We Carry Our Own Cage (Hangout RSVP and The Painted Bird)
“Where your fear is, there is your task” - Carl Jung
It often feels like I write as a reminder or encouragement to myself. In Masks I wrote about how we limit ourselves when we define ourselves. Of course, I wear my own mask made of many beliefs, including, unfortunately, some quite limiting ones. For example, I rarely host or set up events. It’s easy to let this turn into a belief: “I’m just not the kind of person who hosts events.” If you believe it, it becomes your reality.
The response to my question about hanging out, virtually or in person, was quite enthusiastic. It’s difficult to anticipate how many people could actually show up but that should not be a hurdle.
I don’t want to start procrastinating so I’m aiming for a date as early as next week. The format will be:
Zoom. Open Q&A/chat, no agenda. I will be hanging out for an hour. Feel free to join for a while and lob a question at me about work, life, books, anything.
Happy hour. I plan on hanging out at a midtown Manhattan bar for a couple of hours, probably 5.30-7.30pm. Join me for a drink if you want (and if there is still space).
I will send a follow-up email to supporting subscribers with an RSVP poll to get a sense of attendance for possible dates. Looking forward to getting to know more of you. If it’s fun and interesting, I’m open to repeating it regularly. Who knows, maybe even in other cities. But one step at a time.
The Painted Bird
Wrestling with my mask and event planning reminded me of a story I read recently. It’s from the book The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński, a stomach-churning tale of a Jewish boy wandering from town to town in Nazi-occupied Poland. Kosiński was a Polish-American novelist and Jewish survivor of the country’s occupation. He explained the title:
One of the villagers’ favorite entertainments was trapping birds, painting their feathers, then releasing them to rejoin their flock. As these brightly colored creatures sought the safety of their fellows, the other birds, seeing them as threatening aliens, attacked and tore at the outcasts until they killed them.
Both the bird and the boy are outcasts and subjected to pointless cruelty. They witness the insanity of an entire flock.
I’m not giving a blanket recommendation for the book which is well-written but filled with violence and depravity. The protagonist travels through an impoverished landscape filled with callous and superstitious people who embrace every opportunity to lash out and distract themselves from their misery.
Maybe the book resonated with me because I’ve always felt a little alien, an outsider without deep attachment to any one community. I was that way as a child in Germany, later at the Universität, and when I started working in finance. The outsider’s distance can be valuable. You are more likely to observe subtle patterns that remain obscured to insiders (reminiscent of the way Graverol depicted a woman’s body through its absence, leaving just a silhouette and clouds). And while it comes at the cost of being disconnected, it also leads to a treasured sense of freedom.
In the end, it is the loss of this freedom that the boy in The Painted Bird dreads. After the war, he finds himself in an orphanage where he is reunited with his parents. He is overcome not by love and gratitude, but by anxiety over losing his independence. He recalls the time he spent living with a wicked peasant who raised rabbits.
My mother remained with me alone in the room; my father went out to take care of the formalities. She said that I would be happy with her and my father, that I could do anything I wanted. …
As I listened to all this, I recalled the hare which Makar once caught in a trap. He was a fine large animal. One could sense in him a drive for freedom, for powerful leaps, playful tumbles, and swift escapes. Locked in a cage he raged, stamped his feet, beat against the walls. After a few days Makar, furious over his restlessness, threw a heavy tarpaulin over him. The hare struggled and fought under it, but finally gave up. Eventually he became tame and ate from my hand.
One day Makar got drunk and left the door of the cage open. The hare jumped out and started toward the meadow. I thought he would plunge into the tall grass with one huge leap and never be seen again. But he seemed to savor his freedom and just sat down, with ears pricked up. From the distant fields and woods came sounds that only he could hear and understand, smells and fragrances that only he could appreciate. It was all his own; he had left the cage behind. Suddenly there was a change in him. The alert ears flopped, he sagged somehow, and grew smaller. He jumped once and his whiskers perked up, but he did not run away.
I whistled loudly in the hope that it would bring him to his senses, make him realize that he was free. He only turned around and sluggishly, as though suddenly aged and shrunken, moved toward the hutch. On his way he stopped for a while, stood up, and looked back once again with ears pricked; then he passed the rabbits gazing at him and jumped into the cage.
I closed the door, though it was unnecessary. He now carried the cage in himself; it bound his brain and heart and paralyzed his muscles. Freedom, which had set him apart from other resigned, drowsy rabbits, left him like the wind-driven fragrance evaporating from crushed, dried clover.
Life tends to tame us. At first we struggle, then we accept and adapt to the way things are. Eventually, we cannot imagine living a different life. We can dream about it, but we lose our taste for the risks that come with true freedom. Roaming freely feels too alien from what we have become accustomed to. The chains against which we fought turn into comforting reminders of who we are. We welcome the door to our cage as protection.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Every day offers us the chance of a curious stroll past the gate. Every day allows us to see the world and ourselves with fresh eyes. Every day can be a tiny reinvention, if we want it to be.
Thank you for reading,