Last week, I was sitting in the sunshine at the picnic table outside our cottage. The lake sparked diamonds, sharp to the eyes, the bright sun catching the tips of the ripples. Out in the middle of the lake, a wave runner buzzed across the surface of the water, then disappeared around the green, densely forested bend into the next bay. For whatever reason, no one else was around other than a few ducks looking for a handout. I had the lake to myself. And I needed its peace. It had been a busy week, my classes and homework more demanding than I’d anticipated. Every morning and evening were spent glued to the laptop, in between making meals and trying to be an entertaining wife/mother/travel companion. By Thursday, fatigue oozed from my pores. It was nice to sit in the sun and watch the water, to set aside my writing and just enjoy the moment.
After awhile, I pulled out The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller, a book I’d been reading before we left home, but had barely touched since we’d arrived in Rhinelander. The book felt good and right in my hands, full of that pleasurable feeling I get when I’m about to step into a compelling narrative. As much as I enjoy staring at lakes, I also enjoy reading by them. In moments, I was re-immersed in the story.
I was perhaps five or six pages in when something astonishing happened. From overhead, I heard the loud rush of air being displaced, a whoosh-whoosh that dragged me from the story. And there he was, before my eyes, a bald eagle, massive and majestic, taking flight from the top of the pine tree no more than fifteen feet from where I sat.
He hovered a moment, then his wings flapped again, powerful strokes so wide and so deep, I couldn’t fathom his wingspan. His tail feathers spread white against the blue sky, his chocolate brown body and wings so rich and regal by contrast. Before I could commit every aspect of him to my memory, he’d flown away. With three strokes of those wings, he was halfway across the lake and I, at my table on the shore, book forgotten, was left behind, awed and heartbroken.
In the afterecho, all I could think was that I’d done the unthinkable. I'd committed the writer’s cardinal sin. Somehow in my fatigue and lake-induced lethargy, I’d missed being in the present moment.
I thought about him all day. I’d seen bald eagles before, but always in captivity or, in the wild, only from a distance. Several years ago, my buddy Randy and I saw an eagle atop a dead tree across the bay. Even from that distance, he dwarfed the tree. We’d tried, but couldn’t get closer before he’d flown off. This eagle, my eagle, had been so close. How I would have loved to watch him, to sense his keen intelligence. I’d looked in the eyes of a bald eagle before and been humbled, had been made aware of my minion status. And that had been an eagle in captivity. I could only imagine how lordly and majestic he must have appeared, his gold eyes peering down at his dominion on Lake George. At the tired lady reading the book at a picnic table, unaware she was in the presence of royalty.
I can’t stop thinking about him. About the present moment.
The best writing brings a present moment to us. We feel it, we smell it, we taste it on our tongues. Our skin prickles from the sense of being immersed in it, in this other place someone has created on the page. I’d had an opportunity. To see something unique and frame it in language, to bring it to life for another human being. And I missed it. I’ve fixed the lesson firmly in my heart. Be in the moment, taste and feel it, rub myself across its textures, because the moment may never come again.
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