The Albatross And The Vulture

Albatross

What’s it like to float upon misty air?

Way up there upon winds of turbulence,

where your wings tame them, 

as a cowboy does the wild Stallion.

–Dara Reidyr from “On Flying

Four hours ago, I was finishing my iced coffee at the Java Cafe in the Outlet Mall.  Even with the AC, the plastic cup was dripping on the article in the local Fort Myers newspaper.  I was totally absorbed in a breaking story about an 18-year old guy who was arrested for roughing up his girl friend because she refused to go out and buy him some “clean” urine.  He was on probation and he apparently needed to pass a random drug test.  The water drops from my coffee obliterated some of the story, but not the part where he pushed her head and then threw bananas and a metal comb at her.  More wet newsprint.  Then the story ended with his breaking down in the kitchen, crying, and grabbing a carving knife, threatened to kill himself.  It seems that a friend captured the whole thing on a cell phone.

It’s good to have friends.

Now, I was in the pool at the RV Resort where we are staying.  I was leaning back with my head against the rim.  I was intent on getting some exercise one way or another, and since its way too hot to go bicycling, the decision to go to the pool wasn’t hard.  I was doing a peddling motion with my legs and practicing the scissors kick.  Nearby, at the shallow end, there were a dozen seniors doing water exercises.  A woman’s voice was telling them what to do.

“Now, turn around and lift your left leg–that’s right, just like that.”

“Okay, now run in place–do the best you can.”

I looked at each person in the group trying to identify the speaker with the tiny headset microphone.  I couldn’t find her.  She seemed to be joking with someone in the group.  I looked again and still couldn’t find her.  Then I spotted a cable from an outlet.  It led to a small boom-box that was placed on a pool chair.  Everyone was listening to a tape.  But, how could she banter with the group?

I was puzzling over this when I looked directly across the water and noticed that a man was staring at me.  He had on sunglasses, so I couldn’t be sure it was me he was watching.  He looked exactly like Colonel Sanders, the founder of KFC.  Same hat.  Same white goatee.  I would have bet my last fiver that it was the Colonel himself.  I didn’t place any bet– there was no one to place it with and besides I remember that Colonel Harland D. Sanders died of leukemia in 1980.

The clouds were slowly thickening.  The forecast called for late afternoon showers.

I looked up.  There, in the pale blue of the sky was a soaring bird.  I looked at its wings.  It wasn’t an eagle–it was a turkey vulture.   Both are built for soaring.  Both are symbols–metaphors to us.  So is the Albatross.TurkeyVulture

I looked over at the seniors who were busy treading water and then back to the turkey vulture, making slow circles above my head.

You do not want to know what goes through my head at times like these.

I’ve always found the Albatross very interesting and enigmatic.  I’ve never seen one in the wild but from photos, they have an outstanding appearance.  But, the poor bird is cursed by being a symbol of  “a burden”.

“Oh, he has to carry that Albatross around his neck–too bad for him”.

We have Samuel Taylor Coleridge to thank for that.  One of my favorite poems is “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.  In case you don’t remember your 10th grade English class, a sailor shoots an arrow into the sky and kills an Albatross.  This brings really bad luck to him and his crew.  He is condemned to carrying the dead bird around his neck while the voyage of his ship wanders the seas.

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He is the ancient mariner who stoppeth one of three…

Sometimes, I feel like I am like the pitiful sailor–condemned forever to carry the wrongs and sins of my youth around my neck.  It can depress a recovered good Catholic altar boy like me.

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However, there are many times in my life that I’ve felt more like the Albatross and not the archer/sailor who killed without thinking.  These great birds (some with a wing span of twelve feet) are designed to soar–to ride the thermals–for unbelievable lengths of time.  Some say that these birds can go weeks (or longer) without landing.  They eat by swooping and catching the unfortunate fish who came too close to the surface.  They don’t need much food because they don’t expend much energy.  Their wings are engineered by nature to lock in place.  When you watch a skein of migrating geese, they flap their way from horizon to horizon.  The Albatross hardly ever uses its wings, except to stay aloft.

It has also been said that they only land to rest briefly, on a calm portion of ocean.  And, more importantly, they need to alight on a solid surface to find a mate and procreate.  The Albatross generally mates for life.

But, to soar above it all–only coming to the ground when necessary–seems like an amazing way to spend a life.  I feel the need to wander, sometimes far from home (like Florida), but I’m held by gravity to the surface of the earth.  Yes, I can take American Airlines to Puerto Rico, if I choose, but you get my point.

