Gathering Anyway

as it appeared online at Oregon Quarterly in 2009, where it was a semi-finalist for the Northwest Perspectives Contest.

The falcon was there when I got there, perched on the edge of the seven-storey brick chimney.  At first, I thought it was stone, or wood. There was no sign of the huge flock of Vaux’s swifts that was supposed to appear and circle the chimney at twilight. The chimney itself towered into the early evening sky, secured to the roof of the building by five black cables radiating out from its upper section. The squat school building sat like a brick castle in the little valley made by Pettygrove hill, in that strange part of Portland where trees and warehouses bared themselves, and postured, threatening to outnumber each other. 

The September sky was pink around the chimney’s edges, rising to pale orange and into white. Parents and their toddlers, young couples, elderly people in camp chairs, all leaned into the side of the hill.   They squinted, looked up.   Beyond the houses, beyond the river, the ripening hump of the flattened volcano sulked, barely able shake off her own grievances.

I was watching the crowd when I saw a few of the birds, tiny and distant, like poppy seeds thrown against the sky.   Each time they circled back, the sprinkling spread and multiplied.  The sky became full of tiny black V’s, birds flying in between each other, clumps cross-hatched.   Sometimes the groups of birds split and rejoined, or made sudden switch-backs. They whirled in streams, cutting wide ovals over the building, over the crowd. They were no where near the chimney.   It seemed almost absurd, this gathering, people coming to watch tiny, black birds at the end of the day.  After all, the birds were just doing what they always did, amassing themselves for the night. The crowd watched, muttered to each other, gasped when the birds streamed over us. The falcon, standing on the chimney’s lip, shifted its footing, then stilled again to a wooden solidity.   The seated crowd watched intently.  It was, in a strange way, like church.

***

My father teased me when I moved to Oregon seven years ago.  You know,” he said, “it’s officially the most “un-churched” state in the nation.”    No doubt in Portland, where I live, the holy liquid of choice on a Sunday morning is a cup of Stumptown coffee.   Strange then, that it’s here I’d find my calling as an Episcopal school chaplain.  A chaplain is a religious professional, but also a professional outsider.  Chaplains serve in places like hospitals, army posts and prisons, places where there is work to be done that doesn’t involve religion.  And yet, the chaplain is there because the people there know that their work deals with questions of ultimate concern: with the meaning of life, with the effects of death. 

That is not to say that I understand these things.  In fact, I’m probably the least likely school chaplain to have answers. When people meet me, they take one look at my scraggly hair and pierced nose and try to be polite.   “So, you’re like, a minister?”  More often I get a narrowed eyes, or a stunned pause.   Later, after we’ve exchanged more niceties, traded jokes, maybe even poured a drink, then they’ll say it, those that have held back from blurting, “You don’t look like a… chaplain.”

Mostly, I’m a teacher. My students range from age seven to seventeen, and have many ideas about God.  I teach my third graders, who are studying the Oregon Trail, why most pioneers would have carried a family Bible.  I’m there when fourth graders study the Haida, the Chinook, and the Tlingit, encouraging my students to experience everything living as infused with spirit.  With High school Seniors, I read passages from the Quran and the Bhagavad-Gita.  I try to explain what it’s like to see God everywhere, not as separated, not as religion, but as the world itself.   It helps that the land around us is so beautiful.  Or as a student once put it, “I guess we don’t think too much about the environment around here, because, well, we have so much of it.”

***

Back on the hill, the number of swifts was still growing.  The group of dots thickened. Then few began to dive, turning sharply into the chimney on their way past.  Wide swaths of birds narrowed as dots broke off and dove down, past the chimney’s lip.  And the falcon moved.

It darted forward, it grabbed. The crowd made a sound that only a group makes, a voweled breath. The falcon rose with a mound in its beak. It fluttered its great wings open once, twice, and sat down again on the edge.  The closest line of dots had disappeared, and now, swirled near again, then careened off to re-circle.

When the falcon lit out a moment later, the crowd breathed a groan.  The falcon’s hunger, the falcon’s murder. The swifts swirled and circled back again, wheeling and whirling. 

***

The first weekend of that school year, I’d gone camping instead of to church, to a lake high in the Mt. Hood National Forest. Careening down back roads and highways marked only by small brown signs, I arrived with friends at a dirt pull-out where we readied for a half-mile hike in. The path wove through fir branches and large green maple leaves, shiny-branched shrubs growing everywhere they could, the dust rising under our heavy footfalls.

I wanted to clear my head. Over the summer, I’d forgotten about being a chaplain, forgotten about the hard stuff. At school, colleagues began a conversation with me, a casual conversation about the previous summer break. Then suddenly, without a history of personal intimacy, we’ll be talking about their struggles in bearing a child, their friend’s recent illness, their mother’s death.  That year it seemed cancer had touched almost everyone. They were talking to me, and not to me. They were talking to the person they saw in Chapel, the person in the Episcopal vestments. By this, my fourth year as a chaplain, I’d got it: this was a lot about death. When death happens, people don’t call the counselor, they call the chaplain. They don’t want to feel better, they want to understand.

Sunday morning my friends and I went down to the lake.  We slipped into the water on smooth, half-submerged rocks.  The water-walker bugs cast rounded shadows, four-petaled flowers that bore no resemblance to their spindly legs and tiny, sticky feet.  Finally, I dove into the reflected brightness, the chill sucking out my breath.   The cold water, radiant in the sunlight, still shocked. It took me a moment to convince my heart and lungs we could do this, we were going to survive.

***

Now, a week later, the sky near the chimney grew thick with birds.  They slid sideways around it, stippling on the edges as they turned. They flew off again over our heads, a far-away cloud of a few.

Then all the birds began to dive.  One after the other after the other, the line swung back, twisted in, swirled back across and behind the chimney, joined the dives.   A group curved out again, black bits streaming toward the colored light, and curving back in a whirling screen.  A circular, turbo-speed procession, smoke’s opposite. They poured in and in and in.

Down on the ground, it was dusky. By now, the sky had turned the deep blue dark of serious evening.  The circling groups were thinner and soon only a few black spots traced the path through the sky. People staggered to their feet on the incline.  One person began clapping, and it spread across the hill.   We applauded, all of us.  For birds, doing what they always do. We applauded for their audacity.   And our own, for gathering anyway.

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