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Category: birds

the day we decided to hatch an egg

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alleys are not where you want to drop your egg. alleys, being back-of-the-way ribbons of potholed pavement, are where kids learn to ride bikes, where cars and pickup trucks rumble along, where trash is dumped into cans (except when the wind blows, and the trash up and escapes from the cans, tuck-pointing the backways in detritus). alleys, too, are the connective tissue between one block and the next. in our alley, we have the occasional gathering. we swap tales of tomatoes. we chase runaway cats and fluffy dogs. we’ve even had summer theatre, right there in the alley.

truth is, the alley is very much a place of everyday business.

and so it was, as i was ambling down the alley the other day, to catch up on neighborhood news, when down i glanced and saw what at first looked like a mushroom. a mushroom sprouted right there on the dark gray asphalt. how very odd. what a curious mushroom. thank goodness, my first impulse wasn’t to kick, but rather to squat and inspect.

the mushroom, i soon realized, was something i’d never before held in my hand. ever. it was a wee tiny egg, a bird’s egg. not cracked, not one little bit. (an astonishing fact, considering it had plopped from the sky to the hard plane of the alley.) it was perfect and whole and, by the relative weight of it, enfolding the start of a little bird life.

right away i looked up, scanned the limbs and the heavens. figured a mama bird must be searching high and low for that egg, that egg i had suddenly, unsuspectingly, come upon. the egg that — i swiftly decided — now depended on me. like that, i scooped up the orb, all spotted with paint dabs of earthy brown. i marveled at the backwash of palest blue, a blue i quickly decided only God would have in God’s paint pot.

and then i ran, cradling that shell that harbored a wee little life. i ran and did what i do whenever there’s a nature emergency: i dialed the original mother nature, my very own mama.

days later, and i am still chuckling about the first words that spilled and the instructions that followed. in the annals of my mama’s story, there will be long litanies of these tales, the times she all but insisted we make like a mama rabbit/bird/squirrel and save the poor darlings. get up through the night. find a small dropper. lay rags in a shoebox, make it all soft.

and so it was with this latest dropping from heaven.

her instruction unfurled without pause. it went nearly verbatim like this: “you’ll have to pretend you’re mama bird. make a nest. get something soft, a rag, a towel, an old shirt. go outside and get some grass. oh! this is exciting! get a lightbulb. it’ll need to stay warm. oh, but will we be able to feed it once it hatches? but, oh, just to watch it happen!”

while i whirled about the house, grabbing soft rags, dispatching the boys to fetch grass by the fistful, my mama got to work identifying said egg. at first, she suspected a brown-headed cowbird. “they don’t build nests,” she informed, “they drop their egg in someone else’s nest.” or in the alley, apparently. then, she revised her hypothesis. decided it was probably a sweet little house finch, as i have droves of those flitting about my yard.

220px-Horton_hatches_the_eggand that’s when the kid who’s 6-foot-3 wondered aloud if he should make like horton, the elephant of dr. seuss fame who faithfully hatches an egg. the elephant tricked into incubatory role when mayzie the mama bird flits off to palm beach, leaving behind a tree-top orphan. horton the elephant who famously intones: “i meant what i said, and i said what i meant. an elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!”

alas, we can’t claim 100-percent faithfulness at our house (nor did my firstborn decide to squat on the egg), i am chagrined to admit. we stuck with it for awhile, an admirable while. but then, night fell, and with it, shadow. we couldn’t figure out how to rig up a bulb, without frying said egg, so we’d been skootching the egg, and its makeshift nest, from sun spot to sun spot. i felt my heart drop, more than a wee little bit, when i finally surrendered. when i realized i’d not be the adopted house-finch mama.

and while i now have a beautiful breathtaking wonder tucked on my nature tableau, i also have this: one more lesson from mama nature, the very one who birthed me. the one who all my life has been trying to teach this one holy truth: be vigilant. be undaunted. be the caretaker of wonder. it’s all around. and every once in a while God will tap you on the heart, and ask you to be its midwife.

midwife of wonder, one blessed calling.

what are your favorite tales of times you heeded the call, to be midwife, co-pilot, first lieutenant of wonder? 

magic day at magic hedge

magic hedge

we cleared the day, i and the friend i love. i and the friend who these days is measuring her life bar by bar. each interlude of each day, each interlude when she can muster the strength to be up and not down. each interlude when the ravages of beating back cancer don’t hold her in their impossible grip.

my friend is one of the ones, blessed ones, who has slipped behind the screen, the opaque screen that so often keeps all of us from seeing the sacred, breathing the sacred, filling our lungs with all that is holy.

she sees everything now.

she’d written me an email that felt almost like haiku, so spare, so distilled to the essence.

she wrote: “blessings, blessings, more blessings. every minute is bonus. sun. birds. now.”

i listened. with those few words as my prompt, i cleared the day of whatever was due, was demanding, because i knew there was no time to waste; there never is. because i read her message, and the three letters — n – o – w — that deserved their own sentence, i stopped trying to find a way to wedge in a visit between appointments and meetings. i beheld the miracle of an ordinary wednesday. i carved out the most precious gift in the world: time. a few quiet hours stitched into the weave of a week.

because of the words she wrote in her haiku, her insistent plea to be awake to the now, because she mentioned birds and sun, i started to scan for a place that was beautiful, one that offered a strong dose of sunlight and shadow, birdsong and silence. the yin and the yang of the springtime, of life — its dualities so deeply essential.

i thought right away of the magic hedge.

we didn’t know when we met there, in the lull of the carved-out hours, just how magic it might be.

