I want to return to the flying man story that’s recently prompted me to revisit it for deeper understanding. The full version appears in yesterday’s post, but here’s a brief summary:
Man escapes fire, sits by river bank, unseeing. Woman of the river finds his wings beneath the silt of the riverbed. He enters the water, pulls them out, sets the wings on land to dry, and falls asleep. Waking, he tries on the wings and walks to a cliff above the river. He looks at the water. The woman of the river sees him, and he starts to re-dream all that is to come. She releases the breath she’s been holding, it catches his wings, and he flies.
This story has been living in me for some time, and this and other stories of flying men have returned to me this week: Icarus, fitted with the wings his father built him, escaping the labyrinth, only to fly too close to the sun and his death. Toni Morrison’s exquisite Song of Solomon, “O Sugarman done fly away / Sugarman done gone / Sugarman cut across the sky / Sugarman gone home.” In Morrison’s work, there are several men preoccupied with flight, and the women are support systems for them, via song and inspiration. I had not realized until recently how deeply these myths were embedded in me until recently. I’ve been working on some new material, and the image of the flying man returns. It brought me to revisit a story that arose organically from a brief freewriting session, summarized above, and presented in longer form in yesterday’s post.
I was deeply affected, in my late teens, when I first encountered the mythical heartbreak of the fallen Icarus, and I have long been aware of a certain longing for flight that is a noticeable facet of our current psyche, especially in men. This longing to me seemed like a very particular response to a very diffuse and complex system that works to limit, imprison, and kill.
I suppose some of the draw, in my case, is also gendered. We learn the expectations of established roles before we learn to question them. They’re embedded in the dominant systems and stories of the moment. I realized yesterday that there was more to this flying man story than I had previously mentioned.
The shift has to do with the lens, which in this tale, focuses on a moment that begins when the man enters the vicinity of the river and ends when he flies over it. In allowing him to fly, the woman has fulfilled her purpose as prescribed by traditional norms. Additionally, because he has flown, her own attentions are freed from being consumed by the day-to-day details of his terrestrial care. In this way it is both affirming and freeing. It makes sense that I would have become preoccupied with this myth during decades when I was preoccupied with a calling to heal that felt sometimes at odds with the space I needed to generate the energy to sustain my own life. Naturally, I was influenced by extant mythologies in the dominant stories around me, in which the ideal feminine is often tied to a sacrificial figure. By this logic, her work is fulfilled when he flies.
However, we tend to see through a glass darkly, and I missed a larger message, one which carries within it seeds for new understandings. It has to do with who this woman is before and after this. Even though she is called the “woman of the river” I somehow saw her waiting on the banks. Here’s the point I missed. She didn’t live at the water’s edge, but only came up there to look from time to time. She lived in the water, moving between the river and the sea. Her world is invisible from the perspective of the man, and the original story, as I read/told it, was viewed through his lens. The dominance of male lenses in storytelling is so omnipresent that it tends to be invisible, even to female storytellers.
The stories that we tell ourselves allow us to slide through and around those places that we most need relief from. They can be a temporary salve as well as a key to a locked door. As Ben Okri writes in A Time for New Dreams, “We are constantly becoming, constantly coming into being.” In their stunning work, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People, philosopher Timothy Morton stresses the necessity of deliberate dreaming as the way for our species to imagine restorative ways forward. Dreaming into new ways of being is very different from “finding solutions” from a locus of established norms. And yet, as Morton puts it, real solutions to today’s crises can only come into being with the deep, immersive visioning that we associate with dreaming, not boardroom-oriented crisis management task forces.
I consider the implications of this new understanding of the woman and her relationship to the flying man. I am still moved by the badly burned men always arriving at the water’s edge, and yet I am having a better sense that the capacity to heal comes from living in a place separate from the land of fire that keeps burning and imprisoning them, from which they might fly. She lives in the river. Seeing this, I can better and more deeply understand the importance of returning to the water. There is plenty of work to do on land, but to do it, she must emerge from the river and return to it, again and again. In her story, the moments on land are brief. This is significant. In order to listen and respond most effectively and honestly to the real and immediate needs of a given day, I need to be continually immersed in the aqueous otherworld.
I have most faith in the knowing that emerges slowly, which feels like immersion in mystery, which is unknowing. I marvel how one of the preliminary understandings drawing me to this deeper knowing was a pull I had a few days earlier, to remember the manatee, this other former land-dweller who lives in the water, this curious, non-competitive species, now endangered. They feed on abundance, these manatees, consuming a quarter of their weight a day in sea grass which are naturally plentiful in the rivers where she lives. When the natural abundance of these grasses is choked by the machinations of greed, she suffers. What is good for her is good for all of us, because we also suffer by this machine.
Saving ourselves is not separate from saving others, human and non-human; is not separate from nurturing art, laughter, wonder, and joy. Returning to the depths of the dream worlds that allow us to see this is not separate from relief from the fires that burn us, is not separate from the need to fly.