Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Peacock Feather

Dedicated to my father, Douglas Alan Worth, on his 80th birthday

When my friend Robin Moore asked me to tell a story for Tellebration, I was thrilled.  When Robin told me the theme was to be "Synchronicity in Everyday Life," I thought, “Cool.” I was certain some great folktale would surface in my memory. You see, I believe in the process of story discovery, how the right story will reveal itself at the perfect time – in a way, you might say this process is an act of synchronicity itself.

Stories have this marvelous way of presenting themselves to you when you’re ready for them. Yet, stories are also wily things, and they aren’t always direct or obvious, so it’s imperative you pay attention.

 Well, of course, what happened next was every folktale I love to tell, every story in my repertoire, none of them seemed right.  And while I looked for the perfect traditional story, this personal story began knocking at the back of my brain.  I, however, chose to ignore it. “Scram,” I said, “I don’t want to tell a personal story.” So, I ignored the knocking and looked through my story files.

The personal story knocked again, “Scoot,” I said, “I want something from the magical realm, something fabulous and filled with mystery.”

 The personal story knocked a third time, and well, you know what happened next: I let it in.

A long, long time ago, eighty years, in fact, my father was born on a full moon night the 30th of November. He was named Douglas, which means dark water, and he grew quickly into a bright young man with black hair, piercing blue eyes, and a ready smile.

My father navigated earth by the stars. He had a thirst for adventure and a scientific fascination with space and time. He was particularly intrigued by the two types of time described by the Ancient Greeks: Kronos time and Kairos time. Kronos time is sequential time; it is chronological time; clock-time; life strung together like beads on a string time.  And, it is through Kronos time we are occasionally gifted with unforgettable moments of synchronicity, when an experience in chronological time is touched by a miraculous unfolding.

Now, my father would explain there is a second type of time, Kairos time, named after a lesser-winged god who danced on the razor’s edge.  This is cyclical time; it is story time; the time when we get lost in some activity, or experience, or feeling, and time stands still. This is when time is experienced as expansive, creative, or spiritual.  Kairos time encircles the moments of our life that are suspended beyond chronological time: birth, death, creative inspiration, and love.

Once, a long time ago, back in the 1950’s, my father was a career officer in the US Navy stationed in Havana. He was recently married, with me on the way, and he had to leave his new bride to attend to the capers of Castro in Cuba.

Before he left, he turned to his beautiful wife and asked her if there was any gift she would like him to bring back from Cuba.  He was thinking a beautiful embroidered shawl, perhaps some castanets.

“Yes,” she said. “There is one thing I want. I would like the autograph of Ernest Hemingway.” 

Now, this was a tall order. Hemingway lived sequestered in his villa, Finca Vigia, somewhere in the mountains outside of Havana. He had recently received the Nobel Prize for Literature, after the publication of The Old Man and the Sea, and refused to grant interviews or see anyone.  Despite these obstacles, my father was undaunted–after all, he was young and in love, and we all know this is a recipe for daring.

“The autograph shall be yours,” my father said. Then he kissed his lovely bride and sailed to Cuba on the Nimitiz.

Havana was hot in every way – the temperature, the music, the nightclubs, the political climate. There was so much my Dad could have done when granted a two-day leave. But, there was only one thing that pressed upon him – his wife’s request.

He asked everyone he met if they knew where Ernest Hemingway lived, and each person shook their head and pointed in a different direction up the mountains saying, “Somewhere up there.” Somewhere up there was a pretty big place. So Dad responded as he often did, he sized up the landscape and said to himself, “If I was Ernest Hemingway, I’d live right up  . . . there.” And he found a bus that was heading in that specific direction and climbed aboard.

The rickety bus clambered up the mountainside. The dirt roads were bumpy due to random rocks and holes and streets were so narrow it felt as if the bus might teeter off the side of a cliff.

My Dad took in the vista. The higher the bus climbed, the more expansive and beautiful the view. And then, there was this moment, when the sea glistened and my Dad thought, “If I was Ernest Hemingway, I’d live right here.” So, he pulled the rope that beckoned the bus to halt, and in his limited Spanish, he thanked the driver and got off.

