I am inside the cloud now, flying blind. I scan the drifting shadows for a sign, a flash of earth or sky, something that will tell me where I am. The altimeter mounted on my reserve parachute reads 3,500 feet. I tap the glass a few times to make sure the needle isn't stuck. I look over at the red handle of my rip cord. "Not yet," I tell myself. "Trust your instruments." Just as my fingers fold around the cold metal grip, the ground smashes through the cloud, huge, brown, hard. Panicking, I fight the impulse to pull, knowing that this is the ground-rush effect, not the real thing; knowing too that I will end up landing in the trees if I open my parachute too high.
At 2,200 feet, I give a sharp yank and feel the pins slide out, the snap of my pack as it opens up. Arching back, I watch the small white pilot chute pop free over my head and catch the air. Attached to it, the red-white-and-blue sleeve of my parachute comes snaking out until it stands straight up like a candle. The weight of my falling body pulls the parachute out of the sleeve. It flowers slowly, uncupping delicately against the sky.
Although this particular moment happened more than thirty years ago, it remains, quite simply, the story of my life.
* * *
"What the hell are you doing, Anne Batterson?" I whisper as I begin stowing the last batch of groceries into the back of the camper. The question makes me laugh out loud. And then it makes me scared.
What is it that makes me bolt out the door the way I do, take such hefty risks with my second marriage, my teaching job at the university, my delicately balanced relationship with David's parishioners, my own sanity?
The perennial ring of these questions catches me off guard. I stand in the middle of the driveway, a bottle of olive oil in my hand, shaking my head slowly but also grinning. I know it is the September light that makes me do these things, but I just can't go around saying that to people.
I have always known a wild bird lives inside of me. Have felt it gazing quietly through my eyes, tipping my head back to read the slender twists of mares' tails, the mapping of the stars. And too, there are dreams that are not my own. Dreams of homing, of soaring high above the earth, silent as a glider, following the ancient bearings my body knows. When the weather turns in August, the creature frets and frets until it makes me feel edgy, deprived, skewed somehow -- by the tilting of the light.
I used to fly airplanes for a living. Other things as well: parachutes, soaring planes, antique biplanes upside down. This helped. In more recent years I have flown off to Nepal most Octobers, to guide treks high up into the mountains where the light blinds the mind. Extreme measures, I know, just for a little light, a little momentum. But of course, there was more propelling these migrations. Rapture, for one thing. Fear, for another. The trick was to keep the cycle moving. The light, the shadow. The light.
Two things my father used to say about me turned out to be true. The first was that I was destined to marry an itinerant trombone player. I did that the first time around. Did I ever. That guy could orchestrate anything, from the story of his life to the music of the spheres.
The second thing my father liked to say was that when I really fell in love, I would "go down like a tent." I never knew what that meant until I met David nine years ago, when I was forty-six. It happened the first time I looked into those prismatic blue eyes. Ploof. In fact, I still fold up inside when I see him through the door of his office at home, feet propped up on his desk, phone curled into his shoulder. He always brightens when he sees me, dandles his head as if whoeveritis will never stop talking, so that I cannot resist going to him to touch his shoulders through his cotton shirt and kiss him softly in the hollow of his free temple.
I accepted these events foretold along with the birth of two daughters as strokes of the cycle, like day and night -- although at times they felt more like life and death.
But somewhere in the past couple of years, I started losing momentum. This happened gradually -- after the last of our parents died, and the children's bedrooms became clean and still except for the gauzy curtains, lifting and falling in the long afternoons like huge silent lungs. David and I began to face off at each other every time we tried to talk about the future. Retirement, he would try out over the dinner table, Montana. Photography. More time. Enough time. Fifteen years if I'm lucky, he would say with a sigh.
What I heard was: Hurry. Hurry. There's no time. It's almost over.
I couldn't do it, that conversation. The language was all wrong, and I had no words to offer. Up until then, I had lived my life as if it were a never-ending series of intriguing chapters, each one more compelling than the last. My eyes were invariably on the one ahead, and the next, so much so that I was absurdly unprepared for the chapter David wanted me to contemplate. Maybe nothing could have prepared me for that singular moment when the rest of my life unfurled before me in one seamless piece, like a winding sheet.
