Jul 25, 2022

A Man's Head With Wings

Joan Biddle

The following excerpt from Douglas Coupland's book Life After God has always stuck with me:

“Another snapshot: in the back yard watching bats dive-bomb a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee we are throwing while waiting for the occasional owl to swoop down from the hemlocks next to the telephone poles, plump and juicy, like a man’s head with wings.”

Life After God is one of the few books I read again and again. It’s a meditation; it’s love; it's chaos; it’s life. When I lived in Paris in college, three books lined the shelf behind my bed in my homestay: Life After God, The Beach, Lolita. I don't think I ever read The Beach.

It's the most fitting image for an owl: "a man's head with wings." An owl is such an otherworldly creature, not like a bird, not even like an animal. On a clear night owls call to one another from another time. From inside a faraway forest where we’re the guests.

Spooky. Magical. Human. Serious. Seeing an owl in a tree will really catch me off guard. A being staring into my soul, camouflaged, wise, knowing more about me than I know myself. The word for owl in French is chouette, which is also French slang for awesome.

Another thing about a man's head with wings: This line always ran through my head when my kids were babies. There’s a stage that babies go through, a few months in, when their heads get too big for their little bodies. It’s pretty funny. Changing their diapers, I always thought: there it is, a human head with wings. Except no real wings, just a little body and new arms and legs becoming real. A huge head with round eyes that don’t really know how to smile yet, but can drink you in like an owl's.  

The bats. The back yard. The glow-in-the-dark frisbee like a flying saucer. The bats add a bit of fear to the snapshot, danger. As do the hemlocks and the glowing frisbee and the telephone poles. It’s all a bit haunted. It's also everyday.

My childhood back yard isn’t the same as it was, the tall magnolias have grown old and hollow. The dogwood which once held a central place in the yard, and which I would climb in the same pattern every time, is gone. The lightpost is gone. The white weeds are gone. The rusty metal swingset. The oak is so huge the yard is like a clearing in a giant's forest. A place where people don't belong anymore.

The back yard. The most place. The shady dappled place where I sang and created so many stories, weeds or sticks in my hands. The place where my brother's friend threw a ball at my feet and yelled, "Jump, Joan!" I didn't jump.

Douglas Coupland's Life After God was published by Pocket Books in 1994.

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