When death is all around be still, listen to the sound of birds
to hopes lost and found
here in the song life and grace abound
Backstory: House finches return year after year to build nests on my front door wreath. Every spring and summer, my porch becomes a bird sanctuary and nursery; I, a present but uninvolved custodian, watch it all unfolding from the periphery. This winter the little finch pair actually roosted in the wreath at night. That is a first. I imagined them nestled together in the grapevine, keeping each other warm, dreaming dreams of life to come. They started awfully early this season, building their nest in the wreath and laying at least four eggs before the last week of February. It was still cold. March arrived with gusting winds and sustained freezing temperatures; I worried about the tiny life on my door. During winter’s only snow this year, well before before spring officially arrived, the baby finches hatched. Because of the cold, I stayed away; I didn’t want to startle Mama Finch, who needed to be on the nest keeping her babies warm. I saw the hatchlings when they were a day or two old and didn’t check again for about three weeks…expecting they had fledged and possibly gone, as the happy singing and trilling bird-talk at my door had ceased. When I came around to check the nest, I found one fledgling dead, its little head drooped over the front of the nest, and another beautiful fledgling, so tiny, with such perfect little wings, enmeshed with the nest at the back—almost becoming part of the nest. This is another first: in all these generations of finches I’ve not known any babies to die. In fact, they usually stay in the nest after they can fly, seemingly unwilling to leave. I marvel at how they can still stuff themselves into it. Home sweet home…until now. Not wanting to leave the dead baby finches and fearing there were parasites or some disease in the nest, I removed the babies, placed them deep in a bed of leaves by the woods out back, and destroyed the old nest.
It broke my heart.
The parents must have been watching me…I read that birds mourn for their little lost ones.
They began rebuilding immediately. With urgency, Soon there was a perfect green nest artistically adorned with a long gray feather from some other bird, lined with layers of the softest, whitest fluff —wherever do they find this? And a week before Easter there were five—five!—new eggs.
They began hatching yesterday. I’ve been keeping close watch…and this is the first time I’ve caught a glimpse (just the very quickest glimpse) of a finch actually hatching.
The poem at the opening was inspired by one shared for VerseLove on Ethical ELA yesterday, coinciding with the hatching of these finch eggs: Why Do You Write Poems When Death is All Around Us?
The answer, for me, is a matter of awe: Life is all around, somehow overcoming, even singing at the door.
with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for sharing Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre’s poem yesterday and Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life story sharing-place
and to the finches for infusing my days with so much awe hope and notes of joy
On the fourth day of rebuilding after tragedy, here’s what the new house finch nest looks like:
In all the years of finches raising broods in my front door wreath, I have never seen a nest lined with such deep layers of fluff and feathers. The little blue eggs to come any morning now (prediction: the first one on Sunday) will be so well-cradled, so tenderly sheltered.
This week I read that birds mourn the loss of their young.
I believe it.
I also believe, looking at this nest, that my house finches are determined not to lose any more.
March 1: Auspices – discovery of an unusually early nest and eggs laid in February (with photo)
March 5: Eavesdropping – audio of the parent finches’ joyous chatter
March 14: Nestlings – likely hatched during a snowfall (with photo)
a favor or gift bestowed by God, thereby bringing happiness.
I could hardly wait to get home yesterday to check the progress of the new finch nest on my door wreath.
On Day Two, it now has the characteristic cup shape. It’s lined with white fuzz, a soft cushion for the precious eggs to come.
It is comprised almost exclusively of fresh green grass. The color of newness and life.
House finches are said to represent new beginnings.
Their nests always fill me with awe, and never more than now, watching the parents working together to rebuild immediately after two of their babies died in the previous nest, which I tore down. Confession: I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. Nature is mighty, ever-resilient, wise; it is imbued with regenerative power. Yet there are so many delicate balances within it. I didn’t want to upset any of these. I am a mere student of these birds. They are the experts.
So to see this nest being built in the exact spot as the ill-fated former one is a gift. It sends my spirits soaring, exponentially.
House finches are considered symbols of joy. If you ever hear one singing, you understand why.
