The heron will have one foot on land, and one in the water. Ancient cultures believed that the heron acts as a majestic guide and signifies liminality – a crossing into an in-between space – a space that is neither here nor there.
“Liminality (from the Latin word līmen), meaning “a threshold” is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes.”
This is not the story I meant to write.
But it has found me here in the tender rice fields of Indonesia.
Another day drips into the next. There is no keeping track, only a subtle awareness that the candle is burning down. That everything is melting in on itself, expanding and then gone.
I wake and breathe in the thick dawn. Traces of incense linger from countless offerings of long ago, yesterday and the new morning.
I exist in a quiet, borrowed space here in The Land of the Gods.
Nothing belongs to me because I do not belong. Yet every day, I am welcomed. I accept what I am offered and I am offered more than I need. I keep pressing my palms together and saying, “Thank you, thank you…”
In the afternoon my eyes adjust to every possible shade of green. I watch from my comfortable perch as women effortlessly balance enormous loads on their heads and glide across the fields like ghosts.
At the end of the day the sun stains the sky pink and gold. This is my favorite time, before night spills and stars flicker like dying lightbulbs.
Perhaps it was the scent of dampened earth that pulled me back.
Had it really been three years? Suddenly I was there again, with my son Riley, deep in the Adirondack Mountains. We had been up most of the night as a fierce storm bent the tall pines until they split and torrents of rain battered our tent. We played Uno and I tried to make jokes, but I was scared.
When morning finally came it seemed like a miracle. But there was something else. As if the earth had shifted overnight and something had slipped away.
After breakfast Riley and I headed out to see how bad the road was. We maneuvered around fallen branches. We rolled down the windows and sucked in the cool morning air and sunshine. We were giddy with lack of sleep. We were happy.
Then we spotted it.
The heron stood like an elegant statue in the marsh, balancing on one limb as the other was bent and raised out of the water. I don’t know why I stopped the car. I’d seen many herons. Yet there I was, awestruck, staring at it.
I could not have known then the magnitude of that moment. And it is only now, looking back on it that I begin to understand its beauty and innocence.
I took a photo and we got back into the car.
A few miles down the dirt road, a Park Ranger waved for me to stop. She rolled down the window of her truck and without ever saying the exact words I knew in an instant that my father was dead.
A few weeks later, still reeling in grief, I loaded up the photos from our camping trip. I wanted to see the heron again.
I looked at the photo I had taken at the marsh. I looked closer. I enlarged it.
It didn’t matter how long I studied it, it was clear – there was no heron. I examined the other photos, still no heron, only the marsh. I asked Riley if he remembered seeing the heron and he did, “It was huge,” he said.
Weeks later we were sprinkling my father’s ashes into the creek behind his house. A single crayfish pinched at bits of his remains and I looked away so as not to fall off the edge of the world.
My father was all around me that day at the creek. It was his landscape. He had been painting it for as long as I could remember. I could still picture his paintbrush dipping into hues of grey and blue as he outlined the rocks and ripples of every detail.
I imagine my dad here with me now. He’d sit in the rocking chair, gazing out across the fields of rice, studying the colors and textures, figuring out how to capture the in-between spaces where the shadows slide across the grass before transcending into light.