As the year draws to a close, I'm finding pleasure in revisiting and, in some cases revising, some of my writing (poetry, essays) from many years back. I wrote the following piece--"Rare Sightings"--in the early winter of 2002. With a few minor tweaks, I offer it here.
by Eva Yaa Asantewaa (2002)
This past autumn, two immature male Stellula calliope hummingbirds began their migration across the Rocky Mountains, heading for their wintering grounds in Mexico. They never made it.
A storm blew them way off course and, in November, these two minuscule but dynamic featherballs ended up in New York City’s Fort Tryon Park. Basking in our unseasonally warm weather, they fed upon purple-blossomed Salvia, chased bees, and squabbled with each other over territory, offering the first sighting of calliope hummers in New York State.
Birders from all over the metro area flocked to the park to spy and photograph these scrappy little guys. Members of New York City Audobon provided feeders to help them survive, for surely, while mild temperatures had soothed our city through some of the worst days of its history, we would soon face winter’s sharper mood. Blossoms would fall and, with them, hummingbirds would die.
Weeks passed; reports of hummingbird activity continued deep into December. These charming stocking-stuffers drew widespread attention in the media and on the Internet, sparking heated controversy among birders and naturalists over whether they should be fed and encouraged to stay in the region. Bird trappers were consulted; trapping and resettlement spoken for and against. Feeders were hung, mysteriously “disappeared,” and dutifully replaced. In any case, the birds seemed uninterested in the proffered food since they could still get pretty good Salvia blossoms.
The two hummers were last reported seen on December 27. Although I never went looking for them, I keep them as my symbol of something rare discovered since September 11–the tenderness of our wounded city.
I’m trying to hold onto memories of what I witnessed in those very delicate moments beyond the initial shock of trauma. Open, softened, vulnerable faces full of true, unguarded feeling. A betwixt/between state known by mystics and witches as the place of all possibilities, of transformation. A place as small as a hummingbird and as packed with life. Rare sightings.
I know it sounds crazy, but I actually felt much safer in New York in those days. I allowed myself to believe that we might change our lives and our world, might replace audacious towers with unfettered minds and hearts as capacious as the sky, might awaken at last and keenly feel our kinship with all people, all beings, and with our gracious, suffering Earth. In “What I Believe,” Albert Einstein wrote that our human tendency to think of ourselves as separate from everyone and everything else was “a kind of optical delusion...a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.” He urged us to expand “our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
How ephemeral, how endangered were those moments. Soon, something else awoke, sucked energy into itself, and took shape. Flags and flag merchandise sprouted all over our streets–sold by struggling immigrants from Africa and Haiti--and New Yorkers wrapped flag logos wrapped around their heads and chests like bandages.
In due time, this uprising spread to the upper echelons: Sunday Times ads for tony midtown boutiques offered evening bags encrusted in red, white, and blue rhinestones, and Old Glory’s stars and stripes sculpted into fine crystal.
We’d claimed an identity, a self-definition, a belief to lift us out of uncertainty. A good, strong wall that would not crumble. Cloths to cover mirrors in the house of the dead. Masks to conceal the pain, the questions on our faces, and the ravages of our sleepless nights.
How reassuring it must have felt to suddenly feel so sure.
On September 28, I was scheduled to teach a long-planned visualization and self-care workshop for staff members from various agencies that our city’s wounded and often-shunned souls–the homeless, people with AIDS or mental disabilities, and survivors of sexual abuse and rape. In light of the attack on the World Trade Center, I reworked my plans.
We asked: What is the role of the healer, the helper, the caregiver now in the wake of terror? Participants spoke of their struggle to maintain competence and compassion as they coped with feelings of confusion, fear, helplessness, and anger.
New Yorkers had been asked to stay on high alert yet, somehow, go back to “normal.” In the safe space of our workshop, we decided that “alive” and “honest” and “changing” were more important that “normal.”
Taking crayons, colored pencils, and markers, each participant drew a “Mask of the Transitioning Self”–not an actor’s illusion but a shamanic container for the shifting, miraculous energy of growth and Spirit; not something deceptive and unreal but something as real as it gets. I also gave each a blank sheet of paper to take home and hold in readiness for rare sightings of the “Mask of the Future Self,” the new selves that would emerge with the passage of time.
We ended the workshop by telling the story of our masks, then placed them, along with our blank sheets, in the center of the room. We blessed the masks and empty pages, blessed one another and, after many hugs, returned to the streets of our city.
I can see those blank sheets now beginning to fill with new words and colors, faces alive with change, and hummingbirds making their way to purple blossoms in warmer climes.
Here’s how a miracle works: Not knowing what to do with this work-in-progress--this essay about changing that has bedeviled me with all the changes it has undergone--I set out three rows of five Tarot cards to help me find my way. The layout was nice–its message, in a nutshell, was “Don’t worry.” That didn’t really ease my mind. But when I reshuffled the deck before storing it in its sack, I caught a glimpse of the top card–the Three of Coins.
I own over twenty divination decks [update: now over eighty], and I’ve had this one--the Alchemical Tarot deck by artist Robert M. Place--for years, but I don’t believe I’d ever seen this card in any of the many readings I’ve done with it. How is that possible? Maybe I did see it but quickly and not so clearly.
Tarot’s coins–more commonly called pentacles--symbolize earthly, material things and concerns. The number three represents physical manifestation. The Three of Coins suggests something being given shape and form. Place’s Three of Coins shows a man seated at a desk, holding a quill pen. At first I thought he was writing, but then I saw it. He’s drawing the outline of a face.
©2002-2014, Eva Yaa Asantewaa