Soul Bird by Deborah Anne Quibell
There will come a time
when you will be asked
to place your inner belongings
at the feet of a Love you are yet to know.
That to which your heart clings the most
will be asked of you.
You may be angry at the request.
You may scream and weep
until your tears can no longer
extinguish the flames
that burn the hands of your heart.
You may feel betrayed at the demand.
You may resist and fight
until your strength can no longer
hold back the shovel
that’s digging up your soul.
Lay down, sweet one.
Let the clearing happen.
Somewhere, deep within, you know.
The soul bird
has been buried
for too many tired years.
And she knows the way out.
Her sweet call will swell
from your pulse
out into the world
that needs her so.
“The Absolute Beauty of the Soul” A Reflection by Rev. Jessica Steward
At my tiny college, on our tiny nook of a campus, tucked inside the big city of Pittsburgh, there was a tiny post office. And in that tiny post office, I had a tiny post office box where typically I received a tiny amount of mail. But one day, I reached into the box and pulled out a tiny package from my normal-sized Grandma Elsie. I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I love getting mail, particularly mail that I do not expect to get, particularly presents. My Grandma Elsie was a knitter and a sewer and this box was too small for apparel of any kind so I was both intrigued and slightly trepidatious at what may be inside.
Once I was back in my dorm room, I sat on my bed and set about opening this little package. Inside the small box was what can only be described as a tightly wrapped wad of tissue paper and scotch tape that was just smaller than the size of a golf ball. Needless to say—and yet I’ll confirm it anyway—I was very curious. Without hesitation, I began picking and pulling and unwinding this little ball of paper and cellophane until out fell a beautiful ring with a gorgeous sky-blue stone set in silver. I gasped because this was not anywhere in the realm of my usual hand-knitted sweater or Halloween-themed apron and was also wholly unexpected. I was fairly certain that although I knew my grandmother loved me, she did not really like me and this most certainly might indicate that she not only loved me but might also, in fact, like me.
Inside the box was a card, which I opened only after I had unraveled the mystery wad o’ paper. In it, she told me this was a ring my Pa Joe had given her as a gift years ago and she wasn’t sure what the stone was but since it was blue and I was born in September and my birthstone was a blue sapphire, she wanted me to have it. I called her later that night after my classes were done and thanked her profusely for such a beautiful, generous, and unexpected gift and asked her if this meant I was now her favorite, at which she sniffed and sighed at me and told me she loved me and to enjoy wearing it.
And I loved wearing that ring. It fit perfectly on my ring finger at the time and was the prettiest and classiest piece of jewelry I owned. It sparkled and shone and caught the eye of everyone who marveled over its beauty. When they would ask me about the ring, I would tell them the story of why my grandmother gave it to me and they too would wonder aloud what kind of stone it was. Was it an aquamarine or a blue topaz or even a light blue sapphire? Even after its unwrapping, it continued to be a great mystery. And while I didn’t know what kind of stone it was, I did know that my Pa Joe, who died when I was just 7 weeks old, gave it to my Grandma Elsie, who he loved very much, and that she loved me enough to share that gift with me. And that I was also clearly her favorite.
Many years and several increased ring sizes later, I decided I wanted to have the ring reset so I could start wearing it again. I loved our wedding ring jeweler’s aesthetic and so Brendan and I took this family heirloom to downtown Cambridge to have Daniel the Jeweler take a look at the ring, perhaps to finally solve the mystery of its stone, and consult with us on a potential new setting.
Although Daniel is known for his gorgeous, organic designs—and his unique shaved pattern hairstyle with a rattail—he is, however, not known for his tact. Unfortunately, this visit to his studio would prove to be no exception. Somewhat nervously, I pulled out my precious blue ring, sharing its history and meaning with him, and asked him if he could tell me what kind of stone it was and if it was worth resetting. With his usual look of slight skepticism, he pulled down his jeweler’s magnifier headband to look at it more closely and then quickly told me it was a lab–grown blue topaz, not very valuable, and probably not worth resetting with his designs. He didn’t work in silver—only platinum, palladium, or gold—and the costs of the metal would be worth considerably more than the stone itself.
For some reason, his tone, the way he looked at me, and the way he so quickly dismissed the value of my ring caused this creeping embarrassment to begin rising up from my toes, through my stomach, up to my face, where I felt my cheeks begin to flush. I laughed and said yeah, I figured it wasn’t very valuable because my grandma sent it wrapped in a bunch of tissue paper through the mail and as quickly as he had passed his judgment I was just as quickly thanking him and hustling us out the door. The message was clear: this stranger, this strange man, had deemed my ring a mere trinket and unworthy of his precious time.
By the time I hit the street with Brendan, I was fuming and while we walked up the street of our favorite neighborhood, checking out the windows of our favorite shops, I couldn’t fully shake my anger. Who did he think he was to treat me this way? Who did he think he was to pass judgment on the value of something and what it’s worth is to other people? Who was he to dismiss the beauty of this symbol of my grandparent’s love, my grandmother’s gift to me, and the value of its sparkle and shine as a result?
