of birthdays and ravens

My fifty third birthday is next month. As a middle aged woman, I’m supposed to regret my age; to lament my gray hair and wrinkles. I’m supposed to say I’m 29, and wink at you. But I don’t want to be twenty nine. About a month after my 29th birthday one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. He was also 29. It was March 15th, the Ides of March. Beware the Ides of March, especially when you are twenty nine, which is the year that Saturn returns to the house it was in when you were born. Both of these milestones are about danger, falling down, rebirth or death. You survive or you change.

That morning we had shared a cup of tea, and enjoyed the warm morning sun, rare in Alaska at that time of year. We sat outside. He irritated me by throwing his tea bag down on the grassy lawn. I made him pick it up. He pointed at Mount Jumbo, and asked if I’d like to climb it that day. I was too busy, but made him promise to stop climbing when he got to the snow; he didn’t have the right gear for the slippery stuff. We hugged goodbye, and that was that. I never saw him again. Big sun that day, big moon that evening, stunningly beautiful. He couldn’t resist the pull of the summit. Up is easy. Down can be deadly.

He fell. I fell too in a way, introduced to tragedy, crushed to the ground by sudden unfathomable loss. It felt to me as if the forest and the dirt were cradling me, during the search to find him, which took 2 days. There were a hundred of us out there, calling his name, literally looking high and low. And there were ravens. Ravens have a reputation in Alaska, which is very different than anything from Poe or horror movies. They are the most brilliant of birds. In Southeast Alaska native culture they are creators, bringers of life and light, lusty, tricksters. Ravens guide hunters to game. They signal by “dumping their pack”, which is an aerobatic feat; a flip upside down in flight, grabbing your attention. You have to follow. The searchers up high saw ravens, felt drawn by the ravens. When they found him, there were ravens all around, but his body was not disturbed. Some say ravens assemble and grieve for their fallen. I like to think that they gathered around him to lament his loss and ease his passage. For days, weeks, months after, I felt like the ravens were following me. It was probably magical thinking. They are everywhere in Alaska. But they were a comfort, they made me less alone. In some mythologies ravens help the soul return to support mourners or right wrongs that were done during life. I would ask them, “Do you know Tony? Are you Tony?”.

So many times, when I’ve needed help or support, they’ve appeared. While doing field work, an unpleasant boss was berating me in front of my coworkers, I silently thought “help, help, help”. When I looked up, 2 ravens were flying toward me and one dropped his pack. Ravens have flown so close by my head that the air, pushed by a wing, slapped my ear. They razzle dazzle my dog, flying within inches of his head to make him jump. They shove French fries under roof shingles. Their mating dance is a fluffed up strut fest. Once when writing a song about my mother and feeling lonely, a raven landed in the tree above me, a very large stick in its beak. It proceeded to hang upside down from a tree branch, still holding the stick, swinging like a trapeze. With a squawk it let go of the tree, dropping crazily, releasing the stick just before hitting the ground, and flying away making glu-gluck noises. Raven voices are mystery, raven language a miracle.

Betsy dreamed that Tony had become a raven. Maybe he always had been one. She wrote the song, but I sang it with her. We sang about the raven and the wisdom, and the loss and the blessings of love and work and play, Raven exhorted us to “just be thankful for today”. When I was 29, my beautiful, free spirited, infinitely silly friend turned into a raven and flew away. He pushed me into an ongoing quest for myself. His fall put my feet on the ground. His death made life more precious, made me love my people better. Raven reminds me not to take myself too seriously; to keep it crazy, even when the world demands sanity and seriosity. Now, living so far from family and friends, in urban surroundings, where ravens are incredibly scarce, I have to draw on the divinity of Raven more than the actuality. I’ve placed myself in a grinding concrete-bound world, where people are much more likely to die from weapon fire or car crashes, than flying from a mountain top. I don’t want to be 29, I want to be present, right now, with all the bumps and bruises, mistakes and regrets and love that I have survived along the way. I fell too in that year, on that day, but I survived and transformed, becoming more of who I am, by the grace of love and with the help of ravens.

3 thoughts on “of birthdays and ravens

  1. I have a secret life with ravens these days. Claire is complicit. We greet the first light each winter morning with “Scout” sitting on the neighbors roof, looking in our window. He’s trained us to leave an offering on the alter each day. For which we get to inspect his purple/blue/black inkiness. And his calls, and hops and ruffled fluffing, eyebrow arcing, broad beak clacking dance with us – and his kin who always see him dive for the morsel and follow from their distant perches to see what he may have missed of the half oatmeal raisin cookie I tossed from the deck.

    Not long after Tony fell, I was looking to his mountain from my same windows. Watching the gulls and ravens wheeling on the stiff winter breezes as they arced and tumbled and turned across the leaden sky. Black and white against a thousand shades of grey.

    Two birds peeled off from the fray as they chased each other, darting and following, flipping, and diving after each other. One was white. The other black. Each alternately disappearing or emerging into view against a constantly changing contrast of snow, rock, sky, cloud, ocean in black and white.

    I first thought one the aggressor and the other the interloper, but soon discovered that the two traded roles, first chasing, then the being chased. Too far away to discern the actual species involved, my best guess at the time was some kind of gull and a raven, based on size and location.

    You know better than most my stubborn refusal of superstitions of any kind in this beautiful tortured world. I won’t say that the dance of the black and white birds had anything to do with Tony. But I did think of him as the two frolicked against the backdrop of the mountain he claimed.

    And I can’t help but imagine certain personality traits in our new friend, “Scout.”

    I first wrote about his on some long lost scrap of college rule that I thought I’d edit someday and send to mike and thirza. Thanks for reminding me.


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