In a poetry class with Highlights Foundation, I recently wrote an Edenic or Fall of Man/Woman poem in which I touched on the idea that animals once had free communication with humans. Maybe we once understood all the lyrics in birdsong. Maybe that’s why I have such a pang when the Carolina wren on my back deck sings, with its whole being, with what sounds like unbridled joy; it fills me with unspeakable longing for something I cannot name. Maybe this lost dialogue is why dogs’ loving eyes so pierce the human soul…begging the question of who’s the purer creature…
One morning this week I heard a sound that I haven’t heard in years. I hadn’t even realized it was missing: the distinctive call of Bobwhite quail. A quick online search told me that their numbers have diminished in my area. Surely some of this is due to habitat loss as more subdivisions are being built. As is often the case with one simple search, I now have more research to do…
And then one afternoon, pulling into my driveway, I saw four tiny brown birds running from the roadside to safety in the grass. A new covey of these quail, forging their life together. Got me thinking about how challenging it is to survive, being a ground bird, considering the neighbor’s prowling cat and any number of things in the snatches of surrounding woods… it is a line of thinking I can’t let myself follow very far. Leads me back to the poem, the idea of Eden, the true unity of all living things, before the loss of it all. Before the first bloodshed.
But today, I will simply savor the sound. And the living. And the message, as much as I can understand it.
Bob-white, bob-bob-white onomatopoeic call of little ground birds skittering through the grasses looking out for each other
Lead photo: Northern Bobwhite quail. Steve Maslowski/USFWS. CC BY
End photo: Northern Bobwhite. Don Faulkner. CC BY-SA
Trees hold up their naked, skeletal branches, exposing clumps of old birds’ nests. The world is colorless, like a vintage film, a study of grayscale contrasts. Only the pines, bent by a recent glazing of ice, remain green. My backyard is littered with their brokenness. Tufts of needles and a couple of large boughs are strewn across the dead, mud-puddled grass.
It is a time of enduring.
Little things go a long way.
I’ve written of the stab of joy on seeing a bluebird, that brilliant dash of color against this dreary backdrop, as something to treasure each day. Now, despite the cold, an unseen bird nearby sings a bright song to usher in the dawn while it is still dark: cheer cheer cheer… a cardinal. Another favorite bird. I long for its vivid red. Just this week I also heard the first metallic honk, honk of Canada geese, returning to nest.
Spring is afoot, aflight, audible, if not yet visible.
And then there is the flower.
I thought it was my eyes playing tricks.
In the old weathered pots on the back deck, amid the ruins of my geraniums, the trailing Vinca still lives. Pale, leafy strands spill across the boards like errant strands of hair. And in one pot… a spot of… what is that color? Lavender?
A closer examination: Two little periwinkle blooms. Five-petaled. Most unexpected. The vines weren’t blooming when I planted them in early summer. I honestly didn’t know they would. This necessitates research: Vinca blooms in “late spring through summer.”
Mine is blooming while it is yet winter. Surely a there’s metaphor in it. As in the cardinal’s bright song in the dark, just before light. Like the bluebird’s welcome spot of color, popping against the blah. More research, because for me symbolism has an irresistible allure: The color periwinkle represents serenity, calmness, winter, and ice. The flower itself, sentimental memories, nostalgia, new beginnings. I read that it can also represent mental acuity. That’s certainly welcome. In the Middle Ages periwinkle was associated with the Virgin Mary; look for these little blooms beside her in old stained-glass windows. The vine’s very name, Vinca, comes from the Roman word for “binding.” Garlands were made of it, for dead children as well as for criminals on their way to execution—good heavens. This pierces me; I shudder. More shades of Mary’s own story, that…we are, after, all barely a week into Lent.
I shall think of this as winter’s funerary flower, then. A little blue-violet garland on the season’s icy brow, bidding adieu.
In place of a eulogy for winter…note Wordsworth’s inclusion of the periwinkle in “Lines Written in Early Spring” (read the whole poem to see what it is really about):
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; And ’tis my faith that every flower Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played, Their thoughts I cannot measure:— But the least motion which they made It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
All I know with certainty is that this little bloom, accompanied by increasingly-present birds, brings a thrill of promise.
-with gratitude to the weekly Slice of Life storytellers at Two Writing Teachers, a bright spot in every week. Here’s to the upcoming daily writing challenge in March!
Rain rolls down the windows like tear-streaks of the wind, which howls in anguish under the eaves like a maimed creature.
