I Am the Canary
Paula J. Lambert
I have the kind of face where people keep thinking they know me. They approach me in restaurants and parking lots calling me by other people’s names.
I was at a diner once in Austin, Texas, waiting for a space at the counter to open up. A woman at one of the crowded tables glanced my way when I walked in, and a flash of recognition crossed her face. She started to smile, then squinted—staring, conjuring, and finally lifting the glasses off the top of her head and settling them back onto her nose. She squinted again. “Brenda?”
“No,” I said. “Not Brenda.”
“Oh!” she laughed. “I can’t see without my glasses!”
But she had not called out Brenda’s name until she’d put the glasses squarely back on, until she’d squinted that second time, hard, leaning in, toward me.
In a much-less-crowded restaurant in Mansfield, Ohio, I sat alone in the non-smoking section. A man walked toward me with an unsteady gait. He was tall—big—and looked depressed. A heavy limp made every step slow and deliberate. His face was solemn. I glanced up when his movement caught my eye, lifting me out of my own depressed trance. I assumed he was headed to a table near me, on my side of the room. I assumed when my eyes met his that he, too, had only incidentally glanced in my direction. But just as I was about to look away, he raised his left hand, tentatively.
“Is your name Joy?” he asked.
I shook my head no and he turned, walking away now with the same slow, deliberate, unsteady gait. I turned back to my plate, more depressed than before. I wished I could have been the Joy he was looking for.
Outside an antique mall in Medina, Ohio, I was headed from my car to the entrance when I saw a man staring at me. I was with my boyfriend, and the man looked as if he might speak if Doug weren’t there. I nodded at him and smiled. “Hey.”
“Hey,” the man said, relieved and smiling back. Do you work in that florist shop, he wanted to know, over on such-and-such street, you know, across town, over there by the….
I laughed. “Nope.”
“Oh,” he said. “Boy, you look just like a girl I saw in there once…”
I laughed again and winked. “She must have been good looking,” I said, waving off another coincidence.
He sent a careful glance to Doug and then looked away, thoughtful. “Yeah,” he said. “She was.”
My name is relatively common. Not as common as some, perhaps—I don’t come across it on a daily basis, but when I do, it disturbs me. The first time it happened I was fourteen. My last name was not unusual in the town where I grew up, Shirley, Massachusetts, an immigrant mill town full of Canucks. There were two other Lambert families not related to me—one owned a store in the center of the village: Lambert Hardware. And there was a girl who shared my first name: Paula Mullamphy. When we landed in the same second grade class, she was called Paula, and I was called Paula Jeane so the teacher could more easily keep track of us. I wasn’t crazy about that. It seemed, somehow, that instead of adding something, the moniker of my middle name had taken something away.
But the first time I encountered both my first name and my last name together on a person completely separate from me, I was fourteen, and a boyfriend had just come back from a weekend trip to Cape Cod. “I met another Paula Lambert!” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.” He went on about how nice she was and how the name had given them something in common, something to talk about. “She said she’d like to meet you some day!”
I was not so hot on the idea. Seeing my boyfriend so obviously charmed by a doppelganger was not particularly thrilling to me, but it was more than that. My name, my full name, was the most basic part of my identity. That somebody shared it made it less special. It made me less special.
The first time I did a web search for my name, I came up with a cheesemaker in Dallas. I’ve written no less than three poems about the cheesemaker, each one entitled “Finding Yourself on the Internet.” The cheesemaker was ubiquitous, but there were other Paula Lamberts as well, including a chamber of commerce president in Casa Grande, Arizona:
…Casa Grande. Big house.
I wonder if there’s a house out there,
anywhere, big enough to hold us all,
for we might be related, one way or
another, and we might still be breeding.
There might be more of us who have
not yet announced our presence…
The terrible, no doubt wonderful, Paula Lambert in Dallas became my secret nemesis for this reason: she does not simply create distinctive cheeses, she authors cookbooks. When I Google our name, and I still do occasionally, what always comes up at the top of the list is that first link I found, from www.mozzco.com: “Paula Lambert is a cheesemaker and an entrepreneur. In 1982 she founded the Mozzarella Company, a small cheese factory in Dallas….” Then comes “Paula Lambert’s Biography” on starchefs.com, and then the author listings, from Simon & Schuster, Amazon.com, eBooks.com, Publishers Marketplace…oh, wait! Publishers Marketplace is me, trying to find an agent for one of my books.