In some parts of the world, they’re called the blessing bird.
They chose my door years ago as the place to bring new life into the world. I now share the wonder of it with my seven-year-old granddaughter, our “nurture scientist.” Together we have witnessed the miracle of tiny life coming into existence and eventually taking flight. In a couple more seasons, her baby sister will be able to enjoy it, too.
After I took this photo of the new nest, rejoicing and wondering when the first egg will appear, I went into the house to find a mysterious package my husband had retrieved from the mailbox.
Neither of us had ordered anything.
I opened it…
A gift from a friend I met through writing, who reads about my finches each spring, who knows of the recent loss.
I am awed again.
A writing community is like a nest: a safe place especially created for growth, where we nurture one another and encourage each other to stretch our wings and fly.
It is here that we learn the true power of story and how it knits our hearts together. In the beginning, in the end, we are story.
To live it, write it, build it together, is a gift.
And the time for doing it is now. Today.
My love for the finches, like my love for writing, is inextricably woven through and through with gratitude for the blessings in my life. It’s all a song in my heart, greater than words.
Each day brings its own gifts. It’s up to us to see them, accept them, celebrate them.
And to give in return.
Beyond the horizon Lies infinite possibility Eyes cannot see. Sky meeting sea Sea meeting sky… I fly ever onward Nested and rested in the Giver of every good and perfect gift.
Today, there might be an egg.
******** with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the monthlong Slice of Life Story Challenge
On Monday afternoon I came home to check the nest on my front door wreath, expecting that finch fledglings had flown. They are the earliest brood I’ve ever known: four tiny blue eggs laid during the last week of February and hatching by the second week of March; I discovered a pile of fuzzy gray, mohawked nestlings after a snowfall.
By Monday, as the temperatures finally warmed, I hadn’t heard their happy chatter at my door in a day or so. I assumed the babies had left home; it was just over two weeks after hatching, which is normal.
But that afternoon I found two perfectly beautiful fledglings dead in the nest.
First time this has happened in all the years of house finches adopting my porch as their sanctuary. No real clue as to why. Inexperienced parents? Doubtful, as nesting in my wreath is an established pattern and the finches are quite prolific. Disease? Maybe; but where were the other two babies? Sustained freezing temperatures? Possible. Survival of the fittest? Probable.
No sign of the parents. Had something happened to them? Had they abandoned these little ones? If so, why?
I stood before the nest, icy shock quickly melting into grief.
It had to be dealt with…
Armed with paper towels and cloths, I extricated the tiny lifeless babies. I carried them to the edge of the woods out back and covered them, together, in a deep bed of dry leaves. I couldn’t just throw them away; they had been living things. They had been growing. I couldn’t bury them; birds don’t bury their dead and furthermore, they’re creatures of the air.
They never got to fly.
I bid the babies goodbye and told them I was sorry that this was the best I knew to do for them, to let nature reabsorb them.
Then, the nest.
Finches sometimes reuse them.
If I were a mother bird, however, I wouldn’t want to reuse a nest where two of my precious babies had died.
I decided the nest—every one a unique masterpiece, this one threaded with tiny dried flowers and padded with white hair from some mammal—had to go. In case there were mites or germs or traces of decay…
It should be burned, I thought, as I pulled it away from the wreath.
Instead I wrapped it, bagged it, and threw it in the trash.
I almost threw the whole wreath in the trash, too, but just as I took it down, I remembered how, all winter long, two little birds slept in this wreath together at night, keeping each other warm, sometimes startling me by flying out when I opened the door.
No doubt it was the finch parents, staking their claim until nesting season.
I couldn’t throw the wreath away.
I guess…I know… well, just hoping…
I shook out the wreath and hung it back up.
Monday evening, I was forlorn. I read everything I could find online about bird babies dying in nests. I read that bird parents grieve for their lost ones. I peeked out of the front blinds; I am sure I saw a little shadowy figure on the porch railing, just as it saw me and darted away, without a sound.
I didn’t sleep well.