The bus clattered away and in a few minutes my Dad realized he was in the middle of nowhere. No houses, no cars, and no people. With few options, he walked on.  He walked and he walked and it wasn’t too long before a cart came clickety-clacking down the rocky dirt road. Dad waved it down. It was an old wooden cart, pulled by a mule, and sitting at the front, holding the reigns, was a wizened old leathery-faced woman. In Spanish, my Dad asked if she knew where Ernest Hemingway lived. The ancient woman’s eyes narrowed as she took the young sailor in. “It just so happens,” she began, “I am on my way to his Finca now to deliver eggs. Climb in the back and I’ll give you a ride. But,” she added slowly in her broken English so he could understand, “you must promise when we near the house you will cover yourself with this tarp so they don’t see you.  And when I go to the back door to deliver these eggs, you must sneak out of the cart and act like you do not know me.”

“Promise,” my father said, and he climbed into the cart and headed toward Finca Vigia. Once the gate was opened for the old egg woman, and the cart moved inside, my Dad’s heart began to pound. What should he do next? He hadn’t any idea. He left some money in the back of the cart in gratitude to the old woman, slid out carefully while the woman brought the eggs to the door, and hid by the stairs.

When the cart left through the gates, my father mustered all his courage, and he marched up to the backstairs where the egg women had been and knocked loudly on the door.

“Who’s there?” called out a woman’s voice.

“A lieutenant in the US Navy to see Mr. Hemingway,” my Dad replied.

A middle-aged woman with short blond hair, blue eyes and a dimpled chin, poked her head out the door. My Dad recognized her as Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary.

“Who are you?” She asked.

“A lieutenant, a fan of Mr. Hemingway’s. I’m here on a mission.”

“He’s not seeing visitors,” she said and slammed the door.

My father knocked again.

The same blond head popped out the cracked door. “Listen, sailor,” she said, “I don’t know how you got in here, but if I were you I’d hightail it back to Havana before I call the authorities about an intruder.”

She slammed the door again. This time more forcefully.

My father paused. He knew he was edgewalking with this woman. He knew if he was reported for trespassing, or worse, he’d be in serious trouble with the US authorities.  He knew, too, Hemingway and his wife had reputations for their sharp-shooting skills and rarely missed a target.

He considered leaving, but then he looked over and saw a flock of peacocks parading over the lawn. At the moment he scanned the birds, one opened his tail into a magnificent fan of radiant color. My Dad had never seen a peacock in full splendor before and he took it as a sign. Emboldening himself, he knocked a third time. This time as loudly as he could.

“Damn you, man!”  The woman’s voice yelled out. “I’m calling the police.” She opened the door and added, "you’ve got one minute to hit the road.”

Just at the moment, when my Dad was thinking he better sprint for the gate, a man’s deep voice bellowed out: “Forget it. Mary.  Any man who is that persistent is welcome to come in and have a drink.”

And that is how it came to be my father entered Ernest Hemingway’s home, drank a glass of whiskey, and shared stories of the sea and hot nightclubs in Havana.

“I won’t ask how you got here,” Hemingway said, “but I am curious what you want.”

“Your autograph, sir,” my father said with deference (the Navy had trained him well), for my wife. It’s the only gift she wishes to have from Cuba.”

And then the revered writer himself presented my father the treasure he sought: an autograph on a piece of 3x5 white paper. It read:

To Lynn Worth,
Best wishes always,
Ernest Hemingway
Finca Vigia, Cuba 1956

The two men shook hands, and Hemingway let my father out the front door this time.

As my Dad was walking down the driveway, he spied a peacock feather and picked it up. He placed it with his autograph and headed back toward Havana.

A few moments later, a car pulled up next to him and inside was Mary Hemingway. “Climb inside, Lieutenant, I’ll give you a ride back to town.”

The conversation on the trip to the city was about peacocks. My Dad mentioned how all the stories he knew spoke about their vanity and pride.

Then Mary asked if he knew any of the older stories. Like for instance, how in India the peacock’s shrill cry announces the coming rain. Or, how they are known for protecting others by sacrificing their own life. And, this was the story that fascinated my father most, how alchemists used their feathers to turn lead into gold.

“I’d no idea,” my father said. He gazed at the feather and made sure he packed it carefully along with the autograph.

Not too long after this adventure, my Dad was sent back to the States. His beautiful wife and new baby daughter greeted him at the pier. When he presented my mother with the autograph, she was overjoyed.

“How did you get this?” she asked. 

“You could say fate winked at me,” my father said.  And when they came home, he placed the peacock feather in an old blue bottle on his desk.

Time went by. The family expanded. My father left the Navy. And our relationship, too, went through its own evolution. The girl, who once rode on her fathers’ shoulders to look at the moon and constellations, grew into a teenager, and the man who once was her hero, a Jedi who could bend light and time, lost his luster, fell to earth and took a mortal form. 

