Songbirds in Winter, an Epiphany Story
January 1, 2023
As far back as I can remember I’ve had a recurring dream: I’m looking out the kitchen window in my childhood home, over a snowy-white yard on a brutally cold morning. Snow has piled on the shed-roof in clumps and swirls, merengue confections, pretty and untouched after the snowstorm a day before. Winter birds gather on the stump of the old mulberry tree, the red of the cardinal wins the day, but the earnest little chickadees come in a close second.
Inside there’s classical music on the radio. Brahms or Chopin. It’s just my mom and me. The house is still, due to shift in minutes as a dozen siblings stumble from their beds, in the too crowded, too cold house.
“When you fly, it will be in a dream. The dreams they teach you.”from The House that is You, Swimming Deeper album
“Fire!” My mother is shouting at me across the room. I run to the phone on the wall, hands shaking, try to dial, starting the rotation again and again. When at last the call connects, I open my mouth to speak and nothing comes out.
Flames now engulf the lilac bushes, billowing orange and gray, frightfully close to the house. As the smoke closes in, I wake up.
Something close to this happened in real life when I was a child. My father, watching out the window for his taxi, saw smoke in the house next door. Someone other than me made the emergency call. And my parents ran out the door. My mother coaxed a terrified woman to throw her baby out the second store window to them, where a blanket she was holding caught the child.
We were all terrified of fire after that. Always vigilant when candles were lit, and pots were on the stove. My German grandfather was a fire adjuster for an insurance company. ‘He saw things. He would never talk about it.’ My mother told me.
I played the fire scenario out in my mind in wakeful times, too. “Know what to say,” I told myself. “Speak fast. If you’re in trouble, ask for help.”
In 2006 a fire really happened to me. One balmy winter night before Christmas, I heard a cry and looked to see a figure all in flames, clawing at the bedroom window in the house next door.
“Call 911!” I shouted at my daughter, as I ran outside.
I grabbed a brick from the garden, broke the window, and attempted to climb the wall, hazily recalling the warnings in school about air pressure and high temperatures, but tried anyway. I heard a crash and the ceiling fell in. Fritz, the neighbor, didn’t make it. He’d fallen asleep smoking in bed, bottles of half-drunk alcohol on his bedside table added fuel. The flames made their way to my house, damaging a whole wall of windows before the CFD put it out.
In a way – winter is the real spring – the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.”Edna O’Brien
Pieces of broken glass appeared in the soil every spring for years, as the winter snows subsided, robins hunted worms, and snowdrops and crocuses pushed through the ground, so too the reminders.
This kind of trauma leaves a chink in the armour forever. An opening for fears to creep in and set-up shop. Fires = Helplessness. Being voiceless in dreams is all kinds of fodder for therapy sessions. And in the self-help era of soul-seeking “Women Who Run with Wolves” allegory, I made good sense of it in mine: One child of too many, seen but not heard. Anxious wife, young mother, fledgling woman-artist silenced by overpowering males. Trauma survivor. PTSD. Helpless victim. OR, perhaps the dream represents an emerging ego trying to be heard in the chaotic world outside. You are burning with passion. It was also suggested.
In the early 90s, as I emerged from a marriage single and directionless, I sought the counsel of a self-possessed and spiritually evolved, twice-divorced friend. She listened. Then offered to design me a business card, thus creating the moniker I use to this day: “A Voice for the Soul of the City.”
Like a pair of beautiful, too-large shoes, my friend’s gift of insight and generosity offered an opportunity. Over the years, I grew into the image. Sallying forth, steadfast with purpose, seeking people and situations where my brand of activism could make art and create goodwill.
Somewhere along the way, the fire-dreams shifted. Sometimes I can fly. Sometimes I’m packing to go somewhere. Often the childhood home is an unheated summer cottage where my mother’s been living, a secret place everyone knew about but me. It’s usually winter or the dank rainy season. We know pieces of normal life are missing. We just want to be together. Waking from those dreams, for while I believe this place exists.
Grief has its own ideas
As I write this, I’m coming out of a week of laryngitis. Being voiceless during the heretofore unforeseen mouth-covering the pandemic warrants, carries another pernicious layer of frustration to this unusual time of distancing. Living alone, I spent several days not speaking a word, and nights with coughing severe enough to fear damage to my throat and concern my singing voice might be jeopardized.
“Rest!” My loved ones advise in daily texts.
We live half our lives in dreams, I tell myself. My brother recently told me his idea of how the subconscious holds a place for our deceased loved ones. Nice thought.
Are people ever really gone?
So it is the spirits of my recently departed loved ones I summon-up for advice these too-long days; when afternoon shadows shift just-so on the table in the corner, and sunset-colors in the frozen cityscape reflect menacingly in panes of smoky glass. Firing up my nerve, I call out in raspy desperation: “Are you there? Will you help me?”
And somehow, in the ache of the missing, a new thought, lyric or idea flutters tenderly from heart to throat to head. Burning with the desire to make something new. Restoring my soul. Asking me to fly.
The roots of Jamie O’Reilly’s musical heritage are explored in parlor concerts, soirees, and concert events celebrating her love of Chicago as a “A Voice for the Soul of the City.”
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