Who Let the Feathers Out?

Jewish folklore tells of a man who had spread many malicious rumors, hurting many people. Eventually, though, his conscience got the better of him and he wanted to make amends. He appealed to the rabbi for advice.

“Tell me how I can undo what I have done,” he begged.

“Go home and get a pillow,” the rabbi said. “Take it to a hill, and cut the pillow open. Wave it in the air until it is empty. Then return to me.”

The man followed the instructions. “I have done what you said,” he told the rabbi. “What is next?”

“Return to the hill,” the rabbi said, “and retrieve all the feathers. Put them back in the pillow.”

“The feathers have blown all over the countryside by now,” the man objected. “It is impossible to retrieve them.”

“You are correct,” said the rabbi. “And neither can you retrieve words once they leave your mouth. You can apologize, but you can never fully make amends

. . . . . .

When I was in high school, two girls approached me in gym class, interrupting my watching of the clock.

“You don’t have to respond if you don’t want to . . .” they began, and went on to explain: a rumor was circulating about me. They didn’t think it sounded right, and they wanted to offer me the opportunity to clarify.

The rumor was one of those false ones, as many are. (I had no idea how or why it had started, but rumors are sneaky that way.) They believed me when I denied entanglement in the situation. Watching them stalk across the gym (twice) to set a couple people straight, I was touched by their indignation on my behalf and grateful for their willingness to retrieve a few feathers, even though they had not been the ones to unleash those feathers to the wind in the first place.

It’s still remarkable to me that these girls—who didn’t even know me well—were willing to place themselves in the awkward position of bringing the rumor to my attention. I’d like to think that I would have done the same thing, but then again I’d like to think a lot of things about myself that would be filed under “In your dreams, lady.” (Reality is funny that way.)

I’m not sure what summoned up this memory today.

Maybe it was overhearing Sonny and Ace define gossip at dinnertime.

Sonny: “It’s like that game of telephone when you whisper, ‘My teacher went to Meijer Gardens yesterday’ to the first person and by the time the message gets to the last guy, he hears, “Han Solo loves to eat cheese.”

Ace: “Gossip is like sickness.”

Maybe it’s because a few people whom I care about have been wounded by gossip lately. Needlessly—of course. Unfairly—of course. Because people prefer to believe that where there’s smoke there’s fire than to acknowledge that forest fires are set by small sparks—of course.

Maybe it’s because, even as these particular rumors infuriate me, I wonder what feathers I have released, what feathers I have accepted from the wind without so much as a question. In some cases I don’t have to wonder very hard.

Operation “Let the Feathers Remain in the Pillows” coming right up.

Who’s in?