Tuesday morning, as I got dressed for work, the silence was depressing. This is the time I’d hear them most, the parents with their song-chatter, the chorusing baby voices…
So I went outside with my Merlin Bird Sound ID app. It picked up robins, a mockingbird, a Carolina wren, a chipping sparrow, a mourning dove…no house finches.
I drove to work heavy-hearted, knowing that there are countless other birds for the savoring and that in the human world incomparable horrors are steadily unfolding…yet that’s why the finches matter. One bit of joy that softens the edges of the blade. A little song of light against a devouring darkness. A tiny comfort on the wing, a fleeting moment of transcendence…
Tuesday afternoon I came home and checked the wreath.
I don’t know what I expected. I don’t even know if this is wise or healthy (when is a thing officially an obsession?).
It didn’t look any different. I thought I saw one shred of green grass hung in the grapevine where the nest used to be…probably a remnant.
I tried Merlin Bird Sound ID again. —Crows! You are SO. LOUD. Chickadee, cardinal, dark-eyed junco…blue-gray gnatcatcher? Chipping sparrow, osprey. —Osprey! Several of them, impossibly high overhead, calling in their wild, echoing sea-song bursts.
But even in my awe…no finches.
As I turned to leave the driveway a bird sailed right past my head to land in the crape myrtle.
I couldn’t believe it: Papa Finch! Speckled brown, gorgeous red head…I’d know him anywhere.
Then another swoop over the fence to the backyard, not so far from where I laid the babies to rest…is that Mama Finch? Am I making this up? The power of suggestion, or wishful thinking? Writer’s imagination?
I came back into the house to watch a while through the beveled glass of the front door… clandestine operations…
It wasn’t long before he appeared on the garage roof top.
With something trailing from his beak.
‘THEY ARE REBUILDING!” I cried aloud to no one, before I remembered to be clandestine.
Sure enough, Mama Finch soon joined him… appears they have a personal stash of building materials on top of my garage, for they took turns swooping to the front door.
Making a new nest, in a big hurry.
If you have time, watch the short video; it is the first footage I’ve ever obtained of the house finch parents. I’ve never even been able to get a photo. But here’s Papa holding wisps of nesting material while Mama sets hers in place; she returns, and he goes to add his layer.
In the exact same spot as the nest I removed the day before, with the lost babies.
This is what they accomplished in one afternoon:
Look at those soft white pieces procured by Papa.
They’re not done, of course, but are working feverishly in tandem; I suspect Mama is ready to lay more eggs…
If I know my finches, they’ll start hatching right around Easter.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new —Revelation 21:5.
For the first time, I rejoice at tearing the old nest down. I marvel at the fortitude of these little birds, prevailing today over yesterday’s loss, pressing on with urgency. They have a contribution to make to the world. This is not the first time, nor surely the last, that I am awed by the resilience and regenerative power of nature. It’s all doing exactly what it is meant to do…with hope and healing for the taking.
Courage, dear hearts.
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge
On the last day of Ethical ELA’s Open Write, host Denise Hill offered this invitation:
“Take a metaphor or idiom and reverse it or twist it up in any which way you choose – mumbo jumbo jam it!
Then write from the ‘sense’ the new phrase makes. It may be total nonsense. That’s perfectly fine! It may provide a ‘feeling’ or strike a memory chord or a fantasy chord with you in some way that inspires your poem today. Just go with it!”
Here is what came of my scrambling the writing on the wall…
The Wall on the Writing
In prehistory cave-dwellers dipped their fingers into animal fat charcoal their own earwax
then dirt and ash
to paint their stories on the walls by flickering torchlight
over time many caves collapsed
to be reabsorbed by the earth
In the course of human migration the region of the caves became a fortified city with iron gates and great stone walls
one of which was constructed over the buried caves
It is said that at this wall the great orators gave their mighty speeches humble petitioners made their prayers poets composed their epics chroniclers penned histories and storytellers found their words
I do not know if the wall or the legends are real
but I do know that when I hit a writing block that I cannot go over around or through if I dig deep deeper deeper still within
I will find the words
just human DNA finding its way with story waiting deep deeper deeper still beneath the wall on the writing
First they wanted to know why they have to be in this reading group.