the magic hedge, you should know, is a wisp of meadow and brush and groves of old gnarled trees. its paths rise and bend, so do its grasses, the trunks of its trees. it elbows into the lake, lake michigan, as if an offering, an outpost, to the rivers of birds who, come warm springtime winds, catch the updraft, fly thousands of miles, from way south in central america or mexico or the southern united states, to way up north, to the boreal forests of canada, or, just shy of the border, nestled in woods along the great lakes.

the river of birds — songbirds, nearly all of them — flows along the lake’s edge; the tracing between water and shore an avian navigational guide as ancient as any there ever was. one of the great north american flyways, it’s called, and the magic hedge is something of a bed and breakfast for the long-distance flocks. exhausted, their little throats parched, their wings so tired from flapping, from floating on air, they settle into the trees, into the brush. they partake of the vernal banquet that is the hedge in bloom.

one of the miracles of the magic hedge is that it wasn’t always there. God didn’t put it there. it’s landfill. the leftover earth — the dirt, the rubble — from building a city, from raising a metropolis at the edge of the prairie, and all of it dumped into the lake at montrose point in the 1920s and ’30s. blessedly, chicago is a city that makes no small plans. it was alfred caldwell, a noted prairie-style landscape architect, who plotted the hedge’s undulations and meadows, numbered the trees and the shrubs on his planting list. it’s a mere 6.8 miles from the crosshairs of chicago’s cacophonous epicenter at state and madison, the zero-markers of the straight-lined grid that measures the city, border to border.

magic hedge blossom

yet, to step into the hedge, not half a mile from the rushing roar of lake shore drive — a flow of exhaust-spewing cars and burping, back-firing motorcycles — not a mile from the urban drama and squalors of uptown, a chicago neighborhood that’s long teetered on margins of every kind, to step into the hedge is to be swept, to be wrapped in the birdsong, the branches in bloom, the tender insistent unfurling of the season, whatever the season.

to step into the hedge is to surrender to the sacred.

we hadn’t guessed how sacred it might be.

it didn’t take long to figure that out.

right away i noticed a flock of the two-legged kind, the human kind. most of the flock were sporting long-nozzled lenses, pressed up to their eyes, pointed toward treetops. i tapped one such fellow gently on the shoulder and asked what the flurry was about.

“came here on a text that there was a hooded warbler, but it hasn’t been seen in 20 minutes,” he kindly told me, not bothered at all that i’d asked.

now, a hooded warbler, you should also know, is a wee little thing, one not often seen, apparently. it flies in saffron-colored robes, and for once i’d say the female is even more luminous than the male (but that’s getting ahead of the story). the hooded warbler is enough of a rarity, enough of a gem upholstered in feathers, that busy birders hard at work at their day jobs, drop everything when a text comes in that one, just one, is flitting through the magic hedge.

i felt a quiver of thrill as i leaned against a fence post, awaiting my friend. and that’s when a scarlet flash appeared before my eyes. right there in a branch i could reach out and touch. mind you, papa cardinals in my backyard do not allow visitors. this one, a proud papa, practically begged me to pat down his feathers.

that’s when i first felt the tap on my very own shoulder: magic was settling in for a visit.

not many minutes later, my beautiful friend arrived. a cap pulled tight over her head. wide-lensed glasses shielding her eyes. the cures for cancer are taking their toll.

we stepped into the birdsong, i and the friend i so love. the woods were achatter, aswoop, as spread wings crisscrossed the sky, as Ws made Xs over our heads. we followed a trail. we talked about those things that matter when you are staring down cancer. we talked of surrender, and healing and prayer in multiple tongues. and that’s when yet another cardinal decided to not be afraid. he hopped onto the grasses that spread between the forks in the trail right before us. he hopped closer and closer. this was a hedge alive with very brave birds, alive with a rare sort of courage.

magichedgecardinal

we did what you do when a cardinal befriends you: we crouched down low. we stayed very still. we barely moved a blade of grass. we whispered his name. he hopped closer and closer. and then his life’s mate, not quite so resplendent in her haus-frau feathers of drab brown and washed-out red, she plopped onto a fence post. she must have beckoned him. he darted away, leaving us slack-jawed at just how close he’d dared to come.

we wound this way and that. we paused at a grove of mayapple, one of the woodland’s underthings caught in the act of spreading its umbrella of wide-berth leaves. we marveled at the ruffled furls of the papery bark on a birch tree. and then we came to the flat slabs of rock, the ones that soak up the sun like a hard-shelled tortoise, the ones just inches away from the lap of the lake.

that’s when a kite-flying fellow appeared out of nowhere. one minute no one was there; the next, there came a man spinning his arms around an invisible spool. we couldn’t see at first what he was doing; it looked like some form of tai-chi, the way he swooped his hands and his wrists through the air at the edge of the lake. but then he called to us: “i made that,” he said, nodding toward high in the sky. we peered into the clouds and the sunbeams and that’s when we spied the red dot.

by then, the man with the kite on the string, he’d wandered close to our rock. without prompting he told us: “i wake up every morning, thank God for another day. you never know. i thank God every night, thank God for another day. you only got one life.”

and then, not long after that, he was gone. poof. vanished. lost in some haze. he’d wafted in long enough to tell the two of us to savor the moment, the minute, the hour. each and every interlude.

which was precisely what we’d been doing, were doing, will do. we promise.

once he was gone, had slipped away into the thin air from which he had come, my friend with the cap pulled over her head, she slipped down her dark-lensed glasses, and, looking straight at me, she said: “i think that was an angel.”

we both did.

