Crouching on a Crumbling Ledge, Looking for Common Ground

    Common ground (phrase): a foundation for mutual understanding
        —the freedictionary.com

Remembering.

There were eight students in the class, four men and four women. Four were white and four were not. Two were immigrants to America. Two men worked at the little private college in maintenance; two were women in their fifties. A couple of young professionals, a stay-at-home mom who volunteered in her Somali community, a dignified older man finally enrolled in college after he’d sent all his kids to school: all busy adults taking night courses, enrolled in degree programs, working hard, and seeking better, richer lives for themselves, and for their families.

The course itself was a kind of hybrid freshman seminar, sort of English comp meets thoughtful-discussion-of-current-issues.  The college provided a common book. That year, 2004, it was a journalist’s discussion of how, in post-9/11 times, the rest of the world viewed and considered the United States, as a government, and as a people,–which, we found, were two very different perspectives.

We met in a kind of conference room, around a table that would seat twelve comfortably–the perfect room, the perfect size, for this small troupe. The room was on the third and highest floor of a blocky brick building; it was a corner room, and we could look out over the university’s green lawns and watch the quiet neighborhoods of the suburb settle into evening. There was something lightened and safe about the space, and there was something about the people enrolled and the subject matter involved that allowed a free and open exchange.

All the students came with defenses down and doors wide open, with real curiosity about what the others thought and knew and felt. They demolished barriers from the first meeting, wanting to meet on level ground, to hear real talk about real issues. No one snorted derisively, for instance, when one of the working men spoke of feeling passed over by affirmative action-type programs; the students listened, and considered, and asked questions.  And the others openly shared their experiences, too–as people of color in competitive markets, as older workers trying to remain viable and vital. Their classmates absorbed their words and wrestled with meaning.

Early on, it left off being a class and became a kind of team. Attendance was not an issue; they came, eager for the next discussion, open to learning, ready to share.

During Ramadan, Saara, the Somali woman, brought in food to break her daily fast. We would watch as the windows darkened, working until the sun took its late autumn slide, and then she would unpack a basket, set out plates for all of us, and pass everyone a kind of fried pie. Everyone tucked in; no one picked up the unusual (and tasty) food and examined it skeptically.  Saara talked about her faith and her country and her brother, a military officer who was murdered by the new regime in her old homeland. She told us of her work with the Somali people in her neighborhood, helping them navigate unfamiliar systems and find the supports they needed to be successful.

As she spoke to us, calmly and confidently, in a voice lilted by intonations learned on different shores, her world grew familiar–not exotic and other, but everyday and real. As did the lives of the other people–the single mothers in their fifties, one struggling with a grown child’s mental illness; the father taking the chance to educate himself after launching his six kids; the vibrant and successful young salesman who really yearned to be a college professor; the working guys; the young assistant director of college admissions…all of them met in the right place at just the right time.

They did good work, that class. Well, seriously, they blew me away; they did great work. On the last night we met, they all brought food to share, and they compiled lists of email addresses so they could stay in touch. Charles, the salesman, agreed to come and talk during a career exploration segment of a tech writing class I was teaching during Spring term at a community college.  Mary, one of the older women, gave me a beautiful hand-painted wooden box; it still, today, holds my letters and stationery. They stood awkwardly when the class wound down, reluctant to leave the tiny and temporary utopia we’d enjoyed for 16 weeks.

I waited until they had all left, cleaned up crumpled napkins, tidied the classroom, lingering at a college where, having accepted a full-time position elsewhere, I would probably never teach again. What a gift for me, as an instructor, to have had the chance to meet and work with these amazing people. These totally unique, very disparate folks who had entered into a kind of covenant, all there for a common purpose, all finding common ground.

***************

It is evening, and I am scrolling through my FaceBook feed. I see a post from a person I know professionally, respect professionally, and don’t even come close to agreeing with politically. The post is entitled something like, “A Letter to My Child,” and it explains this man’s disagreement with my point of view. I slow down to read it.

It is thoughtfully written, I concede, although I quickly decide there are fallacies a mile wide in several of the arguments. And it is, my prissy English teacher inner voice opines, a little glib. But it is honest and an attempt to share an opposing view.

But I know my view is right. Although I’m reading, I am not listening.