We have such a confusing and irrational relationship with beauty in this world. We claim to value natural beauty over man-made beauty and yet the unnatural lengths we go to find and exploit beauty are enormous. We dig mines into the ground to pry precious metals and stones from it, destroying the natural landscape that surrounds it—and the people who dig for these rare treasures along with it. We pump toxin into the lines of our face and acids and minerals into our lips to give them a plumper pout. We pump high pressure liquid into the bedrock of our planet to force fissures to form, all so we can exploit sacred land for the remains of ancient decomposing marine organisms that help fuel the frenzy of our own destruction.
On one hand, we value things more if they shine and shimmer and dazzle and delight—particularly the nubile beauty of youth—but on the other, we diminish the perceived value if it’s not some ancient, flawless rarity that possesses some unique quality that can only be determined by an expert with an jeweler’s loop squished in his eye socket.
But the simple truth is that there is no simple truth when it comes to beauty, let alone natural beauty. Our definition of beauty is often born of—and enforced by—the systems that govern and oppress us. Beauty standards are cultivated and instilled in us from the moment we are conceived through until the moment we die. They are set and governed by the dominant culture, just like any other standard of position and power that determines the hierarchy of worth and value as a society and as a people.
Our standards of beauty and our arbitrary assignment of what qualifies as natural vs. man-made are designed to serve the very men who created and enforce the standards for themselves. Raw, natural metals and gemstones that are pried from the earth nowhere near resemble the final form they take once they are chiseled or forged into their final forms by men, for men. And even though my little lab-grown blue topaz was made from the seed of a natural topaz and can shine just as beautifully as one, in the end I was told it had no value because it was perceived as not being natural and therefore not precious. But while it may not fit the cultural standards of a precious stone, these arbitrary standards set by a society and enforced by our culture do not make that stone—or that ring—any less precious to me.
In this society that places enormous value on our White Western dominant culture, it’s easy to forget that in addition to our man-made values and beliefs, we ourselves are all man-made, conceived from nothing but the seed of an idea—mined from the bodies of our ancestors, infused with their hopes, and dreams, animated with electricity, living out the stories that will one day be told by generations to come. And in spite of the relative truth of these myriad, intersecting systems of beliefs and judgements that are designed to maintain this artificial system of hierarchical value and power, we cannot deny the absolute, seemingly paradoxical truth of our existence either: that there is nothing here “made by man” at all but rather formed from stardust and our souls infused with the magic of the Great Mystery itself.
In every culture, in every society, and in every thing on Earth exists both the relative truth and the absolute truth of life. There is the relative truth of our respective proximity to power and wealth—and the resource our position affords us—and the absolute truth of our shared fragility and precariousness as a species. There is the relative truth or perception of quality, value, and worth and the absolute truth of actual quality, value, and worth. In the case of my grandmother’s ring, there is the relative truth of its perceived commonality, simplicity, and low value, at least according to Daniel the Jeweler, and the absolute truth of how unique, precious, and infused with meaning it is for me.
When I think back to that day that I first got my grandmother’s ring, I understand now how the layers of paper that it was wrapped in represent the layers of beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that would be used to define the perceived truth of the ring’s quality, worth, and value in the world. But when we allow ourselves to peel back the layers and layers of conditioning and judgments from our made-up world and instead let ourselves simply experience the soul of the ring as the shiny, precious and invaluable totem of love, meaning, and memories that it truly is— we can finally witness the absolute truth of its incomparable and unique beauty. When we drop the criticism and critiques, we are simply left with the exquisite, glittering preciousness of everything that ring is made of now and for forever.
If each of us were to strip back the layers and layers of enculturation and conditioning that we have carried to make us more palatable for the hungry ghost of our starving Western world, what dazzling beauty might we find at the heart of who we are—no not the heart but deeper, much deeper—all the way down to the core of our being, all the way down to our soul? What truth would we uncover? If we shed the years and years of accumulated expectations, beliefs, and assumptions that dim the shine of the light of our soul, what might we finally let ourselves know about the meaning and purpose of our lives?
The soul is such a simple yet profound thing. A holy grail we carry from lifetime to lifetime, ever expanding in order to hold the love and learning of each incarnation as it experiences the breathtaking wonder of our awakening. Our soul holds both the wisdom of the ancients and the blueprint for what’s to come. It is ever-present, ever-listening, ever-watching, and ever-available. And yet how often do we forget it’s there to guide us?
If, for even just a moment, you could quiet the busy-ness of your habituated mind…
If you could stop holding your breath and allow yourself to exhale…
If you could slow down enough to feel the rhythm of your heart as it begins to match the rhythm of nature..
and allow yourself to drop down, down, down into the center of your being and make contact with that eternal part of you:
What would you finally notice? What would you finally feel? What would you finally hear?
What would you find dancing there inside of you? What song would your soul be singing to you from deep inside the dark?
What would be there, yearning for you to pick up a pen or brush or clay and make something out of nothing except the stories that you allow to move through your fingers, burst forth from your throat, or make movement with your feet?
What absolute breathtaking beauty would you find waiting for you there—vibrant, shimmering, and alive? A soul bird finally uncaged from the heaviness of the world and ready to take flight?
This original reflection was offered live on May 21, 2023 during our “Sermon on the Couch” service in our free kindness community—The House of Belonging.