It’s disconcerting—as disconcerting as it was when I left my husband, a research associate who worked for a doctor studying Type II diabetes, and he got an email from Esquire. A senior editor had found his website, on which he’d posted a page devoted to the tornado that destroyed our home and nearly killed him. The editor asked him to write the story, and it was published in Esquire Presents: What It Feels Like. It’s not that I wasn’t happy for him, and it’s not that I wasn’t happy for the cheesemaker. They both have their stories to tell. But they were getting published by the big dogs, incidentally if not accidentally, while I’d been writing all my life and was still lucky to be paid in copies. My life and my name, it seemed, were being usurped.
Doug keeps trying to convince me that I am no different from anyone else, even though I’ve spent the entirety of my existence feeling that I am. Although I believe that since writing my memoir I am happier and healthier than ever before—it helped me deal with a lifetime of depression and anxiety, helped me understand my two suicide attempts—I am still occasionally haunted by devastating thoughts and feelings that rise up out of nowhere, taking over when I least expect it. When I am overtired or ill or my blood sugar for whatever reason drops too far too fast, those same feelings sweep back over my body as though they’d never left, and I must fight the desire—it is more aptly described as a need—to bloody my arms and end my life. The feeling can last anywhere from twenty minutes to a day and a half. It is always temporary, sometimes fleeting, and I get through it by sheer, dogged insistence that this, too, shall pass. Mind, it does not—ever—feel like it will, and I am afterward left with the knowledge that however many times I declare myself healed, it is still entirely possible that I will some day die by my own hand.
I’ve been trying to pin down this weird wish to die when I get sick. Doug insists that everyone, when they’re sick enough, wants to die. “Anyone who’s ever had a headache bad enough,” he told me once, “has thought about putting a bullet through their brain.” I laughed when he said this, we laughed together, and for a while I took comfort that maybe he was right. But the thought I keep returning to is this: not everyone reaches for the gun.
“You just feel more than most people, that’s all.”
How many times have I been told this, by people who are trying to be kind and trying to explain away my lifelong illness? It is their answer to why I cry so easily, why my sadness is so often a pit with no bottom, why my anger is so indignant that my body trembles, why my laughter is sudden and raucous, why I swoon when I am grateful. This is the explanation that Doug denies. “It’s not that you feel more, it’s that you let yourself feel more.”
Let myself? I’d stop it if I could, if I knew how. Where is the off switch? Tell me.
I started wearing glasses in the fifth grade, when I failed an eye exam and my math teacher finally believed that I couldn’t see the blackboard from my seat in the back of the room. I used to have to ask her permission to go to the big table up front in order to copy the problems, writing them down while everyone else was trying to solve them. She thought my request was for special attention rather than physical need. It was not attention I was after. I was far more comfortable sitting in the back. I never minded not being seen; not being able to see was something else entirely.
Every two years after that, my parents brought me to the ophthalmologist for a new exam and, every time, a new pair of glasses. My nearsightedness progressed at a steady pace, and I have needed a new prescription every two years even into adulthood, even now. The exams got a little more complicated when I was in my twenties, when they started checking for glaucoma and other abnormalities that could be treated or prevented. I was about twenty-five when my pupils were dilated for the first time. The doctor handed me a pair of those big, square, cardboard sunglasses that I was supposed to put on over my regular glasses. “You’ll need these when you go outside,” she said. “You’ll be more sensitive to the light.” I put them on but didn’t like them; they looked and felt ridiculous. I wore them through the optical shop in the front part of the office, because she’d told me to, but once I stepped outdoors, into the bright Alabama sunshine, I took them off again…and reeled.
There was too much light—a hundred times, a thousand times, more than when I’d walked into the office a half hour before. My hand went up instinctively, trying to block it out, and I squinted hard. I could see, just barely make out, that the buildings, the parking lot, the cars, and the people milling about were all the same, perfectly normal and not the least bit aware that all around them the universe had changed completely.
I knew that the drops the doctor put in my eyes had temporarily paralyzed my pupils. I knew that the pupils were in charge of taking in the light, growing larger when more is needed, smaller when less is needed, and that right now they were frozen wide. But none of that was the point. That wasn’t what bowled me over, nearly knocking me off my feet. It was knowing that that much sun was out there to begin with. Our eyes make adjustments for what we are able to take in—our pupils, when able to work normally, change. But the sun itself does not change, not ever. Clouds obscure it, the earth rotates toward it and then away. But the sun itself is always there, roaring out fire, and it’s not that the light isn’t there…it’s that we cannot take it in.
I felt certain when I’d taken off the sunglasses that the earth had moved out of its natural orbit. It hadn’t, literally. But it did metaphorically. I put them back on, knowing I would never see anything the same way again.
