The Wandering Leadings of the Spirit

A great swoop over my head, and a steady beat of wings. Suddenly a dark shape banks, turns, and disappears into the pines. I had startled an owl into flight. It happened too quickly for me to do more than sense a shadow against the sky, as if the spirit of the pine trees had broken off a piece of darkness to carry even deeper into the woods. Owls do seem to open into mystery, and this one, in the silence it left behind, seemed to call. I vaguely began to follow where I thought it had flown, knowing I’d probably not see it again. Owls are hard to spot by an amateur like me. This is the first one I’d seen in six months of living here. Yet I knew it lived close by, having heard its hoots from my bedroom window late at night. I walked deeper into the snowy woods, daylight having lingered long enough to leave some light—or was it only a snow-gathered glow? I stopped. Silence. Nothing moved. Nothing, except myself, seemed to breathe. That was remarkable, since I knew the woods held sleeping birds, barely awakened rabbits, curled-up moles, deer, turkeys, and grouse. And certainly porcupines and raccoons. The sense of a complete world I couldn’t see filled the night air. The owl, I felt, was somewhere, watching.

I seem to wander in directions marked by vaguely perceived movement. Logic and goals are not my strong suit. I can’t explain any of my life in logic’s strict terms. Why do I go here? Why did I do that? There seems no reason other than because I did. Like Theodore Roethke:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I think of the little boy that Welcome House put into my arms so many years ago. What logic brought us together? A six-month-old, brown all over, as if just in from the beach, black silky hair framing a solemn face dominated by huge blue eyes. I can still hear Pearl Buck’s voice somewhere over my head saying, "Isn’t he beautiful? Is he Polynesian?" I could understand why she would say that. I am sure he was lifted from a canoe found floating down a river that emptied into the heart of Philadelphia, this Moses child who was now to be my son. My first-born son! Such miracles are not planned. My journey to this place was as subject to currents and wind as the path of this child. No, he wasn’t Polynesian. He was Filipino and born in Philadelphia. No matter. His hair smelled of salt-splashed bark.

My next son arrived via the birth canal. Not content with canoes, he chartered a non-stop Queen Elizabeth, landing at my feet carrying chunks of seaweed and the light of a new moon in his face. Maybe he didn’t get here first, but his cry would ensure no second-hand attention. He was a presence not to be ignored. What was this assurance he carried in his tiny hands? Where could he have been before he decided to enter my life? Wherever it was he knew how to talk to trees, to wander comet-colliding skies without fear, to ask questions no mere mother could answer.

When the two boys were seven and eight, there came the stray thought a daughter would be a wonderful completion of a circle that existed somewhere inside myself. And so a warrior daughter arrived whose ancestors walked an African landscape, and whose brown eyes still held the glow. She screamed the walls into out-of-plumb shape in a small room in Hackensack, New Jersey, where I met her for the first time. As I held her, she hiccuped small wet sobs into the nape of my neck. This softness in contrast to her former fury won me forever. Someone had to soothe her outrage. We had both found our way to the Jersey meadows, sharp grass not withstanding, to a city neither of us had ever been in before and might never visit again.

I was deep into the woods now. Night had used up all the remaining light. If the owl was there I wouldn’t be able to see it even if it were right in front of me.

I was growing older. My children were grown. What would the remaining part of my life hold? I turned and began to follow my own footprints out of the woods. What a wandering way I had come. Barely a straight line anywhere. In and out of trees, around clumps of tangled branches, a long trek over a mound of rocks. Could this really be the way I’d come? I’d just have to keep going and find out.