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Flight of the Red-Tailed Hawk

MOST mornings that fall, when I was doubtful and uncertain about a lot of things, I could always count on the bright light of the morning sun. It shone upon the downy blanket of fog - created out of the primordial, damp darkness during the autumnal nights - in the river valley below my bedroom window. Across the valley, above the fog, the sun shone upon the rocky face of a mountain ridge. And sometimes, if I was fortunate, I saw it shine upon the effortless hovering of a red-tailed hawk, not above me, but at eye-level, between me and that mountain ridge - a single, silent speck moving in slow motion. Most mornings, it seemed, the sun was shining for me.

It was a beautiful way to wake up, but the effect on me was strange. I felt as though a secret message in code, a performance of abstract dimensions, was being repeated for me until I understood it. The height of the house, the depth of the valley, the pitch of the limestone cliffs across the valley, and the red-tailed hawk hovering in the air all worked to produce in my mind - just stirring from sleep - an illusion of flight. Not of flight, actually, but of being suspended aloft.

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Coming home is never what we expect or want it to be. We are changed, and home is sometimes changed, too. When Odysseus, our first symbolic wanderer in the Western world, returned home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, he found the life he left behind in shambles.

Three summers ago my wife and I returned from living and teaching in China for 18 months. I remember how during the journey home my mood took an odd turn. And by the time we arrived back in the United States I did not want to be back at all; I did not want to visit or speak to anybody. I had imagined warm embraces, but now I spurned them. I found that I wanted to be alone much of the time. There wasn't anything wrong - and not too much had changed - with what I found at home. It was me who had changed.

Looking back, I can see now that I liked the idea of being away, that I was proud to have risked a new job and way of life overseas, and that I wanted my life to continue unencumbered - untainted, even - by the world of convention and conformity here I had dared leave behind. The mood stayed with me and colored everything in my life.

I remember the drive to the airport just before we left. I was very pleased with myself. In the cars whizzing by I saw people stuck in their career tracks, fenced in by lucrative but - it seemed to me then - dissatisfying office jobs. This was how I had begun to see myself.

We interpret the world at the same time the world shapes us. I saw my peers - like myself - imitating their parents, whose routine lives they had only a few years ago disdained. And in my mind's eye, all of the time I was exploring the Orient, that was how they had continued to live - bored and unhappy. While in China, I thought the small and polluted world my friends lived in was something to which I would never have to return. At age 33, I was finally, by virtue of my leaving my native land and career track, a free man.

Soon after we returned to the States, my wife and I moved to a rural area in upstate New York to live for a time with my sister and brother-in-law. My wife and I owned very little at the time, compared to them. At first I felt proud, felt something like purity, amidst the clutter of things they now allowed to engulf them.

Presently, with each passing day as I began to compare our lives to theirs - they had settled themselves on a splendid 40-acre tract of land and in a large house while we'd been away. I began to feel tendrils of their world cling to me. And I began to see what I did not want to see: I saw what I did not have. I saw how convention had rewarded them. I saw how, in a culture that measures success largely by the accumulation of objects and money, I could barely hold onto that joy I felt when I left, and the pride I had when we first returned. Sometimes I had an impulse to leave, to go back to China.

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AT daybreak I was the first one up and I always went to the bedroom window and, and on my knees in an attitude of prayer, gave myself up to the sun and the fog and the mountain and the red-tailed hawks, and I felt contented. But later in the morning as my in-laws hurried and banged about the house and then sped off to work, I writhed more and more, as if tormented by some refrain of insult, with the guilt that I, too, did not have an office to go to. That my wife and I did not have a house. That we could not afford a new car. This was what disturbed me: the guilt, the shame.

I was, I saw later, becoming envious. Though I didn't know it then, I could feel it. In these moments I felt that all I had done and seen during my time away meant nothing, was worth nothing, would lead to nothing. The entire China experience, I was beginning to see through my warped vision of things, did not seem to fit in with anything now. And that was trouble. For, at the time, the experience was all I had.

I took to the woods. That is, with each passing day I found myself seeking quiet times alone in the woods and meadows that surrounded my in-laws' house. I found that the celebratory mood in which I returned - the celebration of my experience, my survival, and my safety - was most poignant and clear to me in the meadows and the woods.

I have long enjoyed the natural world. As a child I played in the woods that surrounded our home, and I remember even pretending to be far away and on my own. As I grew up and lived in cities, I often returned to the woods of northern New England and, later, upstate New York, hiking and camping for days on end and thinking life could offer nothing better.

Now, in the woods again, I began to rediscover the idea of a kind of resignation from mean ambition with which I'd grown up, with which I left the country so happily nearly two years before, and to which I held fast when I'd first returned.

I was not hiding; it was not my intention to retreat to a simpler life or to live alone with my memories.

I had a yearning to somehow explore the impact of what I had been through - was going through - and to accept the fact that I was a much different, more complicated man now than when I had left. In the open spaces and

the solitude it was not simplicity I was looking for. I could easily find the simplicity of unexamined lives everywhere else around me. What I was looking for in my solitude was an affirmation of the wondrous drama and complexity of life.

Outdoors, I seized the break of day and the darkness of night, thunder and lightning, wind, pouring rain - any extremity of nature - as if to acquire from them the same pure and dramatic quality of being.