I do feel more. That’s become apparent, whether or not “letting myself” is the explanation. An unnameable part of me is constantly dilated, like my eyes had been, taking in more than anyone around me knows is there. I have tried, over and over again, to define this indefinable something, to give it a name so I can finally define myself. For years I tied it to my “artistic nature” and was certain that calling myself a writer explained everything. When I got accepted into a graduate program in creative writing, I was relieved that I would finally meet my tribe, be surrounded by people just like me, who understood what all of this felt like. But I didn’t meet anyone “just like me,” and then I got sick. No small coincidence that, when I found myself alone amongst a group of writers, all the symptoms of my childhood agoraphobia came back; I felt the wide open space all around me and cowered before it. Though I was eventually able to control the worst of the phobia, the depression did not go away; I became convinced that I simply wasn’t meant to be a part of this world. I tried twice to kill myself, waking up the morning after each overdose feeling like a too-small fish that God had decided to throw back. I decided the “indefinable something” was my illness: I am the way that I am because I am mentally ill. But now even that doesn’t work. I’m well again, but that sun-blinded part of me is still here.
Years ago, when coal miners descended into their shafts, they brought a canary with them. It was dangerous to venture that far below ground. Carbon monoxide and methane gases could seep into the tunnels and kill without warning. The tiny birds, more sensitive to the odorless fumes, provided a warning system. Normally, they sing. When the singing stops, something is wrong. The miners are taught to listen for silence; when it comes, they get the hell out. They go back to the surface, back to the light, where it is safe.
I’ve come to believe I am the canary. I sing in places most people fear to go, still in the silence that others run from. Safe, submerged, I stay where I am, an example of all that I’ve learned.
I am, perhaps, more like a bat than a bird. Nocturnal, they are an archetype that signifies rebirth, hanging upside down the way a baby positions itself in the womb.
When the woman in Austin, Texas called me Brenda, I knew she was mistaking me not just for another woman, but for another writer. I secretly hoped it was Brenda Miller, whom I endlessly admire and supposed I might look like, a little, from a blurry distance. We were there, nearly all of us in that crowded diner, for a creative writing conference, and Las Manitas Avenue Café was the only restaurant in the area that served breakfast. Every morning I saw the same faces I’d seen at panel sessions and round tables, many of them faces I’d seen at the same conference in Portland, Albany, Kansas City, New Orleans. I had not been able to attend the gathering for the last several years, a long enough time to have shifted my thinking from “I am a writer” to “I am mentally ill” and back again, reassessing my concept of myself as an artist and hoping, foolishly, that this time I might find my tribe.
I did not.
When the sinking feeling hit me again, harder than it had in years, that I was alone in a world where I did not, must not, belong, I walked the streets of Austin at dusk, unsure where to go except that it had to be away—away from the hotel, from the conference center, from the crowded restaurants and bars. I ducked into a tiny gallery, feeling for a while like I could breathe, and bought a gourd that had been painted and dressed to look like a chicken, a mother hen. The chicken was screaming, her mouth wide open, and the image startled me, a country interpretation of Munch’s most famous work, a painting so popular and so parodied that even I had an inflatable “Scream” doll on my desk back home. When I reached out to the chicken-gourd, turning her slightly and adjusting her position on her shredded paper nest, I suddenly saw that she wasn’t screaming at all; she was singing. It was a matter of perspective: one step to the left, mouth wide open in song; a shift to the right, the horrible scream.
When I left the shop, chicken-gourd safely packed in a shopping bag I could take home on the plane, my mood had not changed. I had been comforted for a while, as I always am, by art, but back on the street I was surrounded again by noise. I looked both left and right, trying to think where I could go, wanting, like an anxious miner, to run for my life, but seeing no way to reach the surface. I noticed a break in the city skyline, a patch of darkening blue that reminded me I was not far from the river. I steered myself down the street, Congress Avenue, and the bats I knew could heal me.
Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge is the migratory home of North America’s largest urban bat population. I did not just walk toward it, I marched, pulled along by my own migratory pattern, and when I crossed over Cesar Chavez Street, the last street parallel to the river, I hesitated only briefly, scanning the large group of people gathered along the rails and wondering if that might be the best vantage point. I was still being pulled, though, down again, to the jogging trail that traced the edge of the water and followed it straight under the bridge. I had to be where the bats were, below, to wait for the darkness that would signal it was time to fly.
I could hear the bats and smell them, began to see them finally when they emerged from the east side of the bridge, thousands of them, tens of thousands—and in early March still just a fraction of what their numbers would swell to by the end of summer. Above me, they tumbled out maniacally, flying into and over each other: chaos. Further back, toward the other side of the river, they blended into a black ribbon, floating from the bridge in a steady stream that swelled across the gray and dying sky.