Now they want to know why they can’t come every single day for longer amounts of time.
They are so hung up on what is “fair.”
When I ask Why? I am told: Because things are not fair at home.
I say You know I am going to be fair here.
They notice everything. They want to talk about nails and where I get my holographic pencils.
They want to know when I will get cooler prizes in my treasure basket (a reward for working hard. I asked them what their favorite candy is. I bought it all and also put holographic pencils in the basket…the first things to go).
They want to know if they can have two prizes (-Did you all work hard? -Yes. – Okay, You can have two…yes, all of you).
They want to know what I will do for them when we get to the end of all their reading passages.
They inform me that they want McDonald’s to celebrate. They have already composed their order…although it changes every day.
They want to know if they can eat it in my room with me.
They all have stories. Parts I know. Parts I don’t.
I have questions about fair myself.
They want to know who has the highest score, who’s going to be first, who’s going to update the group star chart.
That fair thing, again.
I am not going to decide for you, I say. You figure it out amongst yourselves.
And they do. Fairly.
They don’t know how much they’re rising above, how many odds they’re beating.
But they can see their own trajectories climbing with every reading assessment.
And they linger in my space when they’re supposed to be going back to class.
When I look up after assessing the last one’s progress, I see why…
They were writing on the board.
Love you kids.
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the monthlong Slice of Life Story Challenge
I see them most often on power lines, easy to spot, as they are so much larger than other birds perched on high.
Alone. What other bird would perch with a hawk?
Some of them have so much white plumage that I think of snowy owls (which do not live in this southern clime).
In recent weeks I’ve seen a hawk in the branches of a winter-bare tree.
Regal. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Raptors, living on prey. Solitary creatures, not socialites. Steeped in symbolism.
Ultimately they are creatures of intense focus, and that is the lens I will use now.
It occurs to me, while contemplating hawks, that what we focus on feeds us.
Not our stomachs. Our spirits. Our souls.
Everything we devour isn’t good.
It also comes out that way, somewhere, somehow.
Somewhere, somehow, I think it was the hawk that inspired me to give up negativity for Lent.
I don’t need to partake of it or serve it (the whole point being repentance and not returning to it again).
I stepped away from social media quite some time ago; not gone, exactly, just…distanced. Able to hone in, occasionally, for what’s really of value.
I’ve stopped dwelling in the shadows of this school year (a work in progress). Perhaps more hours of daylight have helped with this…the hawk doesn’t waste precious time rueing the daily grind of life. It just does it. Concentrating on the task at hand. Never losing direction. Knowing when and where to move; until then, waiting and watching. With wide perspective.
Of course all the challenges don’t just disappear (as the hawk surely knows).
But in shedding unnecessary weights, the heights are easier to obtain. The mental eye is clearer, sharper.
The Latin word focus meant “hearth, fireplace.” In the scientific Latin of the 17th century, the word is used to refer to the point at which rays of light refracted by a lens converge. Because rays of sunlight when directed by a magnifying glass can produce enough heat to ignite paper, a word meaning “fireplace” is quite appropriate as a metaphor to describe their convergence point. From this sense of focus have arisen extended senses such as “center of activity.”
Directed light, channeled energy…being a conduit.
My thoughts spin homeward, to the hearth and heart of my life.
And as I drive at the end of the day, my freer spirit soars like the hawk on high, wind ruffling the embers of its breast.
Red-shouldered hawk. Photo by my friend E. Johnson
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge
Like crows, hawks use tools to get what they need.
with thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Spiritual Journey writers on the first Thursday of the year
Perhaps you’re in the the habit of choosing a focus word at the outset of each year. A word like simplify or savor (these have been my “one little word” in the past). The general idea is that the word serves as a filter for viewing and processing daily life. It’s meant to enrich and inspire, to make you notice more, extract more.
A well-chosen word has power. Writers know this.
As I contemplate the power of a single word being a tool for the spiritual journey, two things come to mind: A story and a song.