Then I read the responses. There are many, and they are mostly strident, some in support of, and some opposed to, this man’s stance. One of the opposed is someone very dear to me; she has launched an attack on the writer’s post that is shrill and laced with vulgarities and that hits at him very personally. The violence of it makes me recoil–even though, on all the issue’s points, I agree with her.

I feel a sinking dread in the pit of me.  I think of these two fine people, and the chasm that yawns between them. What could ever cause two people so strongly bastioned in their fervent beliefs to find a common ground?

**************
About a month before the election, my son James and I were driving to a little town fifty miles north of here for our dental appointments. There is no interstate pathway, so this trip relegated us to back roads. It was a bright fall morning. We drove past horses grazing in October sunshine, past fields of slow moving cows, past the stubble of cornfields. We came to a stretch of Amish country where we navigated around a slow moving buggy. We tempered our speed again in a little crossroads town that has a stop sign at its intersection. As we cruised to a stop, I saw a person tumble over a rock in a yard, and I did not see that person get up.

There is a corner store at the crossroads; I pulled in and turned around.  I half-registered a pickup truck behind me doing the same as I drove back to the house where the person had fallen. On the ground, propped up against a tree and looking bewildered, was a heavy elderly woman, bundled into a plaid wool jacket, rimless glasses glinting in the sun. Her sweatpants were green-streaked and muddy. Wispy gray hair escaped from a brown knit cap.

I rolled down my window to ask if she needed help. She gave me a puzzled look.

“I don’t think,” she said slowly, considering, “that I can get up.”

I turned off the car, pondering quickly our next best steps–should we try to get her up? Call for help? But the pickup truck I’d seen glided into a space right in front of us.  A man got out–balding, with overalls straining over an impressive belly. He came to my window and said, “I wasn’t sure WHAT I seen till I seen you turn around. You go on, now. I’ll get ‘er.”

He went over then and held out his hands, and the woman reached out to take them. He pulled her up. Her face changed completely, shining as she looked at her rescuer. She turned her head and gave me a nod–“We’re fine now!” it said–and she gazed up at the man in wonder. We pulled away, leaving them there, engaged in earnest conversation. I had that strong feeling one gets, knowing a problem has been taken on by someone who will see it through.

As we pulled away, James noted that the truck had a bumper sticker touting Not-My-Candidates.

“How,” he asked, “could someone so nice vote for THEM?”

And the overalled man might well have been thinking, “I can’t believe one of those ones bothered to stop and offer help.”

A reaction to an emergency, a person vulnerable and needy: a chance for common ground.

*********************

What would make my Facebook friends find common ground, I wonder. I have to think that, faced with an emergency, both of those good people would put aside their differences to work together, to get the fallen one back onto her feet, to call in the necessary experts.  They are, both of them, compassionate folks. They do not want to stand by while people are unnecessarily hurt.

I think of the kinds of emergencies that might create this bonding–egregious loss of freedom? Outright violence? We can’t wait until we get there, I think, to find our common ground.

Mandated participation in something–a class, a workplace seminar–creates the possibility of finding common ground. If people come in thinking, “Well, it COULD work. If the others are willing to be open and honest…well, then I will, too.” With the right people, the right program, the right environment…those obligatory meetings could turn into something rich.

But barring an emergency or a mandate, how do we leap across the chasm?  And more and more,–as I weave uneasily, as the ground shifts beneath my feet, and as the gap widens,–more and more, I feel the real and wrenching need for this leaping to happen, for an open and empathetic exploration of the beliefs underlying our actions. We need to inhabit the shaded space in the Venn diagram where we overlap and converge.

*****************

So. I enter ‘common ground’ into a search engine and hundreds of thousands of hits pop up. There is a progressive rock group called Common Ground; their album cover shows hands cupping dirt from which a tiny shoot grows. I bookmark them to listen to later; I think their common ground has to do with caring for the Earth.

I find a college website that has rules of engagement for instructors trying to norm their grading, to reach common ground on what constitutes an ‘A’ and what work has to be considered failure. That website offers steps to consensus–Collaborate creatively, it suggests, and then defines that for the instructors involved. Establish effective leadership. The site describes where such meetings should take place and how long they should last, who should be there, what should be provided.