I watched them, near and far, trying to meditate on their meaning, their mythology, their animal medicine. I listened for what they had to teach me, waited to feel their spirit connect to my own, but suddenly my chest heaved, and I felt a sound go out of me. It was a cry to the darkness, a call to my tribe: “How many times must I be reborn? How many times?”
When the sky grew still, dark enough now to conceal what it contained, I climbed the steps back to the street, the lights, the traffic, the noise. I had that same, heavy, sun-blinded feeling: the world was too much with me. I sank into a bench, facing the traffic, Las Manitas behind me now, empty, familiar faces gone. I took off my glasses, and light and color blended, softened.
The wind was blowing straight down the avenue, a strong, steady breeze from north to south, toward the river and across it, a fluid, continuous line. I closed my eyes and felt it move across my skin.
I tried to clear my mind, to shut out the noise. I focused only on the tactile sense, the wind straight and steady across my face. I wanted to move with it, travel on it, be the breeze, be one with the breeze, melt into it, transcend.
I felt lighter. I felt myself lift.
Suddenly, from across the street: “I’m not having your baby!” Laughter. “Will you cut it out?”
People. Horns. Traffic.
I shut them out. Focus. Feel the breeze. Breathe in, and when you exhale the wind will carry your breath, will carry you.
My eyes opened to blurs of color: white atop the lampposts; the street lights mostly red, now yellow, now green; walk signs flashing orange. Beyond the cars traveling north and south—moving, stopping, moving again—shadow figures of a man and woman across the street, that young and laughing couple. Behind me, several men and women, young and serious, smoked cigarettes and debated: “Where should we go, man?”
People all around me were talking, laughing, shouting. I felt invisible. No one could see me. No one could hear me. No one knew I existed.
I closed my eyes again, breathing slowly.
The cars. The wind. The noise. The breeze.
Intrusions. Light. Color. Shut it out. Follow the breeze. Become the universe. Inhale—slowly. Take it in, and let it take you away.
And then the sudden, violent exhale. The cars, the lights, the noise, the people. I was doing everything wrong.
I cannot shut them out. I cannot be one thing, I cannot be the breeze. If I am carried away, I am not here. I am not present. I cannot be one thing. I must be, I am, a part of all things.
My exhale is a sob, loud and violent, and a voice is immediately beside me: “Do you need help, ma’am?” A young man, part of the group behind me, is at my side, confirming my epiphany: I exist. I am important. I am not invisible—I am essential to all things.
There is no need for rebirth. I have always been and always will be.
Being called by someone else’s name is not an altogether unusual experience. The cut or color of a person’s hair can seem familiar…the way they smile, the line of their shoulders, the arch of their back. When we feel the familiar in someone strange to us, we are drawn to them, drawn perhaps to a submerged part of ourselves projecting a light we cannot see yet need to touch: Is your name Joy? There is something of you inside me. I cannot explain it and so must name it. Are you Brenda?
Recently, I lay alone in my bed consumed with pain, feeling it everywhere, that dread, that anguish, that cry to the dark that must surely be a gentle bird’s last breath: “How is it possible to feel this alone and no one know it? How is it possible to feel this bad, feel this much pain, and no one know? How is it possible?”
My mind opened, and I knew the question was being asked by a thousand different people, a million, tens of millions, each of us alone in a crowded world, our voices translated and transformed into a single, solo lamentation: How is it possible? And we were in that moment the god we cried out to. The sick, the homeless, the grieving, the starving, we cried out to each other.
How is this possible?
Transcendence takes many forms.
People see in me what I do not see in myself.
Is your name Joy?
The man in Mansfield saw in me what I did not feel.
Are you Brenda?
In Austin, overwhelmed with the presence of so many writers in a single space, feeling lost among them, small, infinitesimal, alone, a nearsighted woman mistook me for the writer I admire most.
She, too, saw in me what I did not feel.
When the man in Medina asked if I worked in a shop across town, it was the flowers he thought of first, and then, when pushed, admitted he saw beauty in the woman who sold them.
He saw something I was only beginning to understand.
I have never actually seen another Paula Lambert, save one photograph of the cheese lady. In it, I saw nothing familiar. I had not come across her in a restaurant or parking lot, not the mall or the neighborhood park. Our meeting was not happenstance. I sought her out, hoping to see something I would recognize.
I still sometimes search for our name, though it’s clearer now what I’m hoping to find—that the canary does not always die. That she is, sometimes, resurrected, breaking out of her cage and flying through the dark.