we stayed on the rocks. we talked about life. we talked of the hard parts. we talked of the parts we so love. we whispered barely a word about cancer; there wasn’t much need to. we sipped mineral waters, ate clementines, dabbled spoons in two tubs of yogurt.

and then we got up, to meander some more. and there was more magic. the details of which i needn’t spell out (for this is getting to be too long a tale, though some tales are worth it). as we got to the edge of the hedge, though, as we got ready to step back into the day, into the bustle, we spied the last two insistent watchers of birds. they were poised in that way that birders are likely to be: lenses to eyes, pointed to limbs and to sky.

and that’s when we saw it, saw them, without any lenses, without any help (of the man-made kind, anyway): the rare and elusive hooded warbler, a pair of them to be precise. first mama, then papa. we watched, from our post alongside a log, as they darted and played in the trees. the afternoon light shone on the saffron-hued robes of mama warbler. she perched at the end of one very high branch, just sat there, practically glowing, making certain we inhaled the whole of her glory.

and we did.

the friend i so love leaned her head on my shoulder. and we stood in the hedge beholding the magic. beholding the love.

rare hooded warbler. with ceci. on magic day at magic hedge....

and that’s the answer to the prayer that comes when you carve out a holy hour or two or three, when you surrender to magic there at the watery edge. can you see mama hooded warbler, all plump-bellied and saffron there on the edge of the bough?

have you carved out holy time lately? and what magic wafted your way, alighted right before your deeply believing eyes?

every morning’s wonder: ululations at dawn

ululations at dawn

it all started because of the cat. the noisy cat who pays no mind to numbers on clocks. the cat who thinks zip of unzipping a yowl at 4:49 in the morning. he had an itch, it would appear, to wend his way down the stairs and into the murky haze of the dawn. and so he let it be known.

which is where i come in.

one quick glance at the glaring red digits, a flip back of the soft summer bed sheet, and before i knew it, my feet hit the floorboards and padded straight toward the light and the door and the dawn.

wasn’t long — no more than the time it takes for one brain wave to leap across the synaptic gulch that comprises the wiring of the waking-up human — till i noticed how noisy it was. all around. coming from every nook and cranny of the great beyond.

it was the ululations of the dawn, and it knocked me upside the head, the wonder of birdsong at its thickest, in that one short interlude when first light is licking the sky, and most of the world — or at least the folks in my neck of the woods — are fast asleep, just beginning to crank up the dreams in that pre-alarm-clock revving of REM, the rapid-eye-movement cycle of slumber when visions are spun, and spun wildly.

there would be no REM for me this day. i blundered into something far more mesmerizing.

i followed the cat straight out the door, me and my flimsy old nightshirt. and there i stood, drinking it in. or trying to anyway. truth is, i could barely swallow a drop of it. i just let is wash over and over me. a blur of glorious sound: cheeps and warbles and trills. vowels banging hard up against consonant blends. (i’m certain audiologists have names for these audio bit-lets, but i call them simply the wonder of dawn measured in decibels.)

i tried, hard as i could, to pick it apart. to pluck one note from one bird that i knew: the cardinal’s cheer-cheer-cheer, the rise and the fall of the wren’s blessed warble. but mostly i just marveled, drank in the whole.

wasn’t long before i imagined the whole of them — the flocks and flocks who must have been darting among the summer’s greenery, or perched at the ends of boughs, filling the dawn with their music — in classic morning silhouette: standing before the bathroom mirror, faces creased from a long night’s slumber, eyelids still at half-mast, warbling away at the dawn. as humans have been known to do as they run the tap, await warm water for the day’s first splash. smear the squiggle of toothpaste clear across the toothy bristles. only i pictured zillions of birds frothing away at the morning sink, clearing their throats, unfurling their dawn song (minus the toothpaste).

that made me laugh. but then i got curious. so, once the groundswell of sound slowed to a trickle (and it didn’t last long, this ephemeral chorus, which only makes it all the more urgent), i pulled a few books off my shelves, and turned a few pages, studying the birdsong of dawn and why it’s so very raucous.

here’s a bit of the wonder that i discovered:

birds do their warbling because their little sound box, called a syrinx, isn’t placed up high in the throat, as is a human’s. rather, their syrinx is down low in the airway, at the juncture of the two bronchi, or tubes that funnel air into and out of the lungs. there, it allows the birds not one but two sources of sound, the air flowing in and out of each of their little bird lungs. and the membranes of each bronchus — think strings of the violin, or holes in a flute — allow separate sounds to be made.

and perhaps you’ve wondered how it is that the wren can yodel for minutes on end without keeling off her branch from sheer lack of oxygen? well, she and all her avian choristers have mastered the art of the mini-breath, each one timed between notes. so you can’t tell she’s filling her lung-lets, but in fact she is.

the burning question for me was this: why are the birds at their operatic noisiest at dawn, and only dawn?

the answer, one of those ones that melts me off my chair, and gives rise to goosebumps at the thought of the Brilliance who dreamed this all up: the birds sing at dawn because it’s when sound travels best. scientists who measure these things determined that sound at the dawn is 20 times as effective as midday sound, when the cacophony of life makes for stiff aural competition.

reason no. 2: other than belting out their tunes, there’s not much else for birds to do at dawn, according to ornithologists who ponder these things too. light intensity is low, so it’s a bit of a chore for a bird to forage for breakfast. because night temperatures drop, the insects — aka breakfast — are hunkered down on the ground, amid the relative warmth of grasses and dirt, and not yet available for plucking. so why not sing a morning tune? let the neighbor birds know you’ve made it through the night, and just might be available for a little daybreak dalliance, if you know what i mean…..(insert bird wink here).

