The call

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

Sustaining words

As I turned the pages of my academic planner from April to May, I discovered a quote from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön…

You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.

The implication is to just be. To remain. To not worry about things beyond your control. The storms of life may rage and wreak havoc, but not indefinitely. They pass. And they’re interspersed with moments of incredible beauty. The sky exists above clouds. It is the sphere through which the sun, moon, and stars pass…what would it mean, then, to “be the sky”? I feel more posts coming on this later…

Meanwhile, more Chödrön:

Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

On Mother’s Day my family gathered for lunch. Sunday afternoons have an ethereal quality; they are not your ordinary afternoons. They beckon sleep, or reading, or other quiet pleasures; they also offer an outlet for expending physical energy and embracing joie de vivre, joy of living. After lunch my granddaughter, age five, needed to “run and get her wiggles out.” Her mother and I watched her running through a sea of white clover in my backyard. I’d been irritated that our lawn service hadn’t yet cut the grass but as I breathed the sweet, clover-perfumed air, I thought How perfect is the fragrance of this day. My daughter-in-law and I began identifying all the different types of plants growing with the grass in my yard with the “Picture This” app on our phones: Tall goldenrod. Spreading hedgeparsley. Ryegrass. Bluegrass (who knew?). Posion ivy on the far corner of the fence under the pines (lawn crew must be notified). Woodsorrel. Wild geranium. And wild mock strawberries, which enchanted my granddaughter. She picked them and carried them around, tiny red fruit in a tiny pink hand… my son said, “I never knew those grew here!”

There are a lot of things we never realize. Such as the value of simple moments, in the living of them. We cannot imagine how the memory of these will remain with us, like the sky, for our lifetime.

One more quote…

Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.

One of the thick, spiky weeds we identified on our backyard exploration is a species of “Everlasting.”

I said to my daughter-in-law: “I had no idea so much poetry lived in the grass.”

I think about all that would have been lost in these dappled Sunday afternoon moments, if the grass had been cut like I’d wanted. My granddaughter didn’t complain. She savored it all, blue eyes as brilliant as the sky above.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring. For now I only know we stand as we are, in our shared sky and story, moments in the making, entering the warrior’s world, a family of everlastings like those growing in the universe beneath our feet.

Where nothing is ever really ordinary.

Spiritual Journey: Blossoming of joy

with thanks to my fellow Spiritual Journey writers who gather on the first Thursday of each month, and to Carol Varsalona for hosting today. Carol chose the theme “Blossoming of Joy.”

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
Song of Solomon 2:12

One of my favorite things about spring in North Carolina is the birdsong. Each morning when I rise, it’s to a chorus of cheery songs in myriad bird voices, a tiny angelic choir singing praise for the day from the pines surrounding my home. I listen, and am strengthened.

Another favorite thing is wisteria. It usually blooms for a short while in April. The pendulous blossoms hanging from trees fill my soul with nostalgia, for bygone times walking with my grandmother along the old dirt road of her country home, listening to stories of people who lived, loved, and died long ago. Wisteria threads through the landscape like pale purple banners of celebration for spring. It’s both old and new every year, full of secrets and mystery…and this year, for some reason, it is continuing to bloom into May.

I am not questioning.

I am just savoring.

Mysterious how
wisteria lingers on
disregarding May

This week I have been working with some kindergarteners on letter sounds and names. One little boy had his head down on his desk, buried in his arms, when I arrived. We started a game of naming objects that begin with “y” and he informed me that “yacht” is a boat and “people have parties on them.”

I sat blinking while he played with the toy yacht. He smiled at me: “I am feeling happier now.”

On leaving school, I saw a dandelion growing as close as it could to an old tree:

Y is for yellow
the self-confident color
of dandelion

Thanks to Carol’s prompt today, I am thinking of many facets of “blossoming of joy.” An image returns to mind from last week. At my church there are three women expecting babies in May, June, and July. We threw a shower for them on Sunday; it was one of those perfect spring afternoons, when the sun shines bright and a soft breeze blows like a comforting and encouraging caress from on high.

Sunday afternoon
three young women sat outside
their fellowship hall

greeting well-wishers
arriving in the driveway
bearing baby gifts

a drive-through shower
a celebration of love
a church family

multiplying grace
blessing by blessing outpoured
on expectant moms

blossoming with joy
and the new life they carry 
despite pandemics

My own son and his wife are expecting a baby in the fall.

There’s simply just so much to celebrate.

Abundant blossoming of joy.

Tiny trembling life

One of my favorite things about spring is the return of the house finches, which build a nest and raise a little family on my front door wreath.

I am treated to a bird’s eye view of tiny life coming into the world.

As some of you know from previous posts, the finches built the nest last year but never laid any eggs. It was haunting, coinciding with the onset of the COVID-19 shutdown. Barrenness. Emptiness. Loss.

They are making up for it this year.

Mama Finch laid five eggs during Holy Week; usually there are only three or four.

They’ve all hatched now and more pictures will be forthcoming, but here are the first two babies.

For the record, the collective noun for finches is a charm or a trembling.

