And lucid inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
~ Wallace Stevens, VIII in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
A raven visited me this morning. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him. Most mornings he’s there above my bed in London: perching on the chimney, clawing from side to side, cawing to the light. Every once in a while, he hooks his head ever-so-slightly with one eye bent in my direction. I wonder if he’s been looking in at me through the skylight as I lie here and peer back at him. “Why does he come?” I wonder.
I’ve named him Jack. Jack Dawn.
“Is this raven an omen?” I ask myself, “Is he bearing news from the dark side? Is he in with the shadow of things? Has he flown straight up from Hades? Or is my Jack a harbinger of messages from cosmos, delivering hidden meanings in his chimney dance at dawn?” I listen quietly for signals, songs, and signs from the bird; I lie silently for an utterance of Poe’s “nevermore.” I wonder, “What’s this bird’s gig?”
Maybe the raven is my totem animal. In Native American mythology, if an animal resonates with someone, visits her, intrigues her or follows her in her dreams, that animal comes with special meanings. Maybe the raven perches on my chimney for a reason. Maybe Jack Dawn is finally making himself known.
Ravens have been haunting me now for some time. A few years back, a friend of mine gave me a gift of a raven. He sketched a crow on a t-shirt with the bird’s body perched from backside to front and its head pointing prophetically at my left breast. A year later with that raven shirt on my back, I traveled to The Queen Charlotte Islands, home to the Haida people, a tribe who honour the raven as a mythological trickster and bringer of light to the world. Fascinated by this bird since, I’ve been following the raven as symbol in myths and legends from Norse to Celtic and back again to the Canadian Northwest. My first-ever moniker was “blackbird” inspired by the Wallace Steven’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. I’ve even written a song about a raven.
And now, that blackbird, Jack Dawn, visits me every morning. Maybe all this time the bird, in his multiple visitations in the form of drawings on t-shirts and carvings in native masks, has been bearing the ill omen of that cancer growing unnoticed in my left breast. Maybe all those familiar fatalistic connotations we have of ravens are true. Maybe the raven was cawing at the rebel cells multiplying out of control. “Bad news!” it has been saying. “Illness!” “Death!” After all, who when they first hear they have cancer doesn’t hear those same words. “You got the cancer!” cries the crow, “Caw! Caw! Caw!”
But maybe there’s another side to the raven’s cawing. In some cultures, the raven has been called upon for healing purposes. He’s a keeper of secrets; he points us to areas of our lives we are unwilling to face, unveiling our inner depths. For Jung, the raven points to the dark side of the psyche, the shadow that needs be integrated, the dark parts of ourselves that must meet with light in order for wholeness to happen. The name crow itself may originate from Rhea Kronia, the Greek goddess who like the Indian goddess Kali, is the mother of Time, a form of the dark mother. With ancestors of Kali and Rhea Kronia, my cancer raven may be reminding me my time is running out. Eventually I’ll all be swallowed and ravaged by the goddess herself. Even if I’m saved from the jaws of the outlaw cells, something will, in the end, kill me.
If the raven represents conflict, death and ill omens, it may also symbolizes metamorphosis, the necessary death that comes for change to occur. Is the raven calling out at the changes in my life that need to happen for me to be whole? Maybe each morning, perched on the chimney above me, Jack is cawing so that I might communicate with both sides of myself, darkness with light, at the bridge of nighttime and daytime. For it is at dawn Jack Dawn the raven caws, and dawn and dusk have always been special times for communion. Transition moments are said to be the most auspicious hours to hear omens from the otherworld.
So hear I am, on the other side of day, falling into night. I think about my own wholeness and the changes that need to happen for my body, psyche and spirit to return to balance. I think of how all these years of yoga, following the yama-s and niyama-s, practicing meditation, exercising daily and eating whole foods have only brought me so far. Time is cawing out to me, and the crow is now forming in the crowing of a cancer. She is dark in her body and mysterious in her ways. I have no clue what has brought her here. What is her message, this cancer of the breast? How do I seek to integrate her? How do I learn from her presence?
My cancer, a raven, calls out to the darkest spaces within myself. She calls out to my to my fears of loss and of dying. I fear losing my breast, my fertility, and my sexuality. I fear losing my wholeness in the shape of my body. I fear losing friends, a potential for my own family, futures I had foolishly planned. For perhaps God is laughing now. Cancer calls out to my fears of facing this all alone, but ultimately it is alone I must face this cancer, as she caws out to me only a few centimeters from my beating heart. The raven cancer calls out to the memory of my mother who lost this same battle; it calls out to the twelve-year-old girl, who was left lost at the death of her mother. Cancer caws out in the night when I most fear the caller: she is “the silken sad uncertain rustling” that forces me “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” until “my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / shall be lifted - nevermore.” Or at least that’s the way it feels sometimes.
At other times, cancer calls out to my greatest courage. I have no time to waste. I have no time to lie worrying under my covers, desiring only to fall into dreams to avoid facing this cancer in her cawing. I have only so much time on earth, cancer or no cancer. My raven, cawing quietly around me in my days, is teaching me to cross the grass slowly and barefoot; to lie down in Hampstead Heath all afternoon in the sun doing reiki; to spend less time online chatting and more time in silence; to express gratitude for the dirt, the berries, and the leaves. For as much as the cancer is cawing at me to contemplate the passing of time, she is cawing in way that slows time down just enough for me to savour her.
I have stopped worrying quite so much what other people think of me. I have nearly ceased brooding about what my career will look like in five years. I have stopped caring quite so much how other people will perceive me and my dharma in this world. I have stopped concerning myself about some guy who couldn’t love me right. I have stopped caring about that girl whom I angered just by being myself. I have stopped aspiring to be perfect and started, in small ways, to aspire to be whole.
However, the raven is still cawing, and still there exists so much shadow with which to sit in that audible song. I still sit wondering what it is that has caused this cancer. The literature I’ve been reading on healing tells me I can kill all the cancer cells I want with knives and chemicals, but no cutting and poisoning will cure the cancer at its source. And what is the source? A mutated gene? An imbalanced heart? Unexpressed feelings? Love unfelt? A spirit undernourished? A voice waiting to be heard? The raven sits above my heart, calling out for me to hear her. Dear raven, my life is in your hands, and I’m listening.