Haltingly, I minced my way down the steep hill, head dipped, eyes sweeping the cement for potential hazards. One wrong step could trigger my cranky knee and cause issues for days. Months. Fuck it: years.
Before menopause and a sudden rearing of injury, I never understood, in the dark root of me, complaints about joints; litanies of aches; what it is to move, heavily and delicately, across challenging landscapes, every effort an opportunity for discouragement and disappointment in the self. Deliberately, for decades, trying to confound genetics and inclinations, I’d been trying to do right. How disheartening to realize consistent effort is irrelevant.
Still, though, as my body reinvented frustration, I did the things, walking, shuffling, lifting, squatting, reaching, stretching, if only so indignation at waistline and pain could roar righteously.
And so that autumn afternoon, a latter-day Baba Yaga, I harrumphed my way toward flatness.
Finally reaching the relative plane of Superior Street, I stopped to check for traffic, all clear to the right — but then, as my head swiveled left, a susurrus of disturbed air prickled my follicles, and I gulped an inadvertent inhale of shock. What?
The whisk of it barreling toward my face made me flinch, my shoulders spasming upward protectively, and I pulled back, yanking out earbuds just as Nicole Byer asked her guest if they’d ever been part of a threesome.
I wasn’t the only one screeching to a standstill. Thirty feet to my right in the opposite lane, three vehicles also froze, their drivers similarly dumbstruck.
Bereft of an updraft, she — with a dramatic seven-foot wingspan, the mass of stress hurtling down the center of the road registered as a “she” — cruised at eye level, brown feathers harmonizing with yellow lane divider, sharp eyes communicating panic as she barreled past my face toward a pick-up truck. Her mad flight shifted the energy of a city block, perturbation palpable in the nitrogen, the thunderbolt of her creating a wave of a shock and awe that rolled from the cement below my saggy meat sack to the agape man in the truck to the row of ranch homes to the astonished driver in the Toyota to the tops of the white spruces.
For two spun-sugar seconds, the length of an awed whoop in and a heartwet gasp out, I couldn’t hear the protest of my knee, the low hum of body loathing, the agitation cycle of behaviors and results clanking, out of sync.
Worry about fat and ache had never seemed more trifling than in that moment, when an off-course bald eagle pitched past my face on a city street, so close I could’ve offered her an earbud. What had I been doing, fretting myself into knots about the natural course of life, when the world is a jaw-drop of wonder? I had been negotiating Terms of Diminishment, trying to square the corners of an ever-changing off-kilter self, when it’s apparent — if I stifle the mental jabber and look around — that every last one of us, every dogged, confused creature thwapping through distress, is a course-seeking rara avis.
It was migration season, a time when hundreds of thousands of raptors head south, skirting the inland sea that is Lake Superior, catching thermals, rising, circling, lofting to the top, then streaming into the next. Since flapping is hard work, eagles rely on boost of currents for energy conservation; when the air is calm, they find a perch and consider their claws for a few hours. In Northern Minnesota during the fall, especially near the shoreline and Duluth’s Hawk Ridge, bald eagles are a relatively common sight, their size distinguishing them from the aerial abundance of sharp-shinned, red-shouldered, broad-winged, rough-legged, red-tailed hawks.
But to come beak to beak with a bald eagle — its blazing bullet body carving a channel of controlled fluster down the middle of a busy road — was miraculous. My body bloomed with exhilaration as she whipped past, churning ferment like prey through the gizzard, generating fuel from fear. This glorious befuddled bird, unsure of where she was and why everything suddenly seemed so wrong, just…kept going.
Zipping past me, she neared the line of waiting cars, and for a half whiff I worried discombobulation would lead her into a windshield, but no, of course not. Her biological coding, that thing we call instinct, directed the action.
At the last second, just before the driver of the pick-up truck ducked, she flapped.
Each pump of the wings propelled her another whoosh out of, then above, the unnatural world of human design, and her body, smaller with every blink, drew a soft line over the roofs of the idling.
Intuitively, she rose, sensing gusts above the tree tips, and then, there, ahh, she was herself again, no longer a tight bundle of worry, instead a wild free thing — so fine within herself! — confidently crossing wind-shears, climbing upwind, then down, heading for the horizon.
It was only when her body became the size of a pencil point, the spell of her broken, that my lungs remembered to relax. The driver of the pick-up truck shook his head a few times, clearing the magic, then shifted into Drive.
Shoving the bud into my ear, I returned to the world of giggles and threesomes. My knee did its ache, and my lower back whispered a creak, but still. What a marvel that I had a knee and a back and the will to take them out for an airing. Shoulders back, a glorious befuddled bird, I lifted my chin for one more scan of the sky before beginning to hump my way home — every step my own launch into dynamic soaring.