it gets better: birds adapt their songs to whatever will travel best in their native habitat. so, the birds of the forest, where trees are thick and sound bounces off leaves, go for short bursts of aural punctuation. birds of the great plains opt for a buzz that clears across the wide-open canvas of wheat fields and pastures. and if a bird calls home some place near rushing waters, it will dial up its frequency to be heard above the aqueous roar.

before we wend to a close, consider this magnificent passage from british nature writer gareth huw davies, for sir david attenborough’s PBS series, “the life of birds”:

The vocal ability of birds has inspired poets and musicians, from Chaucer to Wordsworth, from Handel to Respighi. Birdsong can be a natural phenomenon of intense beauty. But our enjoyment is incidental to the main purpose, which is one bird communicating with others. Birds became the world’s master musicians in order to convey to potential mates, rivals and predators all the important things they have to say, from “Clear off!” to “Come on!”

And their songs have been shaped by their environment, just as the rap musician of New York delivers a different “tune” to the yodeller in the Swiss mountains. The musical detail would have impressed the great composers. The nightingale, for example, holds up to 300 different love songs in his repertoire. The canary may take 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish its air supply. The cowbird uses 40 different notes, some so high we can’t hear them. The chaffinch may sing his song half a million times in a season.

Indeed, British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the skylark’s blizzard of notes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; between the woodlark’s mind-numbingly complex song and J.S.Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It changes its tune according to the rules of classical sonata form.

by 5:15, a far-too-brief 26 minutes after i’d stumbled into it, the bird sonata had quelled, and in rolled the soundtrack of civilization — the cars rumbling, trains bellowing, and far too soon, the early-bird lawn mowers coughing and spewing and disturbing the peace.

i miss the morning song already. but i’m betting on my wide-eyed cat to wake me on the morrow, so once again i’ll launch my sunlit hours on the wings of the glorious chorus of daybreak.

however sleepy i’ll be for the rest of the day, it’s so deeply worth it.

if you, too, are curious about birdsong, take a peek at this fine primer. or this guide to north american songbirds, with marvelous lists of birds based on whether they sing one or two or three notes.

and do consider shuffling out of doors at dawn to see what you might hear. know that you won’t be alone. me and my nightshirt will be there too. 

and how do you launch your day with your daily dose of wonder?

the nest, emptying….

American_Robin_Nest_with_Eggs

a dear friend sent this along (the link i’m tucking below ), telling me only that he thought of me when he watched it. he tacked on the note: “long-term video of a robin’s nest on a front porch, with bittersweet ending.”

i braced myself for the bittersweet. couldn’t bear to click on it for an hour or two. but finally i did. and when i did, i knew i was bringing it here, to the table. where one recurring and quietly pulsing thread is that we are, at varying stages, all witnessing a bit of this mama robin’s dilemma. she spends her days loyally brooding her eggs, then she exhausts herself filling their ever-open, ever-squawking beaks with worm after worm. after worm. then, frames later, comes the bittersweet.

i won’t spoil it, but there’s a flash of a look on mama robin’s face, one you might call bewilderment, or maybe something wholly other than that. you decide, and decipher. all i know is i felt a total pang of “i know how she feels. i know just how she feels.”

here’s mama robin and her nestlings….

and so it fits these years and days — here in this old house, at least — when one nestling has just swirled home for a short three weeks, maybe never again to live here. and the little one, who turned 12 yesterday, is still very much a part of the thick and the thin of every day. but because i’ve just witnessed the full-throttle slam of how swiftly they slip away, how swiftly they enter a current that — at best — gives you a glimpse from the river bank, or occasionally eddies in late-night phone call, i am trying in double-time to live in the moment, and freeze-frame it off to the side.

all over town i see folks who just a few weeks ago — or so it seems — were filling their supervans with unending shifts and rounds of carpools to hither and yon. and now, “for sale” signs are staked in front yards, as hollow old houses echo with yet another generation’s tucked away hubbub and commotion. breakfast tables, now hushed but for the sliding of the butter dish. no more shoving and pushing of cereal boxes across the maple plain. no more knocked-over OJ. maybe only a bed or two to make in the morning.

and all over town, i hear scratching of heads, as mamas and papas wonder and ask, “how’d that happen so fast? wasn’t i just deep in the thick of it, in the shopping-for-school-supplies, signing-permission-slips, forking-out-dues, lying-awake-listening-for-footfalls, and now, now it’s all distant, all miles and miles and months and years away?”

so, mama robin, i know just how you feel. i know you’re a bird and i’m not. but that quizzical look on your face, that look as you fly home to the nest, only to find it emptied and hollow, i know it.

and i’m holding on tight to every moment i’ve got, soaking it deep in my heart and my soul.

anyone got a spare worm?

your thoughts as you watched mama robin?

bathed in birdsong & other stirrings of mama earth

crocus stirrings

dispatch from 02139 (in which, despite snow clouds that scuttle across the sky, the determined among us set out to scratch up vernal offerings….)

all week, at a mere 20 minutes past the hour of five, i’ve been catapulted from my slumbers.

once or twice by the fat cat launching into his basso morning rumble (always a sign of impending doom and certain need for rug-cleaning spritz-spritz-spritz). but more often, and more insistently, it’s the mad chorus of matin birdsong that up and lifts me from my lumpy pillow, and sets me sailing for the windows.

there, ear to glass, i drink in all the early-morning world of cambridge has to offer me. i marvel that amid the cobblestone streets, and the colonial lean-to’s, amid the screech of 21st-century brakes and the occasional ambulance roaring by, whole colonies of bird have fluttered in, hunkered down, and think nothing of opening wide their throats and letting loose with heaven’s warble.

there are those in this house who grumble thusly, who reach for my swift-abandoned pillow and make of it a helmet, a sound-shielding barrier, one that muffles pre-dawn birdsong.

ah, but that is not me.

no, i’m the girl who drinks it in like coca-cola through a straw.

i was, you see, born and raised on bird.