In the backyard, pines stand in solidarity, like soldiers at a burial. Knee-deep in a sea of mud.
All dreary in its own right. I do not need to color it more so with my own thoughts, or to further stir my restive soul. Day after day after day of rain. No snow. At least no ice.
Am I unhappy?
It’s Valentine’s Day. My husband and I have exchanged cards, chocolate, a sampler of hot sauces. “Burning Love,” the box reads. The flames on it are certainly a bright spot.
Am I tired?
Not as much as I was at the end of the workweek, the final one of remote teaching. We return to campus this week. Hard to envision the epic regulations to be enforced, the acrobatics of keeping elementary children distanced in imaginary bubbles.
Am I worried?
Concerned is a better word. It is a time to be like the pines, standing in solidarity despite the grayness, the bleakness, the muddiness, the wearing-on of things. I don’t know if I have it in me. This is not like me. My patience is peeled unusually thin; turpentine burns too near the surface. I do not like the feel of it.
Is my spirit failing me this Sunday morning? I should think not. It is a seasoned spirit. Today also happens to be the anniversary of my husband’s ordination, many, many years ago. We were so young, setting our feet on a path we could not clearly see, but we walked, and we walked, moment by moment, in sun, in shadows, over years, across decades…and here we are. I am grateful. He has already gone to church. I am getting ready, mulling this miserable scene beyond the blinds. I should have kept them closed.
I wish I could see the bluebird. He shows up almost every day, if I’m watching at the right time. He sits on the deck railing for long stretches. Little messenger of brightness.
Why should seeing him make me feel better-? Maybe hope is electric blue. Never thought of that before.
I sigh, and am turning away, when I catch a fluttering of wings…
The female. Not the bright blue I am longing for, but still. This means a nest may be in the works, nearby! Might I see baby bluebirds this spring? Dare I hope for such bounty? Do I deserve it?
She takes a bath, there on the railing. I think of Esther’s yearlong preparation for her union with the King.
And then my little lady bird is gone. I wait. The railing remains bare. He will not come. Maybe it’s the rain. I can’t keep watching. Must get to church or I will not be in good graces with the pastor, which is a problem I don’t need, since I live with him.
Happy Valentine’s Day, bluebirds, I say in my mind as I bundle up to leave.
And then, at the last, a flash of blue, landing on the railing…it’s him, it’s him! No, wait! Both! I have never seen them together before.
Rain never interferes with the mail and this is surely addressed to me as much as an envelope bearing my handwritten name.
A gift of love, my blue Valentine.
One day I will be poised just right to get a photo of MY birds, which look exactly like this.Eastern bluebirds are known to begin nesting in February.Let us hope…
September whispers the first hint of autumn with a cool breath caressing our faces our bare arms and legs in the still-warm sun. Whispers an invitation to walk woodsy trails under trees communicating in rustling green tongues. One leaf already fallen crispy and brown cartwheels across the path. It is longer than we realized. One of us would push for a more vigorous pace but the other of us is tired. A restful respite in the almost-chilly tree-proffered shade just short of the bridge we didn’t know was here. Cicadas chorus high above a big black ant hurries past and somewhere a bird sings as if it is the very heart of all things. We’ve come this far. We walk a few more steps one a little ahead one leaning on a cane one breath at a time. Not until we reach the bridge can we hear the water talking to itself below in a wordless trickling flow going on and on and on. And so we do even though we can’t see how much path is left to travel nor what lies ahead around the bowery bend. The bridge cannot whisper invitation. It only stands offering silent invocation. It is enough. We cross over. We go on.
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday invitation to write a Slice of Life and to my Spiritual Journey Thursday friends for the writing fellowship along the way. For more spiritual offerings see Karen Eastlund’s collated posts under “Finding Direction” at Karen’s Got a Blog! (Thank you, Karen, for hosting).
Simply walking down the street found a fledgling at my feet. Tiny baby on the hot asphalt from where’d you fall? By whose fault? What left you in the middleof my street wobbling on your new, new feet? Yellow beak wide in a silent cry flailing wings so small to fly. Should I touch you? Dare I try? Baby bird, what can I do to keep harm from befalling you? How long could you last if I just walk past? Wait—I think I’m hearing —yes, your mother nearing and your father, too, —they’re both here, calling you. They won’t come very near as long as I am here. How wretched it is to back away my wrenched heart will break—it may —but from back here I see them land see you hop-hop toward them, and —you’re not too steady —don’t know if you’re ready. But to think I know more than a bird about what’s best for birds, is absurd. So I turn and walk, fighting my fears, fighting my instincts, fighting my tears —it’s a hard, hard thing, just walking on praying, Baby, you’re soon up and gone.