To soar above the aches and pains and heartbreak of life–to dream with your eyes open–of faraway lands and people who fill this world.  To soar and day-dream about the minute life below me and the sky, so blue and intense, above me, is enviable.  I would make an extra circle high above that red-haired woman who is crying on the empty beach.  I would make two extra circles around the Eiffel Tower and hear the cries of the Parisians.  I would soar above the lonely man, broken by war, meandering a boardwalk and thinking of ending his life.

But, I would make sure that I soared low enough so that the dim eyes of an old person could see me.  I would soar slow enough so the children, playing in the fields, would stop and point at me.

All this I would do, If I had the wings of an Albatross.  I wonder if that is what death is like–we can soar around the heads of the loved ones left behind?

All this I would do, even knowing that I would never be totally unencumbered and without the dreams that live in the living.

Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?

–Bob Dylan

[Images: Google search]

Passports 14: The Sad Life & Lonely Death of Kitty Gray

The Tors and heathland of Dartmoor is a landscape that breeds legends.  Legends, myths, mysteries and ghosts.

The guidebooks tell you not to go out onto the moors when the weather is foul.  When the fog descends, as it often does, and when the misty rain falls on the gorse, and on the matted shag of the unshorn sheep that graze the Tors, shapes can appear to move where rock piles sit.  In the sunlight, the Tors are rocky pointed hills.  In the fog, they are feral wolves and wild beasts.

This is the world at Hound Tor.  The rocks, from nearly any angle, can resemble the most hellish shapes.  It is little wonder that Arthur Conan Doyle found his dark inspiration here for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

But it’s not these rocks and shifting shapes that is the story I will tell you.

No, this is a brief narrative of a lonely place beside the road.  A tale told a thousand times, in a thousand places about thousands of men and the unfortunate women who believe false promises in exchange for their virtue.

Mary Gray was born somewhere in Devonshire in the late 18th century.  She was born into poverty and, because of the status of women in those days, she was destined to die in poverty.  (This is still true today–some things never change.)  She was sent, as a young teenager to work as a domestic on one of the farms near Hound Tor.  She washed the floors and cooked the food for the farmer, his wife and son.  She also was pretty enough to catch the lustful eye of the son.  They met–behind the stone barn, behind the hedges and in the woods.  One place they did not meet was in the open sunlight sky and where others could see affection.

Mary gradually lost her real given name and became known as Kitty.  Perhaps a snide reference to “loose morals”.  The son promised her an honest life–if she would give herself to him when he felt the urge.

She gave herself to him.  He lied to her.

She became pregnant and the farmer, fearing the shame, had her put out.  The son turned his back on her.  He had gotten what he wanted from her.  Kitty was labelled a slut.

Knowing she could never find work in the region again–not as a ‘soiled dove’, she made a decision.  A final decision.  A terrible decision.

Kitty Gray hanged herself.  Her child died soon after.

The local deacons of the church refused to bury her in consecrated ground.  She was Eve.  She tempted the farmer’s son.  She sinned with gravity.

She was buried, at night, in the fog, at the cross-roads.

There she lay, in a lonely and forgotten grave by a lonely forgotten lane.

Decades later, a couple of farm workers were digging in the area.  A small white object–thin–then another.  A doctor was called and identified the remains as that of a young woman and child.  The old folks of the tiny village recalled the story of Kitty Gray.  A man, an honest man with a kind heart had her bones placed in a box and reburied in her grave.  This time with a small stone to mark Kitty’s last rest.

Stories soon began to be told about strange occurrences at the grave site.  Fresh flowers were always seen near the headstone, but no one ever saw anyone put them there.

And, at night, some say they have glimpsed a hooded figure bent over the grave–as if in prayer.

Who places the flowers?  Who is the hooded figure?  Some say it’s the spirit of the farmer’s son who is cursed to keep vigil over the woman he betrayed.  Or, is it Kitty, praying for her own soul and the soul of her unbaptized child?

If you were at the grave site six days ago, you would have seen someone place a wildflower on the stone.

It was me.

I looked around.  I saw Hound Tor behind me.  The moors around me.  A light mist began to fall–but blue patches of sky peeked through the cloud cover.

It didn’t take much of an imagination to picture the grave on a day of lead-colored skies, soaking rain, chilling winds and fog.

Or, when the full moon lit the nearby fields with the magic and mysterious light that only the Goddess Luna can provide and a breeze rustles through the gorse and hedges, anyone who holds their breath, will surely hear the soft cry of a young woman named Kitty.

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Passports 9: Guests and Ghosts in an English Hotel

We chose to be guests at the George & Pilgrim Hotel in Glastonbury, England.  What we did not choose was that a few other guests were quite dead.  Yes, there were a fair number of living travelers that night but occupying the same space and the same time, were the resident ghosts.

What else would you expect from a hotel that was many centuries old?  A hotel that was probably once a wayside inn for pilgrims, wanderers, holy men and holy women.