(that cinematic signature of suburban america circa 1960, the family movie, regularly took time out at our house from birthday party, graduation, backyard frolic to pan up to the trees where, for a good five-minute stretch, mr. scarlet tanager, or sir indigo bunting would hold the frame, while abandoned children must have wondered why their markings ever paled to celestial feather. as recently as yesterday, The Original Mama Nature, as we sometimes call my mama, sent out one of her “nature notes” informing all five of her brood — spread all across the continental US — that “The Ducks are back,” as urgent a missive as you’ll ever get from her.)

when you grow up knowing in a blink the orange breast of the robin, the red flash of cardinal, and the iridescent blue of said bunting, you tend to not only pay attention but feel the hard-wired zing of ornithological amazement, in whatever form it brushes, wafts or flutters by you.

and this week, the signal that it sent — loud and clear and unshakably — was that the winter world would soon be melting, and once again the globe would spin toward full-throttle rebirth.

the birds don’t always wait for mercury to make it comfy cozy. they’re impelled by slant of light, by intensity of wattage. and, according to their inner-clickers, it’s high time to get this springtime show on the road.

a girl who pays attention has little choice but to play along. so one of the amusements with which i amuse my wandering eye is one i call spot-the-crocus. as i dilly-dally off to reading room or lecture hall, i pay no mind to cracks and heaves in the sidewalk (always a dangerous distraction). rather, i scan the sidelines in search of anything but brown or gray or muddy-olive-drab.

and, more and more these days, i am hearing the bing-bing-bing of hitting the crocus jackpot. now that the last mounds of snow are melting into oblivion, the sweet nodding purple heads are rising up and offering resurrection. “you’ve made it through the long, hard winter, through howling winds and winter boots that weighted down your feets like so many pounds of ore,” they seem to whisper. “’twill soon be the day when you can bound down the stairs and out the door in little but a sweater. a pink sweater, even. rather than the charcoal gray and black you’ve worn since winter solstice.”

i am feeling hope. but this year, too, with warming winds, and vernal light, comes a hard-to-ignore wince deep down inside. we’ve been told that it’s a common ail of spring for all the nieman fellows. our year of sumptuous living is, undeniably, inching toward the final chapters. and at the speed with which the weeks whiz by, inching is hardly the proper verb. more like avalanche-ing. swallowing us whole. leaving us little time to gasp, to catch our breath, to realize just how soon we’ll be grabbing for the rolls of tape, packing boxes filled with books, and heading home to sift for months through these holy blessed hours, and try to figure out how in the world to live up to all we’ve learned and dreamed and promised.

but that’s the puzzle for another day.

today, this holy silent day of somber friday, i will go deep within. i will wrap myself in sunlight and birdsong, i will watch the sky, and feel the rumble of the earth beneath my knees. i will find my way to the monastery. i will unfurl prayer. and, as i always do, i will let the noisy flocks carry off my hopes and fervent whisper to that up-high station on its way toward heaven.

do you, too, scan high and low for peeps of spring? and how do you go still — if you do — as we enter into these holiest of days in the roman christian calendar? 

 

practicing 10: birdsong soup and the astonishments of just after dawn

there is an art to being still, and i am practicing.

the birth of the day, it seems, is the hour that calls me. and, actually, all i’m going for is a mere slice of that hour. ten minutes, for starters. for beginners like me.

there is little hope, i figure, of trying to squeeze it in, in the thick of the day, between all the rushing and dashing and typing and trolling for words.

and, at the end of the day, when the blanket of stars are out and the house is winding down to a hum, i figure my brain has gone blank, in that numb — not that crisp — sort of a way. or, worse, it’s so overstuffed by that hour that all i’d do is churn and re-churn whatever the day had left in its wake. there’d be no stillness within.

it’s hard enough at the dawn. hard enough to keep the tick-tock at bay.

but i’ve begun.

before the first dabs of light are soaking the low-down sky, i am tiptoeing out of my bed, stumbling downstairs, grinding my coffee beans (a wake-up noise, i tell you, that might be essential, at least till i’m through with the whole-bean bag i didn’t fully intend to grab from the grocery shelf). the cat, always hungry, demands his share of my morning attentions — and a scoop from the tin in the fridge.

then, warm mug cupped in my palms, i reach for the door, and step under the holiest dome, the dome of the dawn as it breaks into double-time spring.

and that’s when it hit me, my first morning out: i’d just stepped into a cauldron of birdsong soup. there were so many layers of so many sounds, coming from so many places, my ears — at first — could barely pick it apart.

there were trills and caw-caws and whistles and chatter. short notes and fat notes. and notes that seemed without end, twisting and tumbling and climbing again. notes most insistent, and notes that dribbled off, into ellipses.

it seemed, pretty much, a gymnastics meet of bird sound. all those itty-bitty throats and tongues and lungs thrusting and lunging, spinning and twirling. all that was missing was chalk dust and numbers pinned to their backs.

and it all, all at once, seemed to be moving, whirling around me, as one song took flight, and soared to a nearby limb. or criss-crossed the sky. or merely hopped down the branch, in search of a cozier, noisier perch.

it was surround-sound at its most heavenly, this ever-circling orchestral creation, powered by wings and lungs whose weights would be measured in grams. a whole-bodied chorister not even one ounce.