What I loved most was to watch the red-tailed hawks gliding high over the meadows around me, lofting in the thermals, so full of purpose and grace. They were almost always there, high in the sky, each afternoon as I made my way down the long gravel driveway to the mailbox, hoping for a letter from someone who wanted to hire me.

The hawks seemed to be there for me as if to say: ``Don't fret. You're all right.'' Their acts of flight became my private pleasure, a kind of comforting secret. I felt that message beginning to come through to me. Soon the hawks, which at first seemed little more than an ornament of country living, became all but impossible for me to live without.

IN the long stretches of time I had to myself, between answering newspaper ads and making occasional, fruitless phone calls, I began to read about the red-tailed hawk.

I do not know what first made me do this; it simply seemed to be the right thing to do. I wanted to know all there was to know about them. I believed in my heart that what they were telling me was something I could not ignore.

John Thaxton, in his book, ``Natural Attractions,'' writes that hawks have over the centuries ``appeared continually as powerful symbols, representing everything from brutality to grace to swiftness to solitude to freedom.'' I read in an old National Geographic Society book on birds that the red-tailed hawk is ``strong and graceful on the wing and spends hours in soaring in wide circles, sometimes so high in the air as to be almost out of sight.'' Thaxton writes that ``no other bird hangs motionless in the air....''

Wasn't it odd, I came to wonder, how I was so attracted, apparently unconsciously, to another living thing which ``hangs motionless in the air.'' Odd because that was what I felt like I wanted to do, to hang motionless in the air for a time. Odd because I longed for its grace, its swiftness, its self-sufficiency, its solitude, its freedom. And maybe, too, I longed for its brutality. Not cruelty, but a certain determination - or instinct - to survive. And to me, then, surviving meant defining and holding onto the values of the man I wanted to be.

Autumn deepened and I still had no job - and was drifting further out to sea, far from any clear definition of myself. I spoke less and less with my in-laws. My wife and I argued. I spent a lot of time alone outside and in our room . I could no longer hold onto the idea that my overseas experience was of any importance to anyone here, least of all myself. I felt myself sinking. I began to regret what I had done, the risk I'd taken. I started to think of my time abroad as a waste; I began to diminish the experience in my own mind as an aberration, a defect in my life that I now had to cross out and forget.

But the hawks told me otherwise. I eventually found in them a lasting resolve that would carry me through my prolonged state of shock - and beyond - when I needed it. I'd broken the code and the message became clear. Here's how it happened.

The weather was changeable then. A period of several days - more than a week - had passed and I hadn't seen a hawk. A stretch of bad weather plagued us as the last vestiges of summer gave into autumn. I was feeling terribly low.

But one Saturday afternoon as I was walking to the mailbox, the sun appeared from behind clouds that were being rapidly pulled across the sky. And it shone with scrubbed brilliance. The light ran across the meadow, over the house, up the distant mountain ridge. Large purple shadows then raced across that mountain ridge like some gigantic, moving Rorschach ink blot. In the northern sky, the sheet of steel gray stratus that had been oppressing us was now, together with the last red leaves of the sugar maples and the white colonial-style house far off in the meadow, aglow in the rich, buttery light of the afternoon sun.

It was dazzling and I felt dizzy with wonder and expectation, my mind reeling as though I'd been spun in circles.

Then, as I was walking north back up the gravel drive toward the house - the sun behind me, the breaking storm fleeing up ahead - a hawk flew from the purple loostrife in the nearby meadow, startled perhaps by my footfalls.

I stopped to watch. It flew high, dipped, and rose again on the southerly breeze. Then, in one swift and beautiful move, it sheered north, and the golden sunlight caught the white undersides of its wide wings, revealing to me a singular, angelic beauty. And I knew then that my despair, my sense of futility, was not absolute.

How strange to think of giving up all ambition! Suddenly I see with such clear eyes The white flake of snow That has just fallen in the horse's mane!

I was stunned. And moved. The hawk affirmed for me at last the possibility of exiting for good the fast track and finding a rich and satisfying life in another direction, and with less, as Robert Bly describes in his poem, ``Watering the Horse.''

When lost in the woods you are supposed to relax and stand still until you are able to find your way by aligning yourself with features in the landscape that appear on a map and, at night, with stars. So, too, there are reference points in our lives that together can work to guide us. But often we must be still to find them. As points on a compass that assured me of my place in the world, the sun, the land, and the hawk gave me the resolve and the will I needed to go on.

``Nature,'' Annie Dillard wrote, ``is like one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children: Can you find hidden in the leaves a duck, a house, a boy, a bucket, a zebra, and a boot?''

You have to be willing to look at the thing a long time and at all angles to see what you have to see. I'd been held aloft, in a state of suspended animation, and shown over time what it was I had wanted to see. And in the puzzle of life, I'd found for a moment everything that was there for me to find.

Now I could go on, knowing what I wanted, and forgiving those who live, in my mind, a more conventional existence. Some people find their place in other ways. But for me, risk and the price I pay for it, has its own rewards.

I REMEMBER how, the second afterward, I wanted to share the moment with someone back at the house, but then, entering the door, how I decided that I would not. The hawk's show was for me, an audience of one. None of the others, all standing around the kitchen counter talking about someone's day at the office, could have possibly understood any of it if I had tried to explain. And talking about it would have only diluted the experience for me.

I knew that the accumulation of experiences throughout my life had connected and put me there for me to see what I saw. I'd earned it; the moment was mine, it would not die. And no one and nothing could ever take it away from me.

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