After that, my universe tightened up like a fist, very slowly. So slowly I could not name my losses until they were long gone: the trail that once cut up the ridge behind our house, the exact weight of a child on my hip, calling my mother on the kitchen phone to chat while I washed lettuce and chopped up vegetables for dinner.
The harder David struggled to find his way into the future, the more I recoiled from it. I began to back away from him too, and from my grown children, because loving was becoming too painful, because it made me want to grasp on to things that can't be held. My withdrawal was a form of dying, really. Willful. Private. Just a little bit every day; just enough to get the hang of it; not enough for anyone to speak up about, especially me.
As far as the rest of the world knew, I was leading an enviable and adventurous life. My bio was a good read, filled with strong words, except that for me, their energy, their sweet force, had leached out.
If I had to pick one incident to illustrate the state of my spirits, I would choose something that happened a couple of months ago during an early summer trek I was guiding in the newly opened kingdom of Mustang in Nepal -- a trip I had been dreaming about doing for thirteen years.
We had climbed up the Tey Khola River bed to visit Ludi Gompa, an ancient monastery, nearly hidden in one of the many caves that pock the cliff walls of a high, uninhabited valley. It was an astonishing place, as wild and strange as any on earth.
I was feeling restless and removed as I explored the dark shrine rooms, even though I was chancing upon incredible treasures: deities draped in tiger skins, stomping on demons and copulating with their consorts; Buddhas and bodhisattvas waiting quietly in the darkness until the last sentient being passes into Nirvana. What is the matter with me? I wondered as I moved from room to room like a sleepwalker.
I had hoped that returning to Nepal would recharge me. But it wasn't happening, even at Ludi Gompa. At one point, I crawled up through an opening into what was left of a room with a spectacular view of the valley. A meditation room probably. Once inside, I seated myself cross-legged on the floor, just as others had been doing for thousands of years. I tried to focus my mind, but it just skipped along the surface of the moment like a flat stone on water. Down below I saw David on the steep path, his head hidden by a large black hood. He was shooting pictures of the monastery with a large-format camera. I understood then that I was going through Nepal just like that camera: recording what was there without responding to it, without feeling it.
Shame and loss scuttled through my body. In my mind I saw a line of dark-haired women winding their way down the mountain path below me. Identical forms, moving in single file: hair swinging with each step, day packs thudding softly. They pivoted slowly at each switchback, one by one, their trekking skirts flaring slightly. All those women, all those selves, leaving me. The daughter, the wanderer, the aviator. The stepmother, the divorcée, the single mother. The English teacher, the lover, the adventurer. I'd driven them all away.
I returned from that trip depleted, not sure I would ever go back to Nepal. David and I drifted erratically into the heart of the summer, lovers one day, adversaries the next. Both roles made us sad. It was David who broke through first. "I've been an Episcopal priest all my adult life," he said one day as if he had just been hit over the head with it. "When you're a priest, you can never stop being one. Not for a moment. People won't let you." And then, without another word, he made an appointment with his bishop to give him a one-year notice.
I could not believe the way this single act quickened his step. All the logs in the jam came loose at once. His cameras leapt from the upstairs closet, and swags of dripping negatives began looping back and forth in the guest bathroom, like Tibetan prayer flags. He started climbing the local ski hill every day to get in shape for a trip to the Tetons. He bought a computer, a box of pastels. His sermons became more vigorous and poetic than ever. And he became infinitely gentle and focused when he was with me, knowing that I was still jammed, knowing that I did not know what I needed to do to get going again. So it was that we fell in love again, for the hundredth time.
