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 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.