, for those last minute gifts.
I have been immersed in my equivalent of hunting and gathering for my family. I stand there sweating along with my floored turkey. The aisles of Costco and Walmart can be just as treacherous as the plains and forests for those armed with a tight budget.
I am a warrior, having braved crowded aisles with four small children in tow. My muscles ache with having pushed a shopping cart brimming over first with restless children, then with groceries piled on top of these children who hop in and out, veer around, and almost continuously topple, the cart.
I would like to see grocery shopping with small children as an Olympic sport. Especially during the added rush of Christmas season, when every parking lot is full, when every aisle is crowded. Beach volleyball, snowboarding, now even luge – these can’t hold a candle to the speed, agility or exertion required of one large person in charge of several smaller ones in a confined space where everything is not only in reach, but one, if not all of the following: breakable, smushable, spillable, expensive, or toxic. Where are the sponsors, I ask you?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Yes, who sponsors this life – this race for a crown that cannot be lost amidst so many ways of losing our worth? In my sweep through my day, of buying and selling (all sort of things), of chasing and yelling, of being busy, distracted, broken and broke, and, to top it all off, sweaty, I suddenly stop, arrested by an all-knowing stare.
Through my kitchen window, directly in front of me, two golden eyes unblinking burn through me. He does not shift his gaze. I am aware of the dare to look back.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
This, this, I do not understand.
A great golden eagle has landed only a few feet from my back door. He is perched atop of the picnic table. Until this point, I have seen an eagle a handful of times in my life: soaring at a removed distance over Seward Park in Seattle; hobbling about a cage in rehab at a sanctuary in Portland, head bowed and feathers scraggly. Perhaps once or twice I have spied one briefly from the car on a cross-country drive, again, at some distance. Impersonal. Unimpressive. Seemingly small.
But this one is personal. Impressive. And big. In its presence, I cannot breathe – none of us can. The children stand transfixed as well. Even the toddler is suddenly hushed. What miracle is this?
I live in an urban neighborhood, albeit near a campus still fringed with forest despite all the recent development. A creek runs in the ravine nearby. Sometimes we get the occasional deer strolling through our backyard; our deck harbors skunks and raccoons, much to the children’s delight but to our treacherous return on many a summer night.
Cardinals and Jays sew their crimson and blue through our trees. We do enjoy the golden burst of finches, and the odd ruby throated hummingbird when the butterfly bushes bend in full bloom. Rabbits love our clover, emerging to nibble boldly when the children are in school or down for naps. Chickadees, squirrels and chipmunks line up in camaraderie at our back feeder.
But we have never, ever been visited by an eagle.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
So often the reality of suffering and brutality, of illness and tragedy, force us to ask all the old questions: “How can a loving God let bad things happen?” and “Where is God?”
And yet the cosmic counterpart murmurs, too, “What if God is there?” And, of course, for all that is bad, but also all that is good – “Why?”
On my best days, on my “how I feel in the church pew” days, the questions shimmer and glimmer; they point me to Him. They welcome me to rest in the mystery. I am at peace with the awesome; I prefer to know that much is unknowable.
But on other days, on my “not so Sabbath” days, at times the questioning hurts. And then, finally, it tires and wearies. I bear the mark of the question. My legs bow beneath it, my back bends. I wonder if others can see it burning on my chest, branded on my head. Sometimes my head asks, sometimes my heart. Sometimes both are unquestioning, or answered. Sometimes both ask at the same time. Questioning can be release, a path forged forward, a complement, a pleasure. It can also be a burden, an uncontrollable reflex, like a tick or a bad habit, an itch that can’t be scratched. And sometimes, simply, a question mark is a boomerang – with a sharp edge.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
If you have ever seen an eagle up close and in its natural habitat, you will know of whence I speak. If you have not, let me tell you: You don’t see an eagle, you experience it. Eagles are called “King of the birds” for a reason. Seeing an eagle is akin to seeing the feathered counterpart to a lion. And looking upon its strength makes one re-evaluate one’s own.
But those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
The oldest questions glint double-edged. For the beautiful, moving and majestic things make us question, too. As William Blake asks so timelessly in his poem The Tyger, “What immortal hand or eye/ dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”
Who dared make this winged creature, whose gaze freezes me to the earth, and suspends the usual commotion of my kitchen with a single turn of his head?
Who dared make a consciousness to comprehend such majesty, to feel it slide into my veins with all the power of adrenalin, to cloak me in goose bumps with the appropriate fit of a long lost and yet perfectly tailored robe?
All the children now press their faces into the glass. For a moment, I underestimate our royal visitor and warn the children not to spook him. The children, however, require no admonition from me. He remains at his perch, undaunted. Their shrieks of excitement quiet into stunned admiration. He stares them down, too. No easy task. The respect he commands is unequivocal, and yet the grace of his presence, relentless.
I feel the blood course in the children’s veins alongside my own, oh this common song of humanity – the Romantic poet Wordsworth called it sad, as a result of coming to know suffering, but it is joyful, too, as a result as well. I see them lift themselves up taller as they assume their robes in this eagle’s, this messenger’s, presence. Curious, my husband walks into the silence. I hear his intake of breath. He says not a word.
We all stand at the window transfixed, clothed in something recoverable now: unable to move, to speak, to breathe, from the holiness of it. In my messy kitchen, time morphs into a shining bridge, freed of our downtrodden sense of it.
Until … artfully, patiently … the eagle begins to arch its back for flight … my husband reaches slowly for his phone, a very human impulse to catch what we cannot hold.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
They will run and not grow weary,
They will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)
The eagle stretches its wings wide with the loving terror of an angel. Then in one great pulse he flies toward the window, sweeping up at the last minute up and over our heads. We all gasp and sway together, as though seated at a 3D movie. My husband races out the back door, hoping to film him cresting the roof, but although we can hear the rush of his wings, he is gone, and we are left in the wake of amazement.
God is such a show off.
I set down the bag of little fish, the packaging crackling into our silence. The children still point to where he was. Was he there? Could he have just been there? That empty space now, our old picnic table, could it possibly bear witness to such a sight? A spot so humdrum in the midst of a backyard strewn with dead leaves, a wasteland caught between summer’s former glory and as of yet unfallen Christmas snow?
Could anything of such import come from such Nazareths?
I turn and trip over the box of diapers.
Although at times I may stumble and fall, although I may be weary and weak, I am renewed. We are all renewed: I feel the promise of resurrection like an electric volt still travelling, and everlastingly settling, within the room.
Hope gives wings by seeing things anew. I remember this as I wrap gifts later, the act of unwrapping as much part of the gift as the giving itself.
The eagle indeed has landed among us, and the experience of awe reminds us how to fly.
Carolyn Weber is the author of two award-winning books, Holy is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present and Surprised by Oxford: a memoir. She is a professor and a busy mother. She wrote “We are a People of Place: Coming Home as a Follower of Christ” for Faith Today.
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