Sunday, April 30, 2017

Between Words and Birds

When things go wrong, I always seek solace in two places – out of doors or in the pages of books (and in recent years, online). The beauty I find in one and the wisdom I find in the other have never failed me.

April has been a month of sadness. I attended a memorial for a beloved cousin’s wife, learned that my son-in-law’s stepfather had only weeks to live, and was shocked by a friend’s sudden and violent death as she crossed the main street in town.

Through all this sadness, spring crept, bringing warm weather and violets, birdsong and fresh green shoots. At the same time, I kept running across a singular theme in my reading. Three messages from three different friends who know nothing of each other spoke of acceptance, about loving what was to come before even knowing it was coming, to look for light in the darkest of times. The book chapter I was reading was about giving thanks in all circumstances. It happens like that, doesn’t it? What you most need to know crops up in front of you, forcing you to pay attention.

Just so. I was sitting outside on my gazebo deck this morning, feeling blue about the coming church service for my friend, knowing there would be tears. I ached for the family left behind, people I loved even though I didn’t see them more than a few times a year. I knew I would stand among all those believers and feel afresh the sorrow of not really being one of them. I long ago lost my faith in a deity that cared for humans any more than it did the whole of the universe. Their comfort would not be mine.

That lack of faith is often tested by events for which I have no rational explanation. It would seem the universe conspires to unnerve me in the best of ways. For example, for several summers my mother carried on a whistling conversation with a catbird that nested in the lilac bush at the corner of our front porch. Mama would stretch out in a lounge chair of an afternoon, the catbird would perch on a branch of the lilac, and they’d chirp and whistle daily to each other from May until September when the catbird joined its flock headed south.

When my mother passed away one grim October, I fetched the old lounge chair from the porch, set it on the lawn and sat in it, contemplating the way the house itself seemed to sag as if it, too, were missing her. I closed my eyes and heard a catbird call. I sat up. It sounded so real, so close. And that’s because it was. There in a bare branch of the lilac tree sat a catbird, eyeing me, and calling. In mid-October! I whistled back and the bird flew off. “Don’t go!” I cried, but it went.

When I moved back to the old homestead a few years later, I hauled the lounge chair out of storage, ensconced myself in it and sang to whatever catbird made an appearance. Who could it be but my mother?

In every house I’ve lived in since, a pair of catbirds has made a nest in a nearby bush. Of course, that’s not unusual. Catbirds frequent this area of New England. Still, I talk to the female as it builds its nest, hatches its eggs, raises its young. I tell her what I would tell my mother if she were sitting beside me. And she always, always talks back.

Because of this affinity, when a treasured friend died some years ago and a coal black crow hopped unusually close to me as I sat grappling with grief, I fancied the crow was my departed friend. I spoke to it and it moved to a low branch of a nearby pine and studied me for a moment before flying noisily off. That crow, or some crow, kept close for days. When I went for a walk along the pond’s edge, it followed me, flying low from tree to tree. For the most part it was silent, but now and then, when I directed a question about its identity toward it, the bird would flap its wings and utter a strange rattling sound. I don’t see it as often as those first few weeks of grief. In fact, I have no idea if it’s the same crow that now and then lights in a tree branch close to where I sit to watch the pond in the evenings, but I like to think it is.

Knowing all this, you might not think it strange to hear that today while I was crying on the gazebo deck, a catbird lit on a branch in the tree just over my head and began to call. “Mama?” I asked and it hopped to a lower branch. And a nearer one. And finally it left the tree and perched not two feet from me on the top of the lawn swing. It turned its head to see me from first one eye, then the other.

While I was holding my breath a blue jay flashed its brilliant blue wings, uttered its creaky porch swing call and landed on the branch the catbird had just vacated. The two birds watched me silently. Say what you will, I know who that blue jay is.


I came to an apple tree
on my walk last night.
A fresh breeze blew across the pond
setting the apple boughs dancing.
The faces of the open blossoms
laughed in the evening sun
and held fast to the tiny buds.
Up and own they bobbed
as merry as children at play.
They would not stay still for the camera,
so when I looked later at the photos
all I could see was a blur
of pink and white joy.
Only the effects of wind
can be captured in a picture;
the wind itself is forever free,
like the wild joy I felt
watching the blossoms dance.
The laughter I heard

may well have been my own.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


The small birds in my yard
are not aware of world events
unless on some subliminal level
I cannot perceive.
They sing regardless,
not immune to the frozen sleet 
that blankets the grass,
not indifferent to the murky clouds
hanging on the horizon,
not unaware of the taciturn cold,
and not in spite or because of—
they sing because it’s what they do;
the chickadee in flit mode 
among the lilac branches,
the blue jay screeching from a treetop,
the nuthatch marching headfirst
down a crenulated trunk,
the cardinal dropping liquid notes 
into the air.

The pulse of life that throbs in them
throbs in me,
the songs they toss into the daylight
reverberate in me,
the joy of sunlight, of blue sky, of scattered seed
are mine, too,
a reminder that life in the midst of life
is mine for the noticing
a feast, a concert,
a hand held out to me by the world.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


My morning walk took me to the Mill Pond dam, where water from the pond poured in torrents over the stone edge, crashing onto the rocks below - a death drop for anything other than water and slippery fish. As I stood and watched, the water leapt up and hurried downstream. Always the same rocks, never the same water, I thought, watching as the current hustled masses of bubbles past the banks.

There was one spot where the current split, where some water turned right while the rest maneuvered to the left and back into the main stream. The water that took a right turn spread slowly into a side pool where it fanned out to the very edges of the bowl and stilled almost to a full stop, waiting to add itself to the ice that formed in the cold. My thoughts, which had tangled themselves into ugly knots overnight smoothed out and I began to see what the brook could teach me.

What seems like a precipice is also a jumping off point. What seems like certain death is merely a transformation. Water doesn't die when it hits the rocks, but it does change form momentarily, becoming great masses of bubbly foam. It might seem dangerous to be in the strong central current but that's where the movement and the action are, right in the thick of things. Where the water slows and stills, ice forms, trapping movement.

Some of the water, I  noticed, did not succumb to the pull of the edge but re-entered the current. Bubble after bubble refused to cease moving and returned to the fray, jostling for a new position in the rushing stream. Anthropomorphized, those bubbles gave me insight into my own possible paths - be part of the turbulent current, slow down and seek an alternate route, ignore the pull and find a place to freeze.

The laws of nature and nature's god always make me feel better.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Still Lives

Me and my camera
the giant blue sky
the endless circle of horizon
the great mound of the mountain
stolid behind tapering trees
the far shore of the pond
the water, ice crusted and still,
the jumble of roadside brush
full of chittering finches
the one oak leaf that would not let go
the soft cap of snow in an abandoned nest
the fragile ice on Queen Anne’s lace
the drop of frozen water at the tip of a branch
the shadow of a single vine on a fence board

our eyes, one alive, one mechanical
recorded it all

They are pictures of silence
of quietude
of moments and shadows
still shots of life

that despite being captured
spill into the day, singing,
as though me and my camera
did not exist

except as still shots