I have seldom felt so helpless or torn as I did on encountering this baby bird one late afternoon. Although tall trees line the street (a quiet cul-de-sac), I couldn’t possibly guess which one held the nest, if I could even reach it, for returning the bird. I thought about my Aunt Jack, who found a baby blue jay when I was very little; she took the foundling home and raised it to adulthood (he was never caged, had free rein in her house, and here’s a post if you’d like to read about him: Kilroy). I wondered: Should I take my fledgling (I think it’s a finch) home, too? Could I raise it? Or would I be tempting fate, tampering with nature when nature knows far better than I about taking care of itself? How long had the baby been struggling here on the road when I (heaven help me) nearly stepped on it as it flailed? Should I scoop it up carefully and put it by the side of the road in the grass… where there are cats… and snakes… then, the frantic parents showed: Which side did THEY want their baby on?
I walked back and forth a while, not too close to the scene, until the parents and their baby were gone. Where, I do not know. I didn’t see. Seems I could hear their voices somewhere in the lush pines… all I know is that, after a bit, there was no trace of birds on the street any more.
Yet I remained distressed. I had done nothing to help the baby bird. It was so tiny, so frail. Was it really so helpless? Was I? Had I been wrong? I had to face the truth, even it if it was ugly… so, later on my phone, I searched things like What to do if I find a baby bird and Should I touch a baby bird? National Geographic had an interesting take: “It depends on how cute it is.” Meaning that a mostly featherless pink baby bird not capable of hopping or flitting is a nestling and should be returned to the nest. A fledgling has feathers, can hop, and is “generally adorable and fluffy with a tiny stub of a tail.” National Geographic (bless them) says “It’s not a good idea to put a fledgling back in the nest—it will hop right back out.”
I can rest a little easier. I guess. I do marvel at the parents both coming to rescue their baby, both of them chirping and hopping, looking back to see if the baby was, too. Which it was, in its zig-zaggy way.
—They better be giving that baby some quality flying lessons now.
Special thanks to Catherine Flynn who’s hosting Poetry Friday Roundup at Reading to the Core. Drop by to check out her wonderful post and the many other poetic offerings.
Teacher-poet Margaret Simon features a weekly writing invitation on her blog, Reflections on the Teche, in response to a photo. Today’s offering is a resurrection fern photographed by her neighbor and friend, James Edmunds.
Few things are more intriguing to me than a resurrection fern, which seems to die but can manage to live again, maybe even after a century of drought, with a little watering. Somewhere I have an unfinished short story in which this inspiring plant appears…
For today, however, a tanka seemed called for. The form consists of thirty-one syllables, lines of 5/7/5/7/7.It is meant to be song-like.
In an instant, life changes. Without warning, parameters close in. Existence is not what it was or ever will be again, for one can only endure each moment in the moment, with no sense of what lies beyond the shell, the shadowy vignette of Now, the eternity of it, the temporality of it. There is no turning of Earth, no movement of Time, no tortoise-crawl into tomorrow where Now could ever be snared in the net of memory…
Until all of a sudden, it is.
For five months Life As We Know It has been suspended by COVID-19. We’ve yet to crawl beyond its grasp.
For my family, however, today makes a year since the borders of our being were reduced, abruptly, to a sand-like speck floating in minutes as vast and endless as the sea.
One year since the Sunday afternoon that my youngest and I took our last routine walk around the church, talking about life and the future as he prepared for his final year of college.
One year since we came back home, hot and tired, and the dog went crazy barking at the patrol car pulling into our driveway. One year since the officer asked if this is where my husband lived, because he’s been in an accident, ma’am, and do you have a way to the hospital…
One year since my husband, coming home from the gym, suffered cardiac arrest while driving and his truck veered off the road, into the woods, stopping just short of a ravine.
One year since not knowing what our boys and I would learn when we walked into the ER entrance, where we were met by a nurse waiting for us, who took us into a side room…
One year since the attending physician told the boys and me it was a “big” heart attack, that their dad was alive because the EMTs were heroes, because he was not when they found him.
One year since we learned that EMS in this county happens to have the second-highest resuscitation rate in the nation.
One year since the night spent sleeping on chairs in the cardiac ICU waiting room as hypothermia was induced to give my husband’s brain time to recover.
One year of not knowing how much could be, or would be, recovered.