Thirty years ago, I lived in England for a year as an exchange teacher.  On my frequent weekend wanderings, I tried to see as many interesting places that were within a reasonable drive from my temporary home in south Dorset.  Glastonbury was an obvious choice.  It was a short drive and it had a long and storied history.  Here was Glastonbury Abbey.  I first laid eyes on the Abbey when I would leaf through the Britain volume of Stoddard’s “Lectures,” a now out-of-print series of books written by John L. Stoddard, a traveler/lecturer, that was published in 1897.  The photographs of the Abbey captured my imagination like few other things did when I was a young teen (except girls).  I knew then, in 1961, that I simply had to see this Abbey.  There was something about the stark remnants of this once beautiful church that spoke to me.  It spoke to me and called my name and told me that I had to come and see these stones for myself.  I had to put my hands on the polished limestone, already rubbed smooth by reverent hands centuries ago.  I had to sit on the stone seat along the wall of the nave, and rest my back against the wall…like many a weary monk.

So, there I was, in 1984, paying a few pounds to visit the grounds of the Abbey.  There, were the stone walls…just like I had seen in the books.  As I rounded the corner of what once was the front entrance, I came upon a scene that had slipped my mind somehow.  There in the nave (now a grassy lawn) was the site of King Arthur’s Tomb…and that of his great love, Guinevere.  The bones were discovered by a monk centuries ago and removed to another site.  Since then, the cross and bones have disappeared.  History does not tell us much about Arthur, but here, at my feet, was the traditional resting place of his mortal remains.

This all hinges on whether or not one believes he is really dead.

Which brings us to another important site in Glastonbury…the Tor.  Long revered as a pilgrim’s destination, it is also thought by some to be where Arthur and Guinevere are asleep…inside the Tor…with his warriors.  Legends say that when England is in peril, Arthur will return and lead his warriors and knights to save the country.

It’s all pretty heady stuff if you’re into Arthurian Legends and mystic folklore.  What I have just written is just a tiny fraction of why Glastonbury is vital to a vast spectrum of spiritual people.

I climbed the Tor at night, alone, in 1984 and sat, waiting for an appearance of a guardian or spirit guide.  Instead, I watched the moon bathe Somerset in a soft glow of pale light that would have put me into a trance…had I not decided to head back into town before the last call at the pub in the George & Pilgrim hotel, where I was staying.

At the bar, I picked up a leaflet issued by the Town Council tourist agency.  It mentioned the hotel.  It also said that “maybe you’ll find yourself in Room 1, the ‘Monk’s Cell’, said to be haunted by a monk who hanged himself several hundred years ago.”  I read it with amusement…how interesting, I thought…then I realized that several hours ago I had put my overnight bag…into Room 1.  I was sleeping that night in the Monk’s Cell.

I spent some of the night half hoping I would be allowed to talk things over with the long-dead monk, and half not wanting to see the spirit of a suicide.  The life of someone who takes their own life must, by definition, be unbearably painful.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what such a soul would look like 600 years after death.  I watched the dark corners of the room for shadows that moved.  I took in deep breaths hoping to catch a whisper of incense.  Nothing.

I also spent some of the night asleep.  So if he was at my bedside, I snored my way through his visit.  This made me feel bad in a way, after all, I wasn’t awake to help him find the peace he may be seeking.

Which brings us to last Thursday night.  My wife and I did not have Room 1, we were given Room 10.  Another floor and around the corner from my monk.  In the course of talking with the young woman at the registration desk as well as the bartender, I discovered that the hotel was allegedly haunted by several cats, a dog or two, a child, a man and a woman…and, of course, the monk.  The woman who registered us said she was in Room 1 cleaning when a screw was thrown at her.  She had no explanation.  The cook said she saw the form of a short person along the wall of another room.  She was later told that a child haunted that room.  It’s only at night, she said, was she fearful of some of the shadowy corners and dark hallways.

Before my wife and I went downstairs to have dinner, I stopped on the first floor and looked at the door of the Monk’s Cell.  The room I occupied thirty years ago.  I turned around and saw that the room just across the narrow hall was called the Nun’s Cell.  Monk’s Cell…Nun’s Cell???  It got me thinking, if you catch my drift.

Alas, we did not see an apparition during our one night stay.  I am of many minds about ghosts.  I want to believe, I really do.  But something, the rational side of me, thinks that if there is indeed life after death (I have so many doubts about so many things as I grow older), the souls would probably have better things to do, or more spiritual existences to occupy them.

But, I do love a good ghost story.  I hope someday to write and publish a great ghost story, one that has all the elements a tale of the dead should have.

I do know one thing for sure.  It has been said that one should write about what one knows.