A PROGRAM, I think; what if we had a program?  I remember a young woman named Valerie Walawender. Valerie, who was in a women’s writers group I belonged to many, many years ago in western New York State, developed a program to break down barriers between people, and to infuse appreciation for diversity. I type her name into the search engine and there it is: Valerie’s website (http://valeriewalawender.com/?page_id=714), and a description of the program she developed, called Faces in the Crowd. Participants are given masks; when each looks into a mirror, they see the face of another–a different gender and age and ethnicity, perhaps,–and they are asked to think for a short respite about who they would be if that really was their face. And then they have to share that story with the person next to them, and listen to that person’s story in turn.

Faces in the Crowd, it seems to me, is a tool for establishing understanding, to inching onto common ground.

But what circumstances would make us use such tools, engage in those programs, put that music on and sit down for a steaming cup of decaf and an earnest conversation with the Other?

***************************

I have been trying, this year, to shift my perspective, searching for my own strengths, and for those of others, rather than focusing on weaknesses and flaws. And here, I think, is another necessary shift…finding what we share, not what divides us. Where we converge. I am astounded by how difficult this process, seemingly simple, can be. It is so hard to really listen, so unsatisfying to release my need to be right.

The wider the divide, the more I think I lose sight of the other as person–as a person with beloved family and cherished dreams and aching hurts and needs they search to address.  We become, grouped and gazed at from a growing distance, The Other Side,–a faceless, nameless, soulless mob, an entity to be battled.

And then, thus labelled, we are stuck in place, quivering on the crumbling edge of the canyon, in danger, all of us, of tumbling in.

And, oh, maybe that’s just melodrama. But maybe,–a sobering maybe–we really need to find connection, build a bridge, toss a sturdy rope, sit and talk until we uncover our places of agreement. Maybe we need to find a safe room, acknowledge this emergency, and talk it through.

Not compromising our ideals–never that. But creating the circumstances for finding common ground.

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Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

*******************

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

********************

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

********************

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

****************

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

The Iron Man Interview

 

No Place Like Home for the Owlidays

 Owls 1

The Greathorne twins, Olivia and Owena, hatched on a beautiful May morning and looked right into the luminous eyes of their loving mother.  A hop or two back on the branch was their proud Papa.

The loving parents gave their owlets some time to adjust to bright moonlight and spreading out space.  When the girls had stretched and blinked and settled into calm curiosity about their new surroundings, their parents hopped softly toward them.

“We call thee Olivia,” said Mama, tapping gently on Olivia’s still damp head. Papa dropped a shred of fresh meat into Olivia’s beak.

“We call thee Owena,” said Mama, tapping her other daughter’s pate.  Owena had her maw open for the food before Papa even had a chance to hop her way.

That was the last time Owena was ever second behind Olivia.  From the very first, the girls’ personalities shone through.

Owena was the explorer.  Even on that first hatching day, she was angling to fly, watching Papa as he soared away in search of food. She would plant her little talons on the rough bark of the branch, and she’d imitate his arking and swaying.  When Papa returned with his catch, she would first eat ravenously, then watch as Mama flew off.  Owena would strain forward as Mama did, twisting her head this way and that, her sharp eyes searching for things that skitter in the tall waving grass.

Olivia was quite different.  She was content to stay closer to the nest.  She listened.  She imitated what she heard, and soon her raw croaks became melodious croons.  Olivia, it was clear, was musically gifted.

The twins, different as they were, loved each other dearly.  At dawn they would huddle together and talk just before they slept.  Olivia dreamed of conducting an owl orchestral chorus. She would teach Owena little tunes and they would harmonize together.  Although Olivia had the much stronger, truer voice, when they sang together, the harmony was very, very pleasing.

Owena dreamed of faraway places.  She would make up stories of wonders she would see and share them with her sister.  Olivia’s eyes would shine with excitement–until they suddenly dropped into sleep.

Mama and Papa were deeply pleased with both their girls, and they encouraged their different interests.  Before long, both Owena and Olivia had learned to fly.  Owena, of course, flew first, after several careless tumbles and premature attempts.  The urge to go just pushed her, and one morning, from her imitating Papa stance, she suddenly lifted up and soared. Mama and Olivia shouted in amazement.

Papa heard the joyous cries of his family, and he circled back. Sweeping around his adventurous daughter, he led her out on her first flight.  He’d intended to be cautious and stay close to home, but Owena’s urge to explore gave her great strength.  They left Mama and Olivia cheering them on far behind.  It was the first of many exploratory flights Olivia took with her father.  She quickly picked up hunting skills and was soon bringing delectable tidbits back for the family’s dinner.