These were turbulent times:

My father supported the war.  
I protested.

My father was a Republican.
I proudly registered as a Democrat on my 18th birthday.

My father was deeply religious and committed to his faith.
I was on a spiritual journey, moving from church, to synagogue to ashram to Buddhist temple. I was looking for a container for my faith.

My father wanted me to become a lawyer.
I became an actress.

My father wanted me to move back to CT to have a family and settle down
I moved to the West Coast and chose, for a long time, not to marry. 

Just about the time I settled in Seattle, I received a package in the mail. It was from my Dad. When I opened it up, inside there was a peacock feather and a note. It read: 

“I once thought peacock feathers brought bad luck. But a wise woman once told me there are different ways of perceiving things. She explained that sometimes peacock feathers are used in alchemy to help change lead into gold. I thought you might enjoy knowing that. Love, Dad.”

A few months later, I was in a shop and spied a bouquet of peacock feathers. I bought one and sent it to my Dad. It was accompanied by a note that read:

“Dear Dad, Did you know peacock feathers represented hope and the promise of return?  Guess what? I’m moving back East. Love, Lisa.”

Over the years, we exchanged many feathers and our accompanying notes were filled with bits of information that created connection:

·      How peacock feathers contained all 7 colors.
·      How Krishna wore these feathers in his hair and dangled them from his flute.
·      How the peacock’s eye is considered the holder of all wisdom.

And so it was over the years, we stitched our relationship back together with peacock feathers.

Sixteen years ago, my father became ill. At first, we weren’t concerned because he was youthful and athletic. But, after a few months, it became clear it was serious. My brother and his family flew in from Colombia.  My father was a determined man and did not go gentle into that good night. He prepared for the arrival of his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Despite his weakness and pain, when each child ran toward him, he lifted them up over his head and kissed them. He held his youngest granddaughter in his arms and rocked her till she fell asleep. That night we all sat around his table and laughed and after many requests, he told the story of Ernest Hemingway’s autograph.

This time when he ended it, he added something he’d never said before: “But, there was another gift as special, although I didn’t know it at the time, and that was the peacock feather.”

“No way” a cousin responded, “peacock feathers are bad luck.”  My father looked at me and smiled.

The next morning I received a call my Dad had taken a turn for the worse. He chose not to go to the hospital. “You know how stubborn he is,” my brother said.

On my way to the house, I decided to pick up a box of popsicles for the kids because it was so hot. There was a craft shop near the supermarket and in the window were peacock feathers. I ran inside and purchased one.

We each took turns to sit by my father’s bed. When I went in, I brought the peacock feather and placed it on his nightstand. His eyes sparkled and he smiled. I leaned in close:

“Dad,” I whispered, “Did you know in Buddhism peacock feathers are connected with compassion and immortality?”

He smiled again, this time with his eyes closed.

My five-year old daughter came into the room eating a popsicle. My father’s throat was parched. “That looks good,” he said. I bounded downstairs to the fridge and when I came upstairs with a grape popsicle in my hand, my daughter was nose-to-nose with her grandfather. 

“Promise?” he asked?

“Promise,” she said.

I called my brother upstairs as Dad feasted on his popsicle. In that moment, watching him, time began to expand and slow down simultaneously. My father was talking and gesticulating with his half-eaten grape popsicle.  As he did, as I watched him, he started to get younger and younger.  His hair went from white to gray to shiny black; his skin from pale, to tan, to luminous. This transformation continued until lying before me was the young lieutenant dark haired, smiling, ready for adventure.

And then, sinking back into his pillows, he uttered these words from the Bible:

“Perfect love casteth out fear. This . . .” he was drifting away, his voice growing fainter and fainter, “ This” he whispered, “is love.” And then, with ease and no resistance, he slowly stopped breathing. As he left his body, which now looked old and empty, the room was filled with an incredible light.

Late that evening, after everything that could be done was completed. My husband and I, with our two daughters, headed for our car. The night sky was clear and ablaze with sparkling stars. I could feel my father all around me.  

Calling me out of my reverie, my older daughter pulled at my sleeve. “Mama,” she said, “wait, I forgot something,” and she ran inside.  Moments or hours later – I have no way of knowing, time was still expanding beyond measurement – my daughter ran outside again. “I almost forgot this,” she said, and she held up the peacock feather. “Poppy gave it to me,” her blue eyes radiant. “He made me promise to take care of it.” She looked up at me and smiled, “And he said when I was ready, I should pass it on.” 

Lisa Worth Huber © November 2013