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Category: cardinal

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.

red alert

i didn’t notice the first day. and not really the second day. but, by the third day, the third bitter cold day in a row, the third day when the unfurling of scarlet as it darted from pine bough to naked magnolia was decidedly absent, i started to worry.

now, worrying, in case you don’t know, is something i do exceedingly well. comes naturally. like breathing, only in staccato. only in spending the morning with an eye out the window, watching, combing the sky and the branches. on fullest alert.

as i watched without reason to hope, as i thought of the bitterest cold, i remembered the words of my mama telling me how so many birds from her flock had been lost, in the deep snap of cold.

“couldn’t survive,” she declared in that way that she does, unspooling for all of her nestlings all the mysteries of nature, of life and of death. she seems to know things that come from a long life of breathing in sync with the birds and the woods and the clouds.

and so, as the image of a little red bird, fallen somewhere, on the unforgiving crust of the snow, made the hairs on my neck rise, i thought of climbing in boots, commencing a search. imagined the crunch through the snow, pulling back branches, poking through all of the grasses, now frozen and matted and frankly quite knotted, that i’d left in the yard for the winter, for the birds who might savor their seed, or their harbor, on a day not too cold to put wind to their wings.

then i thought of the hawk. the great cooper’s hawk, the one with the tail so big and so thick i once mistook it for an owl–and that was merely the tail. add the head and the wings and the muscle-bound chest under all of those feathers and you’ve got a bird you should fear.

and fear it they do, all my fine feathered friends. one mere swoop of the hawk through the sky, clears all of the branches of birds. they scatter, i swear, when that hawk is a mile away. they know, before i see a thing, that death in the clutches of indiscriminate beak, or in talons the size of a three-penny nail, is a death to avoid.

and then, always, there is the cat. the cat that i feed twice a day. the cat who curls up on my lap, and purrs like a chevy with ’58 fins. that cat, i pretend, knows better than to touch a red bird. if that cat crosses that line, comes home with a dried bit of feathery red there where he does all his licking, that cat will be dispatched to the dungeon. and i like to think–though i’m sure i’m kidding myself–that he’s too tender-hearted to torment me so cruelly, to partake of papa the cardinal.

while all these horrible endings swirled in my head, i ached for the red bird–papa, i call him–who, whenever he darts through my day, brings me a deep knowing that i’ve been touched by a something divine.

i can be pouring a tall dose of coffee, there by my little side window, and, poof, there’s papa, his bright scarlet frock nestled right there in the bushes just inches away.

or, as i haul out the trash, or dash to an errand that should have been started nearly an hour before, there’s papa. cheer-cheering from top of the oak. or playing peek-a-boo in the pines.

wherever he comes, whenever he flashes his colors, my soul breathes a sigh that makes me feel wholly at home. he brings the divine down to the earthliest minute.

now, i know that a bird is not mine. these birds all around me belong to the heavens. and the trees they inhabit, just happen to be near to me and my four-walled nest.

but, over time, a particular possessiveness creeps in the equation. they are mine, i am theirs. together we do a fine dance. a dance i’m not willing to end.

and so, in the hours when i’d noticed his absence, when i raked all the limbs, when i scoured the ground, i felt the depth of that dance in my heart, realized the intricate wiring between me and my red-banner bird.

it is, perhaps, the shock of the color itself, heart-stopping, really, against the bleak gray of the winter undressed, or the white of the winter, fully attired.

it is that sign from above that amid the humdrum, the everyday, there comes, without warning, without siren, the scarlet cloak that whispers, “your day was just touched.”

it is hope when i need it, a charge when i’ll take it. it is, some lonely hours, as if the Holiest One is tapping there at my window, the answer to an unwhispered prayer.

and so it was, when, after three days that felt like three weeks, that flash once again caught me unawares. i was minding my business–i’d forgotten if only for a bit of a while that i needed to worry–when, suddenly, there at the feeder perched papa.

i moved close to the window, as close as i could without startling my too-long-gone friend. close enough to see his little heart pounding, there under the reddest of breasts. my heart pounded as well.

for a minute there, the other day, me and a bird from somewhere on high, we beat the same song with the whole of our hearts. papa was home, was safe, wasn’t buried, stiff in the snow.

his absence now over, i’ve not yet let go of the sense that i–and he–was saved from a terrible sorrow.

sometimes it takes a bit of a scare to remember how blessed we are.

sometimes we don’t feel the depth of a plug in our heart, until it is pulled. until there’s a hole and it’s gaping.

only then, sadly, do we realize that without that something we love, that something we count on, our breathing is not wholly ours. it depends on grace all around us. it depends on the touch under the sheets in the night, on the peck on the cheek in the doorway, or the flash of a wing in the branches.

the red bird out my window taught me that lesson this week. gentle bird, messenger bird. bird in heavenly red. bird that beckons attention.

have you seen a sign lately? a celestial sign? some sign from above that reminds you the earthliest truth? have you come to know, only too late, how deeply you miss some grace note you’d taken for granted? any one else feel a particular kinship to the reddest bird in these parts (save for the tanager who seems too scarce for everyday musings)?