Time slowed to a crawl so infinitesimal that it could never really pass.
But it did, and it has, and it is.
Today makes one year, somehow. A compromised year, one in which I didn’t start or end the school year normally, a year of resuming life only to hit another prolonged pause, a year of no traveling beyond the necessary, first because of my husband’s mending heart and then the pandemic. A year of time outside of time, or time folding in on itself… I am not sure which. A year of near-implosion, of living and dying strangely, epically. A year of not knowing, globally or nationally, how much recovery there can be, or will be…
My husband has recovered remarkably well, in all ways except for a span of memory for the month or two prior to his cardiac arrest. The brain seeks to protect itself from trauma; it’s a survival mechanism. All my husband’s long-term memory, all his beloved sports trivia and history lore, remains intact for instant recall. But for a vague recollection of leaving the gym on that fateful day one year ago, my husband’s brain erased last July. He has no memory of our last family vacation to the beach, of long walks on the shore, of plunging into the bracing, beckoning ocean, of trying new restaurants, of the little Guatemalan shop he loved and visited several times, where he encouraged the rest of us to buy whatever handmade items we wanted because a portion of proceeds supports the native artisans. We ask him: Do you remember the putt-putt game? How you got beat by one point? How you demanded a rematch? Do you remember the storm blowing in on the 4th, when we ate at that new place in the enclosed deck by the marina and you said it was the best fish you ever had? Do you remember the music and dancing in the square? Don’t you remember buying this tapestry bookbagand the belt?
He looks as if we are speaking a different language, one we have created, one he has never heardand can’t grasp. No. No. Really? That happened?
One night last week he and I were watching a nature TV program. The camera zoomed in on a tortoise. Instantaneously, my husband said: ” I remember that.”
“The tortoise. We saw one like it on the beach trip last year.”
He is right. We did. We saw a giant tortoise on the side of the road while driving. We pulled off to encounter several tortoises owned by a man who had them out for visitors that day. Tortoises, we discovered, enjoy having their heads petted; they’ll stretch their necks out to you for more.
And I know, looking away from the tortoise on the screen to the intent expression on my husband’s face as he watches it, that the return of the tortoise in his memory means that what is good remains, even if hidden. It is never just gone. Despite the extent of trauma, pain, and suffering, endurance is possible, and healing more than possible.
Here’s to today. And the tortoise.
–Last July. I could not have imagined the significance of this moment, one year later.
New day. Opening window blinds to a flood of sunlight. Glimpse of pines, grass grown tall overnight (how??), weathered wooden deck railing, old white rocking chair, large cement pots draped in long ivy vines, new tendrils waving, geraniums blazing green and red, interspersed with spiky brown starbursts—oh, time to deadhead.
Within moments, scissors in hand, reaching for exposed bones of skeletal blooms, crisping, decaying, red petals shriveled, let loose, bled away, spent…
—Oh! Hello. Didn’t know you were here, Dragonfly.
Swapping the scissors for the phone-camera…
How close will you let me get?
You’re small. Maybe two-and-a-half inches. Not like the first dragonflies I ever encountered in my grandmother’s yard when I was a child. Enormous things, terrifying… “They won’t hurt you! They eat mosquitoes”… good thing I didn’t know the old Scandinavian folktales then, how dragonflies come to weigh people’s souls, doling punishment on the bad, stitching children’s eyes closed for telling lies. Instead I learned to see the beautiful in the strange. Living sticks of metallic blue, iridescent gleams against the sunlit grass, darting any which way, impossibly. Air acrobats. —You’re very still. Not blue but yellow with bold black stripes. Clinging to a deadhead. Wonder why. Can’t cut the dying bloom away, not while you’re on it, Dragonfly. Won’t disturb you.
Returning later: You’re still present, resting on a green leaf.
Why should this feel so reassuring?
Maybe because the symbolism of a dragonfly is usually positive. You’re said to be bringers of light, restoring joy when it’s waning. Just as those bright geranium blooms are waning. Many new buds are already evident. Growth from within. The ability to change, transform, adapt—that is what we humans say about you dragonflies, as you begin life submerged in water (most of your lives being lived there) yet you eventually take to the air and learn to fly. By then the time remaining to you is short. Seems you make the most of it. Maybe you are harbingers of the soul. Not in judgment, but in self-realization, mental and emotional maturity, acceptance. A call to wisdom. A recurring word for me, of late.