and all i knew that very first morning was that everywhere i listened, there was a full-throttle sound track not to be missed. one i’d too often slept through. or, sadder, ignored in my packing of lunches, and checking of schedules.

it wasn’t as if this was new, this spanish moss of bird song, dripping from trees.

it’s been there, just beyond the panes of the windows, the other side of the door.

it was only that i’d not carved out the wisp of an hour, made room for the stillness, so that what was there all along could make its way into my eardrums, and down to my soul.

once my head stopped spinning, i did what any student of stillness must do: i planted myself firmly, solidly, on the seat of the bench in my not-so-secret garden, the one that runs along the kitchen, the one that meanders, the one that catches the morning’s first light.

i tried not to think, just to be. one with the birdsong.

and i started to look, not to glance but to study.

it wasn’t hard, what with the week’s thermometer cranked up to summertime, to notice how spring was galloping out of the ground.

i sat and watched chives grow, those early-spring straight-backed soldiers of pungence, the ones i’m already snipping for lox and sprinkling on cream cheese, not unlike bits of newly-mown grass that i bring in for breakfast.

and then, just down the walk, i spied the bleeding heart. overnight, or so it seemed, it had emerged, a jazz ensemble of cut-leaf precision and a green so velvety green, it made me want to pluck it to wear it. wrap it round my bare shoulders, or better yet make it into a slip and let the morning breeze play between it and my skin.

i have to admit, stillness didn’t come easy. wasn’t a natural fit, not for me, anyways.

before my 10 minutes was clocked, i was itching to dig in the dirt. i’d tallied a list that beckoned me and my ministrations: the climbing hydrangea that needed a lifeguard, weeds that might do with a shrill short blast of a whistle, demanding they stop in their trespassing tracks.

but i also noticed this: the longer you sit in rapt silence, utter attention, the deeper you sink into the whole of it, the line between you and the earth and the sky and the dew all but evaporating.

my next morning out, it was chilly. and a soft morning’s rain added its backbeat to the birdsong. so i sat with my stillness on an old wicker chair, inside the porch with the screens. from across the garden, and under the pines, i listened to raindrops measuring time with the ping-ping-ping from the downspouts.

while it’s not yet under my skin, this time-out for the soul, i can feel it working its way to the wellspring, this sacred act of tiptoeing out of bed to catch the morning unaware.

i’ve a sense that sprinklings of wisdom might fall on that place deep inside where the knowing is.

and in the calm of the dawn, i might remember the words to the prayer that, for too long, have been dimmed. and very much missing.

do you practice stillness? how do you weave it into the hustle and bustle of your everyday?

red on white

i couldn’t wait.

so, despite my achy tired bones, i was up before the sun, nose pressed against the glass, keeping watch.

we were graced last night. blanketed in the holy lull that is the first snowfall. before the neighbors cranked the snow machines. before the whir that shattered all the silence, the cloak of somnolent seasonal reprieve.

there was not a bird in sight. not the flutter of a wing. not a branch shaking from the wisp of weight that is a bird landing, taking shelter under piney bough.

if i wanted action at the feeders, and i dearly deeply did, there was work to be done. so off slipped the slippers, on went the boots. up zipped the puffy snowcoat. on slid the thick-wooled mittens.

i shoveled my sorry path, apologizing to the snow all along the way, hating to disrupt the plane of white.

but if a girl is going to make it to the feeder with her coffee can of seed, a girl needs a place to clomp her boots. and after many years of analyzing such maneuvers i’ve decided i prefer the neat line of a shoveled path (not really) to the scattershot and hyphenated punctuation of snowboot holes all along the way.

i’ve learned that i’m the only fool in my house who likes unmarred snow, and sooner or later the rest of the house will awake, will need to get to school, to work, and if the line of shoveled path isn’t there, they’ll just go and make a whirly mess of it. so i might as well cut my losses and cut the path.

i can always pretend it’s an alpine trail.

when at last i got out to where the feeders dangle, i chuckled in the early morning light. for the feeder nearly groaned under the weight of a good eight inches of crusted-over snow. there was barely a quarter-inch left for seed, so i dumped it right atop the snow mound, and figured this morning the birds would get some ice chunks with their sunflower.

and sure enough, by the time i’d turned and tromped back to the door, there was fluttering. there was sparrow, followed by nuthatch, followed by the whole crowd of cardinals.

once again, my world was white shot through with trumpet blasts of red.

there is, perhaps, no finer color contrast on the planet. or if there is, i’ve not yet felt it surge my heart in the way that scarlet-coated cardinal does on the first snow of the winter.

i wait all year for this, the hush of snowfall. the flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and all its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow, first snow. when at last the whole wide winter world takes in a breath, and holds it. fills its empty lungs. takes in the special brand of oxygen that comes inside fat flakes.

and then we wait for the animation to follow. the birds, first. much later, the squirrels. and long after that, the cat who gets brave enough at last to put paws to white stuff. to hop and dart and make like a real-live scaredy cat, so confused, bewildered, by the snow.

it’s the sort of rare and blessed day that makes me wrap up inside a blanket. makes me crank the stove and simmer something aromatic all day long (cinnamon and clove this morning, leek and garlic later in the day). makes me want to venture no farther than where my rubber boots can take me. makes me contemplate the canister of flour and the cubes of yeast. deep in the recesses of my brain, snow days and bread baking are synonymous.
i could use a snow day after this long week (with or without the bread).

how perfect that the skies conspired to bring me the very answer to my prayers.

red on white. and white as far as i can see.

it’s just the thing to set things right.

i should have let the picture do all the talking today. wouldn’t that be rash? wouldn’t it be wise…..
are you celebrating all the snow? what do snow days trigger inside of you?

when wonder comes for christmas

By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers

When at last the morning comes, I am not unlike the little child at Christmas. Having tossed and turned in anticipation, through all the darkest hours, at first light I throw back the blankets, slide into clogs, slither into a heavy sweater and tiptoe down the stairs.