Since childhood I’ve loved The Chronicles of Narnia. I reread the books every few years. In TheMagician’s Nephew children from our world find their way (accidentally) into a dusky world that seems to be devoid of life. The sun, much bigger and older than ours, is weary and blood-red. Clearly there has been life, for the kids find a castle and eventually a gallery of people wearing royal finery, seated in chairs along the walls. They are like wax figures, a complete mystery to the children, who go on to have a disagreement and (unfortunately) set deep magic to work (after falling prey to a psychological enchantment. You must read the book for the full effect; in all best fantasies psychology and wisdom are more powerful than ‘magic’). The children inadvertently awaken the last figure in the great hall, who rises to meet them. Jadis (whose name appears to be a combination of long ago or there are days before and witch) is the last queen of Charn, this desolate place. She confesses to usurping the throne by overthrowing her sister at the end of a bloody civil war. Jadis didn’t win this war. Instead, she destroyed all living things in that world except herself by using the Deplorable Word, an ancient and feared secret for which she paid a “terrible price” to obtain.
Shall we move onto the song?
Martin Luther, the force behind the Reformation, composed the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” between 1527 and 1529. Consider his third verse:
And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim,— We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo! His doom is sure,— One little word shall fell him.
“One little word”… puts an end to Satan and evil. What might this all-powerful word be? Scholars say Luther’s hymn draws from Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
Might the one little word be Truth? As in Luther’s words, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us? As in Be still and know the truth of God in Psalm 46? As in If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, the words of Christ, John 8:31-32? Or one little word as in the Word, John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things were made through him…in him was life and the life was the light of men…the darkness has not overcome it…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…?
I circle back to rest on this premise: There’s spiritual power in a single word.
The greatest battles of life are, after all, spiritual. We struggle with truth. Consider Pilate’s words to Jesus, awaiting judgment in the hall of his palace fortress: Quid est veritas…What is truth?
Truth is, evil abounds. It reigns in destruction, in violence, in hungry power-grabs (i.e., Jadis; in the end, is truth not the inherent value of fiction?). And we hardly need more proof that words matter, as we continue to witness the destructive consequences of bullying on society.
We desperately need an anti-Deplorable word, do we not. One that edifies, helps, and heals. If it is not Truth, then maybe Forgive. Or Bless. Would we be about destruction, if we are actively harnessing the power of these words?
I come at last to my one little word for the past two years, which has served me better than any other.
It has several definitions and facets, some of which contrast. It encompasses wonder, reverence, and fear. I sense all of these in Luther’s words. In Psalm 46. Awe is rooted in the realization—the truth—that our existence is part of something far greater than ourselves. Psychologists say that sense of awe has a powerful effect on our well-being. When the idea of awe as my own “one little word” came to me in 2020, I wasn’t even looking for it. I was tired. My husband was still recovering from two heart surgeries following cardiac arrest and resuscitation; COVID-19 was spreading across the planet. I didn’t feel like playing with words.
The word came anyway.
In these two years, rolling into three, my husband lived to officiate our son’s marriage, to see the birth of our granddaughter, Micah, and to see our oldest graduate from seminary and enroll in a PhD program (our same boy who said he’d never marry, have children, or go in the ministry). The youngest has graduated, is flourishing in his funeral career of serving and comforting the bereaved (our same boy who, as a toddler, was fascinated by the wise men of the nativity narrative and especially myrrh…which is used in preparing the dead for burial). Our oldest granddaughter has skipped first grade and is thriving in second. Micah, now fifteen months old, picks up books and mimics the prosody of reading; she opens hymnals and sings in her own way. Everywhere I turn, awe abounds. It reaches out every single day from nature itself…this is why I write of birds and the stars so often.
It’s even in my dreams. Last night I dreamed of a bright-eyed bird burrowing in leaves and pine straw that had gathered at the edge of my door. While I am prone to researching such symbolism until I exhaust myself, I’d see it as awe coming to live at my portal, always waiting for me to open myself to it. This much I know: awe has been a very real entity, a Presence.
Most definitely my guide on the spiritual journey.