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the lunatic in the attic

September 2, 2012

My two favorite avian creatures of the northeast are the Great Blue Heron and the Common Loon. Great Blue Herons are the most beautifully awkward birds I’ve ever seen. They are big and gangly  with shaggy plumage and they fly with their legs dangling behind them. They are awesome.

Loons are so perfectly suited to their aquatic environment that they only venture onto land to nest. Their legs are too far back on their bodies to walk well there. Loons are excellent swimmers, but have a hard time taking flight. In fact the name loon probably comes from the Old English for awkward: lummox. Their skill is beneath the surface: Once they spot their prey, they dive for it and will even give underwater chase until they catch it.

A month ago, when I got my new tattoo, I went for the bird that would look, on the surface, more serene. Even during the Great Blue Heron’s extended periods of stillness or slow slow slow slow movement, you can tell that it’s hunting–that it’s on to something. Bird like that doesn’t stand around doing nothing. But when you see a loon floating, often with one or two babies on her back, you get the impression of an animal giving itself up to the here and now. Just floating. Jesus in the everywhere.

That’s what I thought the first time I saw Kennebago Lake, a little spot in northeastern Maine just chock full of herons and loons. My ex-husband’s family owns a cabin there. I didn’t come up with the phrase, Morris Graves did. And it wasn’t a coincidence that I thought of it then; we’d been listening to John Cage‘s spoken-word piece “Series re: Morris Graves,” on the drive from New York. That phrase stuck with me (that and something about an eggplant) and seemed the only fitting description of the stars over the lake at night, the faint hint of the Northern Lights in the distance, the smell of the big woods, and the call of the loons I encountered at Kennebago. Jesus in the everywhere.

A loon’s call, if you haven’t heard it, is “unearthly, perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard.” That’s according to Henry David Thoreau, who recounts a relationship with a particularly coquettish Loon in Walden. In fact, I just played a recording of a Loon call on my computer and the dog and the cat, who were asleep, stood up, startled, and looked around to see where it came from. Lucy Pevensie, the cat–ironically named for her bravery–suddenly remembered something she had to do under the bed, while Kathy gave me a look that I would swear said, “I remember that.”

How long is a dog’s memory? Does she remember Jesus in the everywhere? It was that for her, too: endless running in the woods, endless smells, swimming, hunting–that’s right, my Lab can point a woodcock–and long evenings in front of the wood stove while the people ate lobster and recounted the adventures of the day. Last year when we first brought a prop shotgun in for rehearsals of Rimers of Eldritch, she recognized it and, bouncing excitedly at the idea of going hunting, looked at me in that same way: “I remember that,” she seemed to say.

I remember it too. How can I forget? Where there are not physical reminders (like that Google still thinks I might be interested in ads for Cabela’s), there is what C.S. Lewis called “the vast emptiness,” and it continues to

astonish me like a complete novelty, and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment[.]” The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. They say, “the coward dies many times;” so does the beloved.

With divorce, there has been a death but there can be no funeral. So I chose to create my own ritual, to mark myself as I move through this rite of passage. Contrary to the way I usually do things, I settled on the loon without looking too deeply into its symbolism. (Frankly, I’m lucky I didn’t end up with a Chinese character that means “soup.”) It was going to be my symbol of the Jesus in the everywhere that I will always have with me even though I can never see Kennebago again, so I didn’t think I needed to know what else it meant. The urge to dive beneath the surface didn’t come until later.

It turns out, Native American mythology has a character named Loon Woman who is, surprise surprise, batshit crazy. Most versions of the stories are reinforcements of the incest taboo–eeww–with a dose of the Lot/Orpheus “don’t look back” thing thrown in for good measure. However, the Yana have a version of the story that, at least in its 1910 English translation, leaves out the incest and includes other details to which the translator probably assumed people of a modern age might be more likely to connect.

In this version of the story, Loon Woman is gang raped by five strangers. In an effort to exact justice, she forces the village in which these men live to provide her with a husband. But the husband sneaks away during the night and returns to his people. When Loon Woman awakes and finds her lover gone, she cries “the wildest sound that is ever heard,” “a long, mournful wail which is essentially saying, I’m here. Where are you?” Then she destroys the whole village.

A simple tale, presumably invented to explain the eerie, ethereal call of a bird, added to and subtracted from like all good myths to suit the needs of their tellers’ times. At its heart it’s about a grief-stricken woman who cries out in the night, “I’m here. Where are you?”

I remember that. The expression of such grief does sound like madness, and for madness I was marked long before I marked myself with this new symbol. The electricity they put through my grandmother’s brain didn’t change the fact that being a woman who feels “too much” runs in my family. I’ve always been a little obsessed with and a little bit terrified by it. But I’ve never seen the face of the lunatic in my attic–she’s always looking backwards, at the wreckage of the past. As with the madwomen of mythology, my loon threatens vengeance on the whole village for the wrongs done to her. During the day I placate her, but from the shadows she whispers my incompetence in my ear. At night I cry along with her, “I am here. Where are you?”

My lover does not respond, but I do get an answer in the form of a snuffly nose attached to a great lummox of a Labrador who I’m pretty sure is saying, “I’m here, too. Jesus in the everywhere. Remember that.”

Perhaps there is some magic in the breath of a Labrador, for with her sigh, the madwoman scurries back to the attic and the village goes back to sleep.

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