That’s why I want to meet a ghost and have some quality time with him or her.

I want to meet a ghost someday…or, better yet…some night.

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The George & Pilgrim Hotel.

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The stairway from the second floor.

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The hallway with the Monk’s Cell on the left.

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Room 1–The Monk’s Cell

 

Killing Me Softly With His Song

[WARNING: IF SAD SONGS MAKE YOU SADDER, THEN STOP READING NOW!]

Before you shake your painted fingertips at me and call me “Mr. Doom and Gloom” (a girl-friend once did that), I’ll save you some time and energy.  I have a great deal of Irish blood in my veins, I’m Black Irish and raised as a 1950s Catholic.  I carry around my fair share of sin and guilt.  After all, I’m the one who was told (as a young teenager) that I would burn in hell for all eternity because I French Kissed my girlfriend.  Yes, I was told that in the Confessional.  I’m not even sure I ever got over being told that by the priest who grabbed me from my bicycle and asked me when I had my last confession.

Consequently, I’m a card-carrying melancholy soul.  But, we all are, when you think about it.  Isn’t 50% of great drama, Tragedy?  Of course it is.  It’s what gives life it’s true meaning…destiny, redemption, forgiveness, memory and the love of life itself.

That said, this post is getting many things off my chest.  So, read on…

Our pop culture is rife with teen angst songs like “Tell Laura I Love Her” and “Teen Angel”.  We loved them in our youth even though they were quite tragic in nature.  There are, however, three songs (at least ones that I can recall) that have developed an aura of sadness, loss and heart-break and even suicide, around them.

These songs are “Gloomy Sunday” the classic 1930s hit by Billie Holliday, “Long, Long Time”, made famous by Linda Ronstadt and “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, a major score for Bonnie Tyler.

These songs have been connected, by rumor I must add, to suicides.  The story is familiar: a body is found in a boarding room or a cheap motel and the song is playing on the tape player…or the lyrics are scratched onto a paper held in the hand of the deceased.

Consider the Hungarian Suicide Song: “Gloomy Sunday”.  Composed by the Hungarian, Rezso Seress who ironically committed suicide in 1968.  There is no question that the song is dark, very dark:

          “Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless

Dearest, the shadows I live with are numberless

Little white flowers will never awaken you

Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you”

And further:

          “My heart and I have decided to end it all

Soon there’ll be candles and prayers that are said I know

But let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go.”

Now this is stuff that anyone who thinks it’s worth dying for another will chew up and swallow like a clam chowder.  The real kicker is that the last verse tells us that the narrator has only been dreaming…that her heart is only talking.

Let’s move on.  Bonnie Tyler had a huge hit with “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. I can’t think (sorry Tyler fans) of a bigger single in her opus.  But here she sings a similar sentiment:

“Together we can take it to the end of the line

Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time

I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark

We’re living in a poster keg and giving off sparks

I really need you tonight

Forever’s gonna start tonight

Forever’s gonna start tonight.”

Sound familiar?

Which bring us to the last of the cycle of doom songs.  The sweet, pure voice of Linda Ronstadt sings in a plaintive voice:

‘Cause I’ve done everything I know

To try and make you mine

And I think I’m gonna love you

For a long, long time.

Here we go with the long, long time theme again…eternity (I’ll meet them all there because I French Kissed my girlfriend about forty-five years ago, remember).

There are some lyrics to contemplate, just don’t go your Kenmore Range and stick your head inside.

So, what are we to make of all this?  Here are my thoughts:

Suicide is one of the most tragic acts one can foster on one’s family and lovers.  The pain it causes never ceases and the hearts that are left behind, broken, make the suicides’ heart ache mundane by comparison.  I’m not saying that the act is easy to explain.  Indeed, it’s a complex issue that minds greater than mine have struggled to explain.  [Take note: I am totally avoiding any  involvement in the physician assisted deaths that are being debated in the courts as I write. RIP Dr. Kevorkian!]

I know something of what I write about. Once I thought of ending my life. I checked PVC tubing and how secure the garage door was.  I had a tablet at the ready for the note.  But, that is as far as I got.  I really believed that the pain in my heart would never end…but it did. Things got better. They really did, on levels that baffle me to this day.

Everyone who has a heart, a brain and who thinks and who loves will enter the dark valley in their lifetime.  If you are lucky enough to never have been there, then bless you!

I won’t end with a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ reference…that’s a death metaphor.  But climbing up to the sunlit, heather covered meadows, lying down among the wildflowers and watching the clouds morph is its own reward.  Yes, the clouds will darken the sun sometimes and those stunning cumulus clouds can cast shadows across the flower bed, but someone, somewhere is waiting for you.

Roll over, they may be lying beside you.

Now is the time to kiss them.

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