Something old and wild is “called in her,” some secret, ancient connection that emerges from the earth and finds its home, not in her mind, not in her thoughts—which have dissolved—but in her body. It shows itself in her face, her open mouth, her receptive posture, the “dark-edged sickle” dangling, forgotten, at her side.
She stands in silence, “opened, thoughtless, frightened by the joy she feels . . .” It is the evanescent rapture of simple, child-like wonder. A universal human experience. Something we all have in common.
It’s seven a.m., Sunday morning, February 2014. I’m standing in my home office, upstairs, a book in hand, when I hear an odd but vaguely familiar noise outdoors. I cock my head, visualizing a crowd of people swarming up the block, muttering and chattering, the sound arriving in waves as they get closer. What on earth . . . ?
I jerk open the blinds, look down the street. Nothing. Then I look up. Canadian geese are swimming across the sky as far as the eye can see, all talking at once, the endless Vs of their formations splitting and branching, rejoining and braiding like dark streams above the treetops. Hundreds, thousands! The sight is astounding.
Suddenly I must to hear the geese. I fling open the window. The sound is unbelievable. It fills the world. Rising, cresting and falling. Wave upon wave.
My mouth drops open, eyes widen, the book I’m holding dangles, forgotten, by my side. Time stands still. Thought ceases. I am all body, a child again. Pure wonder and delight.
The experience lasts two minutes, maybe three.
The geese finally pass overhead, and fade into the distance. A deep vibration thrums through my bones and muscles, as if I had become for a moment a stringed instrument in the hands of a master musician.
Slowly, I close the window. Stand in the echoing silence. Then I glance down at the book in my hand. And start laughing.
It is David Whyte’s book, Songs for Coming Home (1989). On the cover is the young peasant woman, standing transfixed, sickle hanging by her side. It is Jules Breton’s famous painting, “The Song of the Lark” (1884), the inspiration for Whyte’s poem.
I have inadvertently reproduced the painting! Right here, in my own body. However briefly, I have transcended time and space. I have become one with this lovely French girl, long dead now. The sensation is thrilling. I know exactly what she experienced, lo, those many years ago.
And feeling her emotion, I feel connected to her. Surprisingly, I care about her. She is not other.
This, then, is the secret thing we have in common. The universal human emotions, housed within our bodies. This is how we can know, how we can connect with one another, how we can bridge the chasms—the thoughts, ideas and beliefs; the culture, race and gender—that so often separate and isolate us.
On a planet where every living thing is intimately connected, in an epoch when all our lives are now at risk, our insane differentiation no longer makes sense. It’s time to rediscover common ground.
Yes, all humans think. But we will never think the same things. We all feel, however. And amazingly, we feel the same things. Fear and sadness, anger and shame . . . wonder and delight. What’s more, our brains all have neurons that mirror the momentary moods and emotions of others. We literally feel together.
The old, wild emotions, therefore, give us precious glimpses into the hearts, minds, indeed the bodies, of others. What distinguishes us from one another pales in comparison with all that we have in common.
Early in his acting career, Bill Murray walked the streets of Chicago for hours after an awful stage performance, thinking vaguely about drowning himself in Lake Michigan. Wandering into the Art Institute of Chicago, he paused before a painting which, he says, may have saved his life. The Song of the Lark. Some resonance he felt with that young woman revived the spark of hope. He chose to live another day.
Perhaps it is only in the song of a lark that we can recall—and recover—our common humanity. Perhaps that little song could save our lives.
—Jay E. Valusek