Whatever motif lies written in iridescent ink on dragonfly wings, my grandmother knew it was good: You eat mosquitoes. You will not hurt me. You’re helpers. Protectors.
Sitting so still, amid decay juxtaposed with new growth… an inexplicable stab of delight, vibrant little messenger from nature, oblivious of your mission, perhaps, of nudging, not judging, human souls toward our own betterment … oh, and do you know? Could you know? In human lore… geraniums represent unexpected meetings.
More of it each day. Driving the darkness away with its gentle appearing, rousing bright-eyed birds earlier and earlier, which respond in uninhibited chirps, songs, chatter. New day new day new day day day …
It’s a beautiful time to be alive. To be reborn. To mark having been born.
“What do you want for your birthday?” asked my husband.
“New rocking chairs.”
I’d been thinking on it.
The old chairs on the front porch are cracked, broken, portions held in place with wood glue. Time for them to go. Time for new ones. I want to sit outside in the light, in the breeze, even though it remains oddly chilly, to hear the birds, to see Papa Finch alight on the roof. I hear him before I see him; I wonder what his loud twitter means but I always answer, “Hi Finch!” Then there he is, tiny brown creature with his chest faintly dusted red, sitting high above the garage against the cloudless blue sky, looking directly at me. The porch is part of his domain. Sometimes from inside the house I hear his loud chirp; looking through the window, I find him sitting on the white porch rail. I suspect he’s eyeing the front door wreath for his bride’s nest. Although I took the wreath down for the winter, I’d left the old nest from last year attached. With the coming of March, and with great care, I put the faded, bird-loved wreath back in hopes that the nest would be reused. It hasn’t. So I removed it to make way for new.
Like my rocking chairs.
When my granddaughter visits now, it’s only on the front steps for a while, until the coronavirus social distancing expires. She comes with eyes full of spring light, as blue as the sky above my finch, who never fails to join our gathering and to add his voice to the conversation.
“That’s a loud bird!” says my granddaughter, age four.
“He is. Look, there he is, on the roof. Hi, Finch!”
And in these bright little moments, I revel in the poetry of life, that this bird (I wonder if he was one of the previous hatchlings from my wreath? ) should be a mainstay. Especially as my granddaughter’s name is Scout. Yes, from To Kill a Mockingbird. Whose last name was … Finch.
I want sturdy chairs on the porch, for resting. As a place to quiet my mind with the greenness of the grass in the yard and over where the path leads round the pond through greener trees. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul … To share with my granddaughter as she grows, to have coffee with my husband who almost didn’t live to see another spring. To celebrate living, being, enduring. To converse with generations of finches who’ve chosen to make my home theirs. To know, as evening falls, and I must go in, that I savored the gifts of that day to their fullest, their deepest.
My husband bought the chairs.
“We’ll put the old ones on the back deck,” he told me.
I wanted to say Why, they’re held together with glue, they’ll last maybe three days out there with no shelter, let’s just throw them away. But I didn’t. He wants to keep them, for some reason …
Truth is, the old chairs look kind of nice on the back deck by the flowerpots. For ever how long they last out there.
It was the rocker nearest the kitchen that made me realize.
Thump thump. Thump thump.
Dennis the dachshund woke from his sleep in a patch of sun-stripes at the back door. Ears perked.
“What is that?” I asked him from my chair at the kitchen table, where I was typing on the laptop.
Rising, looking through the window.
The rocker, rocking all by itself.
Thump thump. Thump thump.
The other rocker opposite sat motionless.
The wind, I thought.
Second thought: Why this rocker and not the other?
Third thought: Is the wind — or something — IN that chair?
It reminded me that I’ve always wanted to write a collection of ghost stories. An incongruous thought on such a bright, gold-green day.
How have I missed it?
For all the weeks—months—of the wind’s extended gusting and moaning under the eaves, unlike I’ve ever heard it before, I failed to notice it had stopped. All through the COVID crisis it’s been a grieved entity, swirling around my house in desperation, haunting my spirit with its voice, agitating the tall pines.
It’s still here, as my rocking chair can attest. But subdued.
Perhaps the wind has decided to sit a spell and rest. Perhaps the rocker was an invitation.
I am not sure we are friendly, yet, the wind and I, but I will offer it hospitality as long as it’s a benevolent guest. Is it taking up residence here, like the finches?
Perhaps I will take my coffee out there one afternoon and ask—begging the wind’s pardon, of course—why it cried so long and so hard.
But as I have no wish to stir anything up, maybe I’ll just let the wind rock to its heart’s content, in peace.