A trembling charm of tiny new life upon my house:

For Day Twenty of National Poetry Month, a haiku:

Nature has her charms
Gifts of fragile new songbirds
Trembling abundance

April in North Carolina haiku

For Day Ten of National Poetry Month

blossoms hang like grapes
wisteria decadence
threaded through the trees

finches chirruping
five pale blue eggs in the nest
on the front door wreath

grass, fresh-cut fragrance
green carpet for morning sun
not yet grown brutal

Wisteria decadence. Took this photo four days ago. I love wisteria and its whispers of bygone days. I have even written a short story in the voice of a wisteria vine, set in rural NC in the early part of the 20th century. Plants, after all, are said to have memory and feelings…

Abundance acrostic

The acrostic is an ancient poetic form, appearing in Scripture and as prayers in medieval literature. On Day Five of National Poetry Month, I use it to announce a family celebration…with a little wordplay…

Although I planned to resume writing of Easter’s
Bounty in the nest on the front door wreath,
Unprecedented number of little blue eggs—five!—
Now, instead, I ask you to picture my family
Doing a bun dance over the holiday,
At least in our hearts, at this
New-life announcement on
Cookies and a special T-shirt:
Expecting! —Exponential Easter joy!

First, the finch eggs in the nest on the front door.
The fifth egg appeared this morning.
We usually get three or four. Abundance!

Now for the cookies:
My daughter-in-law and granddaughter made them
to announce the special news to my husband and me
over Easter weekend
…aBUNdance!

My granddaughter’s face was radiant,
delivering those cookies at our family dinner.
In this photo she is crying on first hearing the news.
She threw herself into my son’s arms.
The desire of her little heart, granted; abundant joy.

—A-bun-dance, indeed!

Bird sanctuary poem

A Golden Shovel poem in honor of the finches nesting on my front door, the miracle of new life, and faith. Reshared as a stand-alone from my April 1st Spiritual Journey post, in recognition of National Poetry Month. A Holy Week celebratory hymn based on the words of Christ: Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21:5, ESV).

I come to the sanctuary in the cool of the day to behold
these moments of Earth’s remembering, an altar call where I
respond, walking the greening aisle just as I am
to a fanfare of wingbeats and music-making.
Holy holy holy, I surrender all
in wordless doxology on the returning. Let all things
their Creator bless, with ancient morningsong, yet ever new
.

shared for Poetry Friday, with thanks to Mary Lee for hosting the Roundup

All things new: Spiritual Journey

An offering for the Spiritual Journey group, comprised of faithful friends who gather on the first Thursday of each month. Today’s theme is “all things new.”

Spring arrives, clad in rich new vestments of green. Every day, more of the color ripples across the landscape. Here in the central part of North Carolina the Bradford pears have already exchanged their ethereal veil-clouds of wedding lace blossoms for something more matronly and verdant. A whirlwind ceremony, that five-minute flowering of pear.

The birds began preparing back in winter. Flashes of electric blue on my back deck; a brilliant bluebird, dropping by like a friendly neighbor. Darts of fiery red across the road while I’m driving; cardinals, making me stress over potentially ensnaring them in the grille (why DO they fly so low?). Today, a darling brown Carolina wren on my back deck—clearly doing Deacon of the Week rotation with the bluebird—singing its heart out, full-throated, unrestrained, magnificent. How can such a small bird have such a big voice? Bocelli can’t hold a candle to you, Little Wren. From the pines and budding hardwoods, bird choirs swell, as in the song “The King is Coming”:

Regal robes are now unfolding,
Heaven’s grandstand’s all in place,
Heaven’s choir now assembled,
Start to sing “Amazing Grace!”

All in earthly bird language, naturally… but no less celestial.

All but the finches, that is.

For several consecutive years a finch family has built a nest on my from door wreath and raised generations of little broods. I’d find a total of three baby-blue eggs in the nest, sometimes four, laid precisely between seven and eight o’clock every morning. My family has been treated to an insider’s view of the whole process, from nest-building to egg-laying to the hatching of tiny pink things so frail and helpless that a person might think they can’t possibly manage to stay alive; yet in no time they’re fledglings working on flying lessons. We’ve even had a batch of babies in the spring and another in summer; that makes for a long time of roping off my front-door bird sanctuary.

Then, with the advent of COVID-19 last March, a curious thing occurred. As the human world reeled, and became strapped in the strange straitjacket of pandemic, as businesses shut down, as hospitals and mortuaries overflowed, spring came anyway. Nature, in fact, outdid herself with resplendent finery. The finches came to build their nest as always and this little act of constancy lifted my flagging spirits: At least there will be baby birds to watch while we are all under stay-at-home orders.

But there were no eggs last spring. The nest remained empty all season. The finches… they vanished. No warning, just—poof!—gone. I didn’t see when, how, or why.

After a while, bereft, I quit looking for them.

I didn’t take the wreath down until late fall.

I saved the little unused nest.

I didn’t have the heart to throw away such a labor of love (you can say instinct all you want but the perfect craftsmanship of nests amazes me).