Olivia faithfully followed Owena’s lead, and with her sister’s hearty encouragement, became a sturdy flier.  But she never had Owena’s panache; her flying was strictly for the purpose of getting from here to there, and her hunting to make a meal.  Owena’s flight was beautiful–and sometimes nerve-wracking–to watch.  Her hunting dive was deadly and swift.

“Now that you’re flying,” said Mama one morning, “it’s time for the next level of learning.  Girls, you’re going to school today!”

Olivia and Owena preened in excitement and, after breakfast, Papa flew them over to Mrs. Knowle’s Tree of Knowledge.  There were eight or nine other little owls just about their age assembled there.  And there was Mrs. Knowle, puffed up and frightening, sternly waiting for them.

“She was MY teacher when I was an owlet,” Papa whispered.  “Scared the scat out of me, but I learned a lot.”

The girls shared a glance, and they made sure they had spaces close together on the branch campus.

Owena soon realized she hated school.  Olivia didn’t mind sitting still and learning, and Mrs. Knowle often pointed that out.  Owena, on the other talon, always intended to listen.  But, as Mrs. Knowle droned on, she would find her eyes flickering from side to side, and soon she’d be staring at a spot far away where she could see the little rippling trail of something moving through the meadow.  Without her awareness, her wings would spread, and the next thing she knew, she’d be airborne.

Olivia would trill to her quietly, but Mrs. Knowle always caught her.  The teacher would whip her head around and glare until Owena came sheepishly back, lighting softly on the branch and cooing apologies.

“Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Old Lady Knowle would demand, and Owena would hang her head.

“It’s true,” she would think.  “Olivia is so good.  I’m a bad owlet, and I can’t seem to change.”

Owena grew to dread going to school.  She talked her mother into letting her stay home sick one day. but that was almost worse.  Mama was so concerned, she made Owena stay tucked under her wing until Olivia finally came home.  All Owena wanted was to soar.  She didn’t want to be bored at school.  She didn’t want to be stuck under her mother’s wing.

She wanted to fly.

Things finally came to a head at school.  Owena had just returned from another involuntary flight and Old Knowle, all puffed up with indignation, was waiting for her. She’d dismissed the rest of the school, although Owena saw Olivia waiting for her, hidden on a branch of a nearby tree.

“Well, Missy,” sneered the teacher, “enough is enough. It’s time you learned to stay still.  After dinner, I am going to your parents and I am going to demand that you be grounded.

“Grounded!” gasped Owena. “Errr…what exactly does that mean?”

“It means,” snapped the teacher, “that you will not be allowed to fly until you have learned to perch!”

“Not allowed—” breathed Owena.  “For how long?”

“For as long as I decide!  But at least two weeks.”

Owena tried to imagine that.  She remembered the awful frozen feeling of staying home sick that one day, stuck under Mama’s wing.  She thought of all the times she flew without even realizing she had lifted into the air.

She knew, without trying to be defiant or ornery, that she could not be flightless for a day, much less two weeks.

“I’m very sorry,” said Owena to Mrs. Knowle politely. “But I cannot be grounded.”

The teacher begin to warble angrily, eyes bulging, head twisting, but Owena did not stay to listen.  She lifted gracefully off the branch and flew to where Olivia hid.  Olivia had heard the whole exchange, and her golden eyes were wet.

“I know,” she whispered to Owena, “that you have to go.”

“Tell Mama and Papa that I love them!” said Owena.  “I love you, too.”  And she was flying, soaring away on an updraft, leaving Olivia sadly watching and the teacher  wildly ranting.

Owena flew until she left her anger behind, and then she opened her eyes and watched the world unfold. She flew out of the homely woods to the end of the familiar meadow.  She flew over rivers that shone silver gray in the moonglow.  She flew over lakes in which she saw fish swimming away from her moonlit shadow.  The first day, she slept in a strange pine tree, startling at noises she wasn’t used to, but in the evening, the urge to go further erased the daytime fears.

Owena flew and and she flew and she flew.

She met all kinds of owls–who knew there were so many? She ate exotic foods.  She explored bare rockfaces of rugged mountains, and she enjoyed little respites in cozy, protected valleys.  She saw settlements of people, those odd beings who build huge dwellings for themselves and for their animal friends.  She met new owl friends who lived in the animal dwellings, structures they called barns.

