Sophie, the robin who has been sitting on three blue eggs in the pink dogwood just outside my office window, abandoned ship last night. The nest was a magnificent structure. To make the interior soft and bowl-shaped, she had pressed her rounded breast into the grass and twigs she’d gathered and painstakingly plastered with mud. She shaped it like a potter might use his hands; only Sophie-bird had used her heart.
A crow discovered the nest two days ago and swept in for repeated attacks. I’d warded off two assaults myself, but I knew the crafty crow, a hulking black shadow, a menace to all small things that sing, would inevitably succeed in this lethal mission, and he did.
Yes, Sophie was one of a billion robins, collectively known as a “worm” of robins—like a “pride” of lions and a “murder” of crows. And yes, statistics indicate that only 25% of birds fledged in summer, make it even to fall, but she was a good mother. Or at least the best she could be.
And that kills me. That good wasn’t good enough.
Self-improvement was a major theme in the house of my childhood, and I need to get a handle on this. Good never feels good enough, remorse never feels deep enough, and you cannot be grateful enough for the gifts you’ve been given. (I won’t argue with that last one.)
I was thinking about these things lying in a float tank—a sensory deprivation chamber. I signed up for this hour session somewhat impulsively because I’d always been curious—what on earth would happen if I turned off my brain? I’d heard that the experience is unique and lends itself to emotional insight, healing, and spiritual revelations. (I’m not known for low expectations.)
I arrived for my session in a ponytail and no makeup. I was going to be in water up to my ears for an hour and then showering off the Epsom Salts that would make me as buoyant as a balloon, so the normal morning routine had been swapped for “dear-God-don’t-let-me-run-into-anyone-I-know.”
The float chamber itself had been a stunning surprise. If you’ve ever been to a grotto, like the one on the island of Capri, where the sunlight seems to shine upwards from the white sea floor making the water pristine blue and alive with light, it was like that. As if blue and light had merged to be a living thing. And the ceiling of the float chamber was covered in glittering stars! We know I was charmed.
After taking a peek into it from my private outer room and having showered at home, I got undressed, then opened the chamber door and lowered myself into water the color of the sky and the temperature of my skin.
When ready, I could push a button with a wet salty hand to turn out the chamber lights so that only the stars lit the darkness. But I had been advised to use a second button to eventually turn out the stars as well. Floating in the absence of light, as if in the womb, would provide the ultimate float experience.
I lay there, reluctant to relinquish the stars. They are themselves evidence of a living universe, but I did eventually hit the button in search of the greater experience. The water held me just as it must have held me in the womb. I could open my eyes, and there was no difference in having them shut. I was sightless. Sort of weird. Sort of utero. Except, I probably wasn’t thinking thoughts in the womb.
Okay, that’s a lie, I probably was, but I was definitely still thinking thoughts here. I wanted to turn my brain off, but I came to understand that my internal mental chatter was not the result of outside stimuli. With all external stimuli eliminated, the mind monkeys were having a barn dance and had invited rowdy friends on scooters.
I tried concentrating on my breathing and on the water itself—which some call silky, not slimy. But after what I’d determined to be about 40 minutes (with deadly accuracy, it turns out), I resorted to amusing myself. What would happen if I put my feet down? Made the water ripple? If I died and became suddenly limp, in what position would they find my body? My hands seemed to always float to my hips—like Wonder Woman! Like someone who died bossing everyone around! I had earplugs in, but I could feel water seeping in around them and started worrying about getting salt crystals in my ears.
I tried harder to find heaven.
Where was the spiritual revelation? The emotional insight? The healing? I’ve got conundrums, and I’d provided the blankest slate I could muster to no avail. After a while, I started pinging myself off the sides of the tank, floating from left to right, pushing off with my toes.
I was a float fail. I tanked the float-tank experience.
The times I’ve been graced by the presence of spirit have come unbidden, have descended like a cloud. Like the night before surgery, when I’d been waiting three weeks in excruciating anxiety for a specialist from Georgetown to join my surgeon at Anne Arundel Medical Center.
I was awakened by gratitude—a soft, living presence that entered the room as gently as light, flooding my body and saturating my being so thoroughly that I could only lie in the dark and weep for the reality of a living love. I lay there just ridiculous with gratitude because I knew that if my surgery revealed the presence of a terminal illness, it would somehow be the experience I was born for. I didn’t feel assured that I would not be sick, only that if I were, all was well. All was perfect.
Sometimes God has arrived in a flash of intuition where I suddenly knew something I could not possibly know. Spirit has shown up as someone I’m meeting for the first time who feels like home. But God has never arrived when I was looking. Or testing. Or bargaining.
Instead, God has always materialized in ways I cannot anticipate. Do you search for the air you breathe? That’s the way love manifests, I thought, lying there in the primal dark. Grace is a presence for whom you can only open the door.
And with that revelation, I turned on the stars.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.