With the return of March, I waited for the finches to join the rest of the avian throng having revival beyond my windows. Every day I looked.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Then, day before yesterday…on the top of the wreath, one lone strand of grass, lying in a telltale curve…could it be, could it be…?

And yesterday…

“THEY’RE BACK! THEY’RE BACK! COME SEE!”

My family humored me with only a slight rolling of eyes…my granddaughter, at least, seemed interested. She made my son hold her up high for a better, bird’s-eye view.

I marveled at the greenness of the nest. Is it just me, or is this how they always look? This green, this fresh? I do not think so. No, they have never been so green before.

And today…

Almost complete. Look at that leafy lining, so carefully placed.

By Easter—dare I hope?—we might have an egg.

A tiny, age-old symbol of rebirth and resurrection.

I marvel at this fresh greenery, this new grass, this preparation for new life, the hope that’s in it. If not for the birds, then for me. Especially after the year that’s passed, marked by so much bleakness and loss, down to the former little nest that contained no life.

I recall the promise of Christ: one day there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21:4-5, ESV).

Every spring hints at it. My personal winged messengers, harbingers of blessed assurance.

A little foretaste of glory divine.

Hymns of the heart. I step outside, away from the constraints of the house, watching the two finches take flight, zigzagging skyward, sunlight gleaming on their sandy backs, calling, calling, calling, how sweet the sound.

I come to the sanctuary in the cool of the day to behold
these moments of Earth’s remembering, an altar call where I
respond, walking the greening aisle just as I am
to a fanfare of wingbeats and music-making.
Holy holy holy, I surrender all
in wordless doxology on the returning. Let all things
their Creator bless, with ancient morningsong, yet ever new
.

*******

Update, Thursday evening… first egg!
Holy Week blessings to all.

*******

with thanks to Karen Eastlund for hosting today’s Spiritual Journey

and also shared with the writing community on SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, in response to the open invitation to write around the many meanings of “spring.”

Cry

Originally composed and posted as “The cry” on Saturday, February 27, with thanks to Ruth at SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog for the initial inspiration to “write fast.” Reposted here today as a reminder that revision is also writing…

I heard it again. It stirred me from my luxurious Saturday-drowse. A loud cryyyy cryyy cryyy from the backyard, or very nearby. I threw off the blankets and ran out on the deck, promptly soaking my socks in the day-old rainwater.

I dreamt, once, that I was standing here exactly like this, looking up at the northwestern sky, when an eagle flew by. Bald eagles do live around here. I have seen them on occasion. I’m convinced that an eagle’s (big, sloppy) nest is on the top of a water tower on the highway around the bend. In my dream, I was awed by the eagle and knew it portended something good.

But eagles don’t have the beautiful, poignant cryyy cryyy cryyy I am hearing on this early, pearl-sky morning. All other life seems to be slumbering but for this phantom bird, the lusty rooster across the street, and me. Day is just barely fading in.

It cries again, in the stillness. The air rings with its sharpness, with the curve and edge of it.

It’s a hawk. It has to be. I’ve seen several in recent weeks, since the turn of the year. During an icy spell in January, when I went for a short walk in thin winter sunlight that gilded the bare trees and glittered on the grass, I watched a hawk gliding low overheard, never flapping its wings, staying aloft as if by magic.

Returning to the warmth of the house in my sodden socks, I make coffee and settle at my laptop to search.

Definitely not an eagle. That call is feeble in comparison to the one I just heard. I know hawks’ voices are dubbed for eagles’ in movies.

Not a red-tailed hawk, though. What a hair-raising, harrowing scream.

Then… yes!

A red-shouldered hawk. Fluid, syllabic, downward inflection. Exactly what I heard from somewhere over in the smattering of pines between my neighbor’s house and mine, where I dreamed the eagle flew. I’d rather hear this cry even if I cannot see the hawk. The sound scrapes against my heart. 

It has something to do with the aching aliveness of things, despite the hawk being a predator. If I want to focus on symbolism, there’s a lot: intuition, spirituality, power…

But now, now, as the rooster picks back up with his daylong rusty-bugle solo (that’s one vigorous creature!), there’s a familiar cheep cheep warble at the front door, so happy and so loud that it seems almost to be in my house.

The finches! They made their annual nest in my door wreath last spring but didn’t lay eggs as in previous years, when I held my granddaughter up to see the nestlings. For some reason, they disappeared. And left me bereft. One more little layer of heartache in a deeply heartrending year. When I took the wreath down in the fall, I mourned over the perfect, unused nest.

I saved it. I couldn’t toss such artistry away.

I put my spring wreath up early. Like, at the end of January.

When I went to look for the chattering finches just now, I couldn’t see them any more than I could see that hawk this morning; I believe the little birds were sitting in the wreath, voicing (to me) their delight. 

There’s likely to be babies at my door by Easter.

And, I hope, somewhere high in the lonesome pines.

Red-shouldered hawk. Don Miller. CC B

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year. I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 3, I am writing around a word beginning with letter c.

Periwinkle

Last week of February.

Winter wears on.

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!