She learned to fly against the wind; she learned to navigate in the rain.  She was propelled by the overwhelming need to explore further and to know more about the wide world she lived in.  On and on she went.

The weather changed.  She noticed the leaves changing color.  She noticed how they fell to the ground after a time; then, Owena only felt protected in the still-green pines when she stopped to sleep for the day.  She felt the wind grow colder; she noticed the extra layer of fluffy feathers she sprouted to ward off the chill.

And Owena began, for the first time since she left the branch campus, to slow down. She slowed down, and she began to think of her Mama and Papa, and especially she thought of Olivia.  She wondered what kind of music Olivia was making these days.  She wondered if Mama and Papa were very, very angry and disappointed with their fly-away daughter.

For the next few days, she pushed herself to move ahead, but it grew harder and harder, and finally, one evening, she arced a new course toward home.

She noticed changes as she flew, unswerving as an arrow, to the place of her birth…a hard skin on the surface of the lake, fewer little critters dancing about to be eaten.  Things, it seemed, were burrowing into those cozy drifts of fallen leaves.

Owena experienced, for the first time, snow. It was beautiful, and she learned it could be deadly, changing the look and smell of the once-familiar world.  She thanked her stars for the homing instinct that seemed to be built in, a sense right behind her eyes, and she let that instinct lead her.

It led her home, on a clear and moonlit night, home to the tree where her life began.  And before she could even see that tree, she heard a beautiful song.

It was Olivia, and she was singing, “I’m dreaming of a flight Christmas…”

Owena let the song float her down to the branch, where there was tremendous excitement.  Oh, they were all so happy to see her, Mama and Papa and her sister.  They demanded to know where she had been and what she had seen. They plied her with questions and delicious shredded meat, and they listened, bright-eyed and joyful, to her tales of discovery and adventure. Olivia beamed at her with the utmost admiration.

Finally Owena wound down, and she leaned back and looked at her parents, and she sighed with contentment and relief.  “I was so afraid,” she said, “that you’d be so angry you would never forgive me for flying away.”

Her parents looked at her lovingly.

“Come see this,” said her mother, and they hopped around the trunk of the tree to a glittering scene.  Papa had bent down one branch of the evergreen so that it was vertical. From it hung strands of silver–silver strands captured and shredded from the careless litter of humans–that caught the moonlight and glittered.  There were dried seed pods hanging from the branch, and, “See this?” asked Mama, proudly.

Owena gasped.  It was a big pine cone, decorated with leaves and nuts so cleverly that it looked just like a young owl–just, in fact, like Owena.  And there was another, very similar, but clearly Olivia, a little farther on.

“How….” started Owena, not even knowing what to ask.

“Ah,” said her mother softly.  “You never knew your father was an artist.”

Her father ducked and turned his head shyly, and then swiveled it back to say, “Nor did you know this about your Mama: she is a poet.  Say your lovely words for her, darling.”

Mama hopped to a spot near Owena, cleared her throat, and spoke.

“One of my girls must sing her songs.
The other one must roam.
Owena has to spread her wings.
Olivia sings her home.
You  are destined to follow your yearning:
To be whom you’re meant to be.
But at Christmastime, you’ll always know
Your heart is in this tree, my dear.
Your heart is in this tree.”

“What is this ‘Christmas’?” Owena asked in wonder.

“Oh,” said Papa, “it’s a wonder-filled, magical time, when we celebrate the Son of Man, who broke through all the veils that separate us.”

The moon shone in a velvety sky; stars twinkled, and the world, for just a moment, was as still as eternity.

Owena whispered, “Wherever I am, I will always know to turn around and come back to the tree when the Christmas season beckons.”

Mama said, “Your sister knew.  She never had any doubt; she told us you’d come back. In fact she wrote a song for your return.”

Her parents opened their wings and she hopped into their embrace.  Below and behind them rose Olivia’s clear true voice:

“Owl, be home for Christmas…”

******************
Owena flew, in her lifetime, thousands of miles.  She saw the most wonderful sights and met the most amazing creatures.  But when the wind blew cold and the warm underlayer started lining her feathers, she always turned around and kept her vow.  This owl, she had promised, WILL be home for Christmas.

And she always, always was.

***************************

Merry Christmas to the grandest of kids:  Alyssa and Kaelyn, Alex, Brennen, Gabrielle, Kirsten, Maddie, Mia, Patrick, Quincie, Ronan, and Ryan.