It was my birthday, but that wasn’t why I was at dinner in the swanky Portland restaurant that August evening. Actually I felt out of place in most restaurants in that city. I was constantly asking what items on the menu were made of having no previous experiences with the majority of listed ingredients. August 27 was my birthday, but that wasn’t why I was at a table of at least ten people slowly hiking up the bar tab. I only drank one glass of wine even after I knew that I wasn’t paying my own bill.
“Some people are leaving.” The nonprofit founder commented slanted and somewhat out the corner of her lip.
“You’re leaving!” the quirky, less tactful and always invited literacy consultant faced me.
“Yes,” I responded and sipped. The wine found a shallow bottom in my stomach as the guilt rose up again to meet it. “But it will be fine. The staff will be fine. They don’t need me as much as they think they do. I’m a feather.”
Both looked at me in question.
“You know. A feather. Dumbo’s feather. What the mouse gave the elephant to make him think he could fly, but it wasn’t magic and he didn’t really need it.”
They weren’t buying the reference. They bought dinner instead. I didn’t order anything. Was I right? Or was I just crafting the story in a way that was easiest for me character to accept? I would continue to ask myself that question for months. Regardless, I still left early. The gathering at the restaurant and Guatemala early in the next year, almost two years ago to this day in March.
So? The feather? I hadn’t thought about it much since the first few months until a former colleague told me in a Facebook message, “they’re flying.” He spoke of the staff. Not shortly after I heard from everyone less until silence softened between, a wider wing span that barely ruffled by even an exhale, much less a word. I had been right. Now, two years later, came the time to craft the narrative.
Feathers fluttered through my head recently because of another set of feathers, a red tailed hawk named “Magic” by its rescue agency that my dad and I found injured along the roadside while walking the dogs on an almost rainy January afternoon. We walked by the female the first day, hoping that she was merely stunned and would fly away on her own. During the night we searched for local agencies that could help the hawk, should that step be needed.
Twelve years ago when I became a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, I assumed “they” needed me, and that helping, no matter what, was inherently “good”.
The next morning while cleaning up roadside garbage my dad set out to see if the hawk was still there. He came back happily reporting that he had not seen her. “How far down did we see her?” was a question that left us both wondering if his idea of “looking” as an intervention had gone far enough.
Eight years ago when I returned to my Peace Corps village to begin local library programming, I believed that “they” just didn’t know what “they” needed, but if I could set a shining example of a library and facilitate a means to access knowledge, they would understand the project. I also believed that if they didn’t, I hadn’t looked far nor hard enough.
That afternoon the four of us set out again on twelve legs. Solo, the one Guatemalan who came back with me, pushed forward with his usual urgency. In the wind break of a large tree trunk almost to the tumbled wire fence, we saw the hawk’s body. Apologetic, Dad turned for home to contact the rescue agency. I continued on the walk. Upon returning to the same spot an hour later, I saw no trace of the bird and a print from my dad’s boot in the mud.
Seven years ago I took a job with a literacy nonprofit so that I could be close enough to release the responsibility of running all aspects of the library’s administration and programming. I wanted the communities we worked in to be involved, for the project to be sustainable. Moreover, I wanted the participants to feel a part of the community of readers we were creating by recognizing what was already in their lives.
Dad and I received photos and updates on social media for the next couple of months about the hawk’s condition. We vacillated between the no change in her foot’s mobility and the swirling, we perceived to be male and thus her mate, around the area from a second hawk. “He’ll wait until March and then he’ll find a new mate,” Dad said.
During a period of five years, my boss at the literacy nonprofit said that I had unlocked the key, solved the puzzle, that now the staff was working as an educated, analytical and professional team. He said this like he was surprised, like he had never been sure it could happen. He said this like it came out of nowhere, like it was magic.
The hawk spent three quarters of her time in captivity without a name. Then suddenly one day, she was up and about grasping onto the perch and showing new life in the once dead foot. As if by “Magic” and so the caregiver named her. That was dangerous, giving her a name. It brought with it all the baggage of a perceived “need”, that all of a sudden because the care giving was available, it might be a sin to stop giving. What would happen to her once she was released? Could she survive? Would she survive without the players who had inserted themselves into her life?
Two years ago, I left my position at the literacy nonprofit. I made the decision to go home for me at first, then I realized that allowing for that final space that I had occupied to be open was the most appropriate instructional next step for the staff.
But in the end, there was no question. She was a hawk, clad in shimmers of brown, white and black. She had many feathers of her own. She was born to fly, and she needed none of our borrowed plumes to do so.
Today my friends and family ask me if I hear from anyone in Guatemala. The answer is “no”. They shake their heads and try to comfort me as if I should receive tribute as a God each year for the rest of my life for the work I did, the sacrifices they perceive me to have made to “save”, to “help”, to “lift them up”.
The wind atop the hill gusted around the small, scarved group that stood to watch Magic go home. Her caregiver carefully carried her beneath her arm until they were free of the tree line bordering the cornfield. In a blinked instant, she set Magic upon the wind. The wings caught and ruffled in the wind’s force. They swung her body out and up to the west. “I saw her,” my dad said. “She lit off for the big tree at the corner. Upon hitting the branch, her claw scraped bark and held tight.”
Feather or not, I hope that the next time I will know “Magic” the first time I see her.