For days, I’ve been stockpiling for my friends. I’ve corncakes stuffed with cranberries and pine cones wrapped in peanut butter. I’ve suet balls to dangle from the boughs, and little bags of birdseed, just small enough to stuff in all my pockets. I’ve a jug of fresh water for all to drink and splash before it turns to winter’s ice.

It’s time for a Christmas treasure all my own, one I unwrap every year.

My walk of wonder takes me no farther than the patch of earth I call my own, a rather unassuming tangle of hope and dreams and heartache (for what garden doesn’t crack a heart, at least once a season?), in my leafy little village.

I carve out this hour of Christmas morn, before the footsteps slap across the floorboards up the stairs, before I crank the stove, and kindle all the Christmas lights.

It’s my hour of solitude and near silence, as I tug open the back door and step into the black-blue darkness of the minutes just beyond the dawn.

It’s my chance to take in the winter gifts of my rambling, oft-rambunctious garden plots, and all who dwell among them — the birds, the squirrels and fat-cheeked chipmunks, the old mama possum, and, yes, the stinky skunk who sometimes ambles by and sends us dashing in all directions.

And, best of all, it’s my early Christmas moment to reciprocate the many gifts that all the seasons bring me.

I am nearly humming as I make my yuletide rounds: I fill the feeders, scatter seed and stuff an old stone trough with what I call the “critter Christmas cakes.”

At this scant hour, the black-velvet dome above is stitched still with silver threads of sparkling light. And limbs of trees, bare naked in December, don’t block my upward glance at all that heavens offer.

This is where my prayer begins, as I whisper thanks for all the chirps and song, for flapping wings and little paws that scamper — all of nature’s pulse beats that bring endless joy, and teach eternal lessons.

As light brightens in the southeast corner of the sky, the architecture of the wintry bower emerges. The black of branches — some gnarled, others not unlike the bristles of an upturned broom — etch sharp against the ever-bluer sky.

Exposed, the silhouette reveals the secrets of the trees — the oak, the maple and the honey locust that rustles up against my bedroom window.

As I come ’round a bend, gaze up and all around, I cannot miss the nests not seen till late in autumn, when the trees disrobed and shook off their blazing colors.

In murky morning light, the nests appear as inkblots of black among the lacy boughs. Only in winter do we realize how many dot the arbor. There is the contour of the squirrels’ shoddy leaf-upholstered hovel high up in the maple, and, down low in a serviceberry, the robins’ tuck-point masterpiece of twigs.

While in robust and leafy times, the trees did not let on, but in winter’s stripped-down state there’s no hiding the part they play in watching over the nursery, shielding barely feathered broods and not-yet-furry baby squirrels from wind and sleet and pounding rains. Or even too much sun.

This cold morning, all is still. Every nest is empty, every bird house hollow once again. Where the winter birds cower, where they huddle, close their eyes and doze, I cannot figure out. Somewhere, even at this illuminating hour, they’re tucked away in slumber.

It won’t be long till the stirrings come, but for now the only sound is the scritch-scratch of brambles and left-behind leaves as they brush against my legs. I make my way among them, along a bluestone path, past all the shriveled blooms of not-forgotten summer.

The moppy heads of hydrangea, now dried and crisped to brown, are bowed but not surrendered, still clinging, even in the cold. And all that’s left of all the roses are persimmon-colored full-to-bursting hips, a final exhortation, punctuation on the winter page.

By the time the Big Dipper fades from the morning sky, that early riser, papa cardinal, ignites the winterscape with his scarlet coat. Soon follows the red-bellied woodpecker, a nuthatch or two, and, not long after, the choristers of dun-robed sparrows, all a-chatter with Christmas morning news.

I take cover back behind a fir tree, where the crowd at the feeder pays no mind. And where in winter storms, I find the flocks, too, take shelter, the only branches left that promise shield and a place to hunker down. For anyone who wants to hide — too often it’s the hungry hawk — these piney limbs are plenty thick.

Then I get brazen, and toss a handful of peanuts to the bristle-tailed squirrels. These are mere hors d’oeuvres, of course, for that trough now spills with Dickensian plenty — among the larder, bumpy apples no one wanted, and pumpkins plucked from the after-Thanksgiving discount bin.

It is all my way of making real my unending gratitude, of bowing deep and soulfully to Blessed Mama Earth.

and so twas my christmas morning meander in the pages of the chicago tribune, where, yes, i must act all grown up and enter the word of capital letters.

season of the mournful cry

it gives you goosebumps when, say, you are meandering down the lane, and suddenly through the leafy canopy above, you hear the song of your heart raining down from the heavens.

what i mean is it’s been happening all week, for a string of weeks. i am out attending to the nooks and crannies of my life, my garden, the here-to-there of chores and errands and putting one foot before the other.

i am likely sifting through the shadows of my heart, my ache, my longing, and there it comes, the piercing. the minor key, the dissonance, the trumpet blasts of geese in Vs, far above the trees.

they punctuate the sky, the gray september sky. they punctuate the flight. and with it, my own mournful song.

this is the season of migration, of winged flight, of thousands of miles of flapping wings, and honking siren’s call.

the snow geese, the canadian geese, turn and return, from cold north woods, to far-off warmer climes.

and as they pass on high, they cry out to me. and i in turn return the call–though silent. my mournful song has no melody, and its verse i keep inside. some sorrows, best kept hushed.

i have always, though, found company, found solace, in the geese’s call. it is but one of the dark notes of autumn that draw me in, that take me to a deeper place, the cove of meditation.

and this autumn in particular it is as if my song, my internal cry, is broadcast from the clouds. the geese cry, they call out, and so i listen, i respond. i reply, stopping in my tracks, taking in their celestial signal.

