Although I had gone to bed at midnight after working the swing shift, I inexplicably woke up one recent morning at 5am. I’m normally drawn to hunkering down under the blankets in the winter, or stoking the fire and pulling the rocking chair close, hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, just staring and waking up slowly. But this day, I felt an urgent need to be outside. I had been dreaming a lot recently, vivid, peculiar dreams and the gloaming half-light of the morning matched my half-waking, half dream world state. For some reason, it just felt right and good to go be outside right now. I walked out on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, my mind still fuzzy, and pleasant with sleep, staring, but not seeing. A crash, and a deer exploded out of a thicket next to me, startling me awake, boing-ing away down the path in front of me as if on a pogo stick. After my heart recovered, I smiled. That was more effective than any cup of coffee. Cotton-tail rabbits darted, stopped, and dashed, diving headlong into the bushes, their little sides, heaving with alarm. A moment later a marsh hawk noiselessly slipped over my head, just a few feet above me, head on a swivel. Was it me or the hawk they fled? There was a big winter swell on the ocean and I paused to watch in respect and awe. I could see how the poets of yore compared it to herds of wild horses. The massive waves raced in, necks arched, manes of foam flying back in the wind, only to toss their heads down with a crash like the thundering of hooves. The wind tugged at my hair and made my eyes water. I tucked my chin into my vest, shoved my hands a little deeper in my pockets, and continued to follow the sinuous path along the sandy, brushy bluffs.
My mind started to toss and roll around various events of the past few days, much like the ocean was rolling the rocks on the shore, it swiveled and looked like the Marsh hawk after the rabbits. I once took a class on dreaming. It taught me to look for coincidences and pay more attention to them. Perhaps they were not coincidences, but rather “Winks from the Universe”. Maybe such things called for further inspection. There had been several of late.
My land lord had stopped by a few days prior to inform me he would be evicting my neighbor because the older man had fallen on hard times and was unable to pay for firewood and possibly the electricity had even been turned off. The landlord felt he was a liability as he had also recently had an accident involving a water pipe that hadn’t been handled well. My heart spoke and I exclaimed, “Oh that poor man!” Landlord didn’t like that. “Poor man nothing! He has real problems and this is all his own fault.” Ach. Maybe he does and maybe he is, but he’s still a person and can feel the cold and the dark just like me, and so it stung my heart. I kept thinking of him sitting there after the sun goes down, in the cold and the dark and I couldn’t stand it. I reached out to my neighbors, saying what had happened and wondering if we could help. They responded that it was a bad idea. I cocked my head in confusion. How could it be a bad idea to help a neighbor? I went to work and asked my fellows there and got the same response. That’s a bad idea. Don’t risk it. What if your landlord were to evict you too? The man is an adult and he can figure it out. Don’t get involved. Still, it didn’t sit right. I went down to the mailbox to make sure I had his address correct, thinking to have a load of firewood delivered anonymously, so to avoid embarrassments for the neighbor and to avoid the ire of the landlord. An hour later the landlord knocked on my door. He had heard I was considering trying to help the neighbor and he was there to ask me not to do that, to stay out of it. I felt like a guilty child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Impossible to help now and also much confusion. I only wanted to relieve someone’s suffering. How can I sit there in my warm, cozy house, fire crackling, glass of wine in hand, and know that at the fork in the driveway, someone else sits, uncomfortable and sad, when I have the power to do something about it? Why is everyone telling me no? Am I so off that I’m not seeing things clearly?
That night I went to a Celtic concert. There was foot stomping fiddle music, twirling dancers, Gaelic poetry, but best of all, an old man who had grown up in the Irish countryside who told tales of his village. One story revolved around his neighbor, a single mother called Bridgette of the Birds for the flock of larks that sang over her house each morning. Bridgette’s husband had died the day their little son was born, a bad omen for the wee bairn. Bridgette’s only buffer between herself and destitution was her one cow (which she had trained to eat toast very daintily and drink sugar tea out of a bowl) and her neighbors. It was said in rural Ireland, before the time of cars, before electricity, when the roofs were made of thatch and the floors of flagstone, that your neighbors were your survival. They were your property insurance, your health insurance, your social media, everything. Bridgette’s boy, who was her life, grew up to be a surly and angry young man befitting the ill omen. One morning she woke up and just knew that today, everything was wrong, and nothing would be the same again. When she opened her eyes, the larks did not sing, and she knew whatever it was, everything had changed. She ran to the barn in her bare feet and flung wide the door. The cow was gone. She ran back to the house to her son’s room even though she already knew. He was gone too. As were the few copper pennies she’d saved against a rainy day and kept in a jar on the mantle. The storyteller, as the youngest in the family was given the responsibility of caring for the neighbor. He told of going to her house to stoke the fire, to make her tea, to sit on the edge of her bed in silent companionship as she stared out at the world with blank and unseeing eyes. His grandmother had forbidden him from speaking to Bridgette. His presence was enough. But as the holidays drew near, he couldn’t resist. He spoke. “Surely. Surely you will get a parcel from your son on Christmas. Then you will know that he has only gone away to make his fortune and cares for you still.” Bridgette turned to him and he saw a little glimmer of hope come to life in her eyes.
Bridgette came back to life. Every afternoon, she would rouse herself from the bed and go out to the end of the lane and stand at the stone wall, the wind tearing at her thin night shift and her wild, curly red hair waiting for the Davey the post man to arrive on his bicycle. Everyday he would arrive and say the same thing, “Sorry Bridgette. No letter today. Perhaps tomorrow.” The family noticed the change and the story-teller had to confess to his grandmother what he had spoken. Finally it was Christmas Eve. Davey the post man came bumping down the lane on his bicycle. The eldest son of the family had sent a package from America, with clothes and money and all sorts of wonders. The children ripped into it with shrieks of joy. Davey the post man lingered at the hearth and didn’t leave. The family looked at him. His eyes were shining with tears and he whispered, “I can’t do it. I can’t go tell her there is nothing.” Grandmother looked at our story teller with grave severity. “You disobeyed me and spoke, giving her a false hope.” She put down her knitting and held out her hands, the sign that he was to come and help heft her from her chair. You will re-wrap everything, even the money. You will write a letter to Bridgette from her son. And so he did. And the whole family walked down the lane, the full moon shining on the moors, with Davey the post man, to deliver the parcel of Christmas joy and abundance to Bridgette of the Birds from her son.
Our good intentions can have unintended consequences. But keep your heart. Help your neighbors. Don’t grow cold and unfeeling. But for the grace of God, there go I.