When I lived in New York, I worked as a teaching artist for a non-profit arts education organization that required us to teach a unit on birds. I loved it. For two consecutive springs, I worked with kindergarteners, first-, and second-graders—watching, drawing, and learning about different kinds of birds. I enjoyed teaching my students to look up at the sky—once they started paying attention, they discovered a new world in the branches and on the rooftops.
I, too, started paying more attention and learned to admire birds more and more. I admire them for their variety, for their unique genius and adaptations, for their ability to move between the worlds of water, earth, and sky. I admire their sharp vision and perception, their ability to soar to exhilarating heights with expansive views. I also envy their freedom, their instinct for migration and knowing the best times to leave their homes and create new ones.
In the evenings I’d go home to sit on my fire escape and watch the sun set over the Hudson River. Sometimes I imagined that fire escape as my crow’s nest, where I could have a bird’s eye view of the street and surrounding neighborhood from my perch. I watched the pigeons fly back and forth between the balconies and I thought of Daedalus and Icarus.
In Greek mythology, Daedalus is a genius craftsman in the service of King Minos of Crete. He designed and built the Labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. When Theseus is forced into the Labyrinth, Daedalus advises Minos’ daughter Ariadne to help Theseus by giving him a spool of thread to find his way out. Theseus slays the Minotaur and escapes with Ariadne. King Minos punishes Daedalus by imprisoning him and his son Icarus – some versions say they were imprisoned in the Labyrinth, others in a tower. Unable to escape the island by land or sea, Daedalus constructs wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son. As they prepare to take off, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sea nor too close to the sun. Of course, Icarus, young and excited, flies too high. His wings melt and he plummets to his death, while Daedalus is left to fly away and mourn.
This story has been retold many times in literature, poetry, and art. (You can see an interesting compilation here.) I’ve long been fascinated by the tale and feel that this particular myth has been haunting me, especially in times of transition—when I’m getting ready to fly away to a new place and leave an old life behind.
This time last year, I was in New York City, feeling trapped. I had lived there long enough to build a nest and establish myself, but was feeling worn down, lost in the labyrinth of streets, wanting something more. I had applied to graduate school, but hadn’t heard back. I had a tentative plan to move to California by the end of the summer, but wasn’t sure if this life change was going to work out.
It wasn’t the first time I had uprooted myself and prepared for flight. Yet each time I stand on the precipice, I still wonder: Who will I be this time, Daedalus or Icarus?
Often the myth is interpreted as a cautionary tale: Don’t fly too high, don’t get too close to the sun, don’t let your ambitions get so grand that you fail, burn, and crash to the ground. Don’t be foolish and let yourself be carried away. Listen to your elders and choose the moderate path.
While I agree with the wisdom of this interpretation, I sympathize with both Icarus and Daedalus and find myself torn between them. Icarus, young and excited, flying too close to the sun; Daedalus, older, more cautious, staying the middle course.
I can’t not have big dreams, I can’t not want to fly close to the sun. In this way, I’m like Icarus. Yet, as I’ve taken multiple flights now, I find myself looking to Daedalus, the patient craftsman whose grand ideas are balanced by practical foresight. And each time, I’ve tried to be more like him.
We might look to Daedalus as the model for how best to fly, but I remind myself that his survival comes with a price. How high can you fly and still be able to land safely? Do you have to abandon your fantasies and settle for more realistic goals? Daedalus doesn’t get out of this unscathed. He’s able to start over, but only after losing his son and leaving a life behind.
Luckily, my flights have gotten a little easier each time. Maybe not because I’ve become better at flying, but at least I feel more experienced and more confident that I’ll be able to figure things out when I land.
Some people put off flying because they’re afraid of the landing. When you move to any new place, it’s exciting, but it can also be scary and incredibly lonely. I admit that in the past I’ve let the fear of change hold me back; but as the time for moving on got closer, my restlessness outweighed my anxiety and I learned to appreciate the thrill of freedom and see possibilities in the midst of uncertainties. Careful planning can only take you so far – there’s only so much looking you can do before you leap.
Now a year later, I can watch the birds and passersby from my apartment window in San Francisco. The window faces west; on a clear day I can see the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. I’ve flown farther than ever before, across the continent, to find myself facing a new horizon …
Hannah Custis is a teacher, writer, and Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is also the Blog Coordinator for the Immanence Journal editorial team.