(i wonder if perhaps the cry of the signal goose is why they call it goosebumps. for that is the thing, the spine-tingling, up-and-down-the-arm-tingling, that happens in an instant when that one long note makes its way down, down, spiraling from above to the inner crevice of my heart.)

i hear the lonely goose, and i understand its story. i embrace the mournful cry.

God’s world is at one with me.

and how blessed are we, we who live beneath the arc of flight, to take in the sorrowful song of the V that etches ’cross the sky.

how blessed are we, when, at oddest hours, just beyond the dawn, or in the cloak of nightfall, we hear the trumpet blast rain down.

i am not one to run and hide from shadow, from sadness. i say bring it on, the whole orchestra of heart sound, the light, the bright, and, yes, the dark. i find particular company in the darkness. i find much to explore there.

and this september, as my heart is stretched and pulled, and i redefine the rhythm, the verse of my everyday, i am at one with the crying goose who flaps across my frame of sky.

i turn and crane my neck. i scan in search of all the pitch-black Vs. i hear before i see.

and when at last i catch the flapping geometry, when i match song to sight, i lock my eyes. i follow that acute angle till the dull edge of my horizon.

it is a call to prayer for me, this mystical stirring from beyond the beyond.

and so i send up holy whispers, and so i wrap myself in the sacred folds of their heavensong.

be safe, mournful geese, as you cross the globe. bless your brave determined flight.

i hear you, papa goose, as you and i together sing in minor key, the sound of love trying to find its way.

a short bit of musing on this crisp cool day, when pumpkins tug on the vine, and cinnamon bubbles on my stove. i am haunted in the best way by the cry of the geese. i find such comfort in their mournful melody. who else has heard their flight song? who else is stirred by the power of migration? who else finds full glory in all the colors of the rainbow, the light, the dark, and shadows in between? who else is trying to find the way, this september?

survival seed

the warnings come with breathless urgency. we brace ourselves, tell bones and muscles to stay strong, bear the cold. then we zipper up and face it.

standing on the train platform, winds hurling past the naked patch of flesh that is our nose, our cheeks, our lips, our bare sliver of forehead, we think siberia’s got nothin’ on the north side of chicago, in the dark and bitter exodus from work to igloo.

and that’s before the real cold comes. we’re racing home to beat it. to hunker down, stuff rags where winds creep in, turn on faucets to the steady drip that tells us pipes aren’t frozen–yet.

the weatherman, making like he’s our wise and worried uncle, is talking upper-case-and-exclamation-mark negatives, double digits below zero.

take to the blankets, the call goes out. don’t leave home if you don’t need to.

the children pray for day off from school; they go to bed, hoping for the coldest cold.

grownups only hope they don’t awake to the sound of gushing water, from a pipe that’s gone kerpluey.

last night, doing as i was told by uncle weatherman, i wrapped myself like a taco in my fuzzy blanket, the one that comes out for emergencies. like when it’s 20-something below zero. and words like SIBERIAN get splattered on the weather map.

i was dozing deeply–and, oddly, dreaming of picante sauce–when the cat meowed, as he always does, at 3 a.m. (clearly, he’d dozed right through the weather alerts on the nightly news.)

dutifully, i flung back the blanket and followed the ol’ cat’s pit-a-pat, straight to the kitchen door, where he made his exit wish in no uncertain terms: i let him out, under the silver moon, for his prowl around the ‘hood. but knowing, as he did not, that his little paws might screech in pain, i waited at the door. and waited. while he took in the frozen tundra.

when at last he trotted back, a full 20 minutes later (darn cat!), we shuffled back to taco blankets, cold cat and i.

i couldn’t bear to stay in bed much longer, though. i knew the trees outside were filled with all my half-frozen friends, the hardy feathered ones who must wake up on days like this and wonder why their forebears were not the tropical variety, the ones who would have had them harbored in banana groves and rain forests, straight through the so-called winter.

alas, the poor things are northern birds, and with that comes a tender tie to those of us who make it our business to shuffle out the door with banged-up coffee cans and old ricotta cheese tubs, serving platters for the seed and suet clumps that we pour into the troughs.

even though the dawn was still—not a leaf fluttering, not a bluejay’s squawk or sparrow’s chirp–even though my fingers nearly stuck to the water jug as i poured it in the bowl where my birds bathe and drink, both at once, i crunched across the crusted snow, i dumped my vittles, and before i’d reached the door handle once again, there was a red-headed beauty pecking away at the seed.

survival seed, i call it.

it’s imbued with animation, the sparks of magic, surely. not a minute after it’s been dumped the yard’s aswirl with sound and stirrings.

on days like today, it’s the least we can do, to stoke the hearts and bellies of the birds who give flight to our days, who fill the boughs and branches with their scarlet feathers.

truth be told, i’d like to fling wide my doors, and invite the chilly flocks inside. come to my table, feathered friends, have a plate of seed. survival seed, indeed.

for each and every one of us.

oh lord, i must dash to RECESS duty, be still my frozen heart. tell your weather tales here. be back, once i thaw….