But it was not until the end of August, two weeks ago precisely, that my own future opened up again, abruptly, like a stuck door sprung by the heft of a body. This happened during an early morning run on a shore road in Rhode Island. I had been sensing the end of summer as I jogged along: the loaded seedpods gone to amber, the bleached grasses clicking by the roadside, the erotic stench of wild grapes. And the swallows were, as my mother used to say, "ganging up on the wires." As always, this sight stirred shapeless longings. "Every year," I said out loud. "Every year!" The sound of my voice startled me. I looked back up at the birds, squinting hard, trying to decode my feelings. What is it, this feeling I get every August when the birds are getting ready to go? What do I want...so much? What have I lost?
As I ran on by the saltwater marshes, by the high-stepping white egrets, more words and images began to surface: a vivid language of wind and water and slant of sun, of comings and of goings. I realized that the voice I was sensing was the same one that was stirring up the birds. But for me, it was just an echo: loud enough to disturb, yet distant enough to ignore.
I slowed down. All of me, feet, thighs, hips, respirations, the convulsing of my heart. My mind grew very still. Centered up like the needle of a compass.
What I thought was lost forever was now all around me. The spare elegance. The elemental articulation of stone and blood; the forgotten world that this language alone has the power to communicate. "This is the real reality," I said to myself in amazement.
Beyond the marsh and the bright sea, I saw the sky deepen, rolling out its circumference like a fresh chart. Two ropes of Canada geese swung by, their cries pealing through the morning. Why not just go? Like the birds. Try out their reality for a while. See what happens.
I felt the jump start, the purr of adrenaline. Dear God, how was I ever going to explain this one, I wondered, thinking of David, my fall schedule, all the people whose lives were interwoven with mine. Then I knew it didn't matter. Suddenly I was feeling very strong. And very much alive.
September 11, my fifty-sixth birthday. Even though I have a lot left to do before I leave tomorrow, I sit quietly at my grandmother's writing desk by the French doors of our bedroom in Canton, Connecticut. During the two weeks that have passed since that run in Rhode Island, I have been reading all I can find on migration. I am haunted by an eerie scenario reported by researcher Stephen Emlen of Cornell University. Wild birds that have been detained in cages during the migratory season will face in the direction of their would-be flights and start hopping up and down. They will continue this for days, changing their headings as they complete various legs of their ghostly routes. Scientists call this "migratory restlessness." I think about the wild bird inside of me, hopping, hopping.
On the dark surface of the pond before our house, two yellow leaves drift back and forth. My dictionary tells me that to migrate means "to come and go with the seasons." Perhaps it is my birthday that makes the simple definition seem so auspicious. I say the words over and over like a mantra, feeling their potency, their promise.
Copyright © 2001 by Anne Batterson
Memory, Midlife, and Migration
The Black Swan
Memory, Midlife, and Migration
To fifty-six-year-old Anne Batterson, a woman whose life has been filled with adventure -- as a commercial pilot, an international skydiving champion, a trekking guide in Nepal -- her husband's decision to retire felt like a death sentence. Yearning for some way to reconcile herself to the future that was rapidly unfolding before her, she packed up her VW camper and hit the road with maps, bird guides, and little else except the desire to follow the fall migration and the bone-deep hunch that birds had something important to teach her.
In this beautifully written narrative of that extraordinary trip, Batterson writes movingly not only about her experiences with the birds but also about the people she loves, has lost, and connects with along the way. Events from the present trigger vivid stories from the past. In the chapter "The Journey Within the Journey," a long, lonely night in a deserted campground in Virginia conjures up the ghosts of a desperate solo road trip she made when she was twenty-one. A towering cumulus cloud in Illinois brings back a breathtaking free fall into a similar cloud in "My Time as a Bird." An encounter with a great blue heron summons a compelling account of her mother's last afternoon in the world. "Bears in the Woods" describes a run-in with two Deliverance-type men in West Virginia, which brings back the murder of a dear friend in the woods of Connecticut.
By the end of the journey, the ghosts of the past, like the author herself, have become part of a more fluid, more spiritual reality -- wild and spare and elegant and timeless -- one that is always out there, "quickening on the far side of reality."
A unique mix of memoir and nature writing, The Black Swan is a charming story of a woman's odyssey.