“Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?”

Every time I looked at Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I noticed something new. The detail is incredible. The imagery is gleefully bizarre. It’s utterly bonkers, and I love it. So I couldn’t pass up writing a story in that world when I saw the call for submissions for the Honey & Sulfur anthology.

This one’s a love story. (Then again, aren’t they all?) But it’s a love story set in Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell, which has its own set of unique challenges. Most importantly, you have to watch out for those Birds.

Please enjoy “Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?” in the Honey & Sulfur anthology, available at Amazon.

For inspiration, I stared at the painting even more, zooming in on the details. There’s a magnificent online tour of the triptych, with a haunting ambient soundtrack as you move from scene to scene. There are hundreds of stories hidden in the three panels. Once you get past the most obvious and famous ones, you start to notice the quieter, less salient parts, and when you’re looking with an eye for narrative, they become full of mystery. In the middle of Hell, for example, amidst the demons and torture, there’s a dark courtyard by a garden wall. There’s an open gateway arch in that wall, and through it pours a golden radiance. The pale figures in the courtyard stand just at the edge of the light, afraid, yet drawn to it. What else could such a light be in Hell, but a promise of salvation? And why would sinners cluster in the shadows if not out of fear that they were perhaps unworthy? Clearly this was a Hell that had emotional drama, not just the dull routine of bizarre torments–for on the scale of eternity, any torment becomes a dull routine. Drama in eternal torment required some kind of hope, and the ability to exercise agency on behalf of that hope. That meant that Hell had rules of its own, even if they were only there to prolong the suffering. What were they?

Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear - Courtyard

When writing this story, I had just quit a job that was a sort of Hell for me, and I didn’t have anything to immediately replace it. The best I could hope for was to find just another flavor of Hell. But in between, I took some time to write, to think, to regain my strength. This liminal space between Hells was wonderful, even joyful. But I knew it couldn’t last. Anxiety circled, ready to swoop. It started eating away at that joy. I needed to find a way to hold on to that joy, to insulate and nurture it from the grind of the obligations to which I needed to return. There must be a way to endure what was demanded, while in my heart of hearts living in my hidden sanctuary of joy. There must be a way.

At that point, the story wrote itself.

 

Might As Well Jump

 

 

 

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the mystical Bene Gesserit sisterhood had a litany against fear.

“I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

To the Bene Gesserit, what separated a human from an animal was the ability to withstand and endure terror, suborning it to one’s will. The animal reacted. The human planned.

I’ve always been a planner. I got afraid if I didn’t have a plan. So when people ask why I left my job without another in hand, I tell them “I was about to turn 46, with more years behind than ahead, and my ‘maybe someday’ list was running out of somedays.” When it’s more than a passing conversation, I quote Annie Dillard in The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” They commend me for having the courage to pursue my dreams, which embarrasses me because it had nothing to do with courage, or even dreams. I’m privileged to have resources to get by while I figure things out. My family is in no real danger. All I did was react to my calculus of competing fears.

They weren’t even interesting fears. On one side was the mid-life crisis of a plateaued career, mounting frustration, and a nebulous sense of being trapped. On the other were the worst-case scenarios of starting over. The boredom I knew, versus all the worse ways I could fail. Endurance versus action. I flipped the Bene Gesserit’s script, building up a fear-driven resilience to the daily grind that paid the bills and gave me a respectable job title. I could detach my emotions, do the work, and set my brain on autopilot. “The examined life is not worth living,” I’d joke. Because once examined, I’d have to respond to what I saw. And that meant I’d have to leap off the edge of that plateau, into the unknown.

Jumping was on my mind when my supervisor took me to task for not being enthusiastic and inspiring enough for my team.

In my sophomore year of college, I joined some dorm mates and went skydiving. It was a half day process of getting familiar with the equipment, practicing the sequence of actions that would get me to the ground intact, and drilling on the safety contingencies. That done, we went up in a tiny Cessna. A static line was attached from the plane to our parachutes; they would open automatically when we fell a certain distance, provided we arched our bodies in the way that kept our backs up and bellies down. One by one, we followed the steps we’d practiced.

When my turn came, our instructor called ONE, and I stood in the open door frame in the side of the plane.

TWO. I stepped out between a pair of bars under the wing; one that I could grip in my hands, and the other that supported my feet.

THREE. While holding on to the upper bar, I stepped off the lower, and hung from my hands under the wing.

FOUR. There was no getting back into the plane now, even if the shame of doing so was endurable. The only things I could do were continue to hang there, or do what I’d come to do, and just. let. go.

Confusion. The roar of wind in my ears through my helmet. A jumble of images and no idea which way was up. Then the parachute opened, and it all went quiet. Peaceful. Free. I hung in the sky supported by air, and drifted over green and brown rectangles of land. I saw a barn. A house. A Christmas tree. It was a sublime, singular experience. Only later did it hit me that I’d jumped out of an airplane. It seemed insane. They key was that I hadn’t approached it as a single action. Even at the very end, it was four steps, which I concentrated on executing as well as I could, my mind focused on that specific task and not the entire chain of events that would put me in freefall, 12,000 feet up.

Of course, underneath it all was a huge amount of faith in the entire support system. I had faith in the instructors, the pilot, the equipment handlers, the equipment itself. I had faith in the invulnerability that came with being 19 years old. More than two decades later, I had forgotten that faith, especially in myself. As my responsibilities expanded beyond myself, so did my caution. I allowed my roles to define me, and as they did, my life became less about me and more about my obligations. That’s even considered virtuous to some. They call it a work ethic. I suspect that’s what a mid-life crisis is: after years of paying dues and being responsible, the sidelined self roars back into focus, demanding satisfaction. It wants, selfishly, unapologetically. In my case, it wanted, once again, to jump.

ONE. I told my supervisor that if my attitude was such a concern, but there was nothing to do about what caused that attitude, I really had to think about why I was here.

TWO. I asked my wife how concerned she’d be if I outright quit. This week. Tomorrow. She had once quit in frustration. She said we could make it work.

THREE. I backed up and cleared away everything personal on my laptop and desk, and took a final inventory of what I’d be leaving behind. Surprisingly little, all told.

FOUR. I looked forward to the follow-up meeting with my supervisor. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had power. I was no longer beholden, no longer obligated. A feeling of magnanimity swelled up in me. I didn’t need to vent my grievances, I simply thanked him for his candor and give my two weeks notice.

I was light, free, floating and smiling all those two weeks. My relationship to people and objects in and around the office had shifted. I moved among them, but untethered. All the weight was lifted. Ironically, I could focus better, and the magnanimous attitude buoyed me through the remaining work days. I did ask myself if I could have somehow manufactured this way of being while keeping my job, but it was a passing thought. The feeling of release, of hope for the future, couldn’t be faked. It could only come from facing down my fear, letting go, and tumbling into open air.

CODA. The following week after my last day, my phone buzzed with texts, emails, and instant messages. Several people, including my supervisor, his supervisor, and half my peers, had their jobs terminated. A part of me wished I had held out three days, for a severance package. But the better part was happy to have my instincts validated. It’s better to jump than to be pushed.