Birdsong

I was out walking on Friday afternoon when I finished working—something that has become part of my “quaroutine.” I have found that a walk between work and preparing dinner helps to clear my mind and allows me to shift more fully to family time. Working from home can sometimes blur the work time/family time distinction.

Toward the end of my walk, I had almost turned around but decided, instead, to venture across the street into a different neighborhood. I had checked the time, calculated how long I had before my son returned from work, and decided on an extra mile. It was, after all, a gorgeous day with bright sun, a slight breeze, and flowers blooming everywhere.

As I walked, birds sang, but one song in particular stood out. The song was both foreign and familiar—not one I recognized from the birds in my own backyard, but one I had heard before. It continued to sing as I grew closer. I looked up toward the sound, and at the very top of the tree, I spotted orange plumage against the spring-green leaves. An oriole!

In an instant, I was right back in the heat of a summer long, long ago. My dad had a cat living at his workplace, and the cat had attempted to catch an oriole. Unfortunately, the oriole had not emerged unscathed. It had a broken wing and could no longer fly.

Dad brought the bird home in a shoebox. From somewhere in our house, he scrounged up a birdcage, and he lined the bottom with newspapers. He got out a roll of white medical tape, and he set to work carefully removing the bird from the box and taping the tips of its wings together. This would hold the broken wing in place, and prevent the bird from thrashing about. He placed the bird in the cage with some birdseed and some water and placed the cage on a table on our enclosed front porch.

That bird lived on our front porch for what now seems like most of that summer. At first, every time we walked out the door onto the porch, the bird would panic and flit around the cage trying to get away from us. But after a while, the bird calmed a bit. We discovered that it preferred fresh berries and fruit to birdseed, and the sweet black raspberries from our backyard bushes became its main food.

After the requisite amount of time, Dad announced that it was time for us to let the bird go. I am not sure how he knew “the requisite amount of time,” but I believe he had consulted a local bird expert about broken wings and healing and bird care.

On the day of the announcement, Dad took the bird from the cage and painstakingly worked to remove the medical tape. He worked the sticky residue from the bird’s feathers with some harmless solvent—again, most likely a tip he had gotten from his bird expert source. We put the bird in a box and took it to a forested area of town near a pond and an open field. We parked the car and carried the box across the field toward the wood line. Dad set the box on the grass, removed the cover, and gently lifted the bird out. He held him for one final time.

“Here we go,” he announced as we all hoped and crossed our fingers that the bird’s wing had healed. Dad held the bird out in front of him at arm’s length and gave him a gentle toss away from him. The bird thrust out its wings and dipped toward the ground, but about a foot from the grass, it lifted up, flapped its likely stiff wings, and soared up into a tree where it landed on a branch. We all exhaled breath we hadn’t known we were holding in. Our bird sat on the branch, a bright orange spot, watching us for just a moment. Then, it flew away, farther into the woods and out of our sight.

And here was an oriole, serenading me as I walked the streets of this neighborhood. When I got back to the tree where it sat, I slowed and paused to search the tree to see this beautiful bird one more time before I went home. But the bird was uncomfortable with my proximity. It flew from the tree, its orange body bright against the clear blue sky. For a moment, it seemed to pause mid-flight. Then it flitted to and fro, completing a little dance before it flew off to sing from a distant tree.

That bird was an incredible gift to end my week. It brought me a few moments with Dad in my memories from a long time ago.

The View from Here

The view from here is very different than it was a couple weeks ago. We have now been in social distance mode for just under two weeks—far less time than most of the world. We knew it was coming—we watched it sweep slowly across the globe on its way.

That doesn’t make the view from here any brighter. We are broken people in a society that is also severely broken. In our attempts to deal with this global pandemic, we need to come together—work together and protect one another. But we can’t.

Because the view from here looks out over a broad chasm that has been growing and deepening and pushing us farther apart. We have forgotten that we are one humanity in a global environment, and we are stronger when we band together and create a united front. We will always be stronger together.

We have forgotten that life is not about all the things we want in this life and how we will get them, no matter the cost. We have forgotten that most of the “things” we possess don’t matter, especially when weighed against human health and life itself. Even in our isolation, we continue to buy and buy and buy to the point of hoarding because “enough” is a concept our society ignores as it pushes spending and materialism and greed as a way to promote a “healthy” economy.

We have filled our lives with material things. We have been so conditioned to look outward for happiness and acceptance and validation that we have lost sight of the most important element—what we are feeling on the inside. Who we are. The very traits that make us special and unique and individual—these have been cast aside for too long. They have been stomped down and buried deep inside ourselves as we live a life that is filled to the brim with a busy-ness dictated by society. Most of us—we aren’t even truly happy anymore.

The view from here is not in touch with the things that matter. It is weighed down by all the lies society has been telling us for decades. The expectations we are supposed to live up to. We are tired and weary. The burden weighs on us, and we are struggling to break free.

But the view from here—it is quiet and lonely. We are in a period of grieving all that we have lost or perceive we have lost. We are grieving what we may lose. And we are grieving all the changes our society will face—changes that we just can’t fathom from this particular vantage point. But if we take the time to really look and examine our lives, the view from here may be (dare I say) just a little peaceful.

While we may be feeling overwhelmingly burdened by our current situation, the view from here may shift, giving us a glimpse of elements of peace, simplicity, and kindness. It is quite possible that with a bit of time and a new perspective, the view from here might just be the soil in which we begin to change and blossom.

Remnants

The last time I was visiting Mom, she handed me a small plastic sandwich bag. “This is stuff I cleaned off your father’s dresser. Do you want any of it?” I studied the bag, turning it over in my hand. Seriously? I squinted through the plastic, my mind flipping back and forth between: Of course I want it! and Why would I want any of this?

When my son was little, he would pick up all sorts of remnants that he found on the floor. If we walked into a fabric or craft store, he would gather balls of thread that had fallen off the frayed edges of material on the bolt, pieces of silk flowers that were lying on the floor, buttons that had fallen off clothing. His pockets were never empty, and I had to be careful to check every single pocket on laundry day.

The bag my mother handed me was much like the contents of my young son’s pockets—remnants of a life of gathering. The bag contained pieces of unrelated objects collected on the daily journey and deposited into a common container on the top of Dad’s dresser. All they had in common was the container in which they ended up. And the man who had gathered them.

The bag held washers, screws, broken things, a bunch of oddball items. I sat down on the floor and untied the knot at the top of the bag. I stirred the contents with my finger, revealing all of the treasures that Dad had felt it necessary to keep. The metal spring from a wooden clothespin. A ring that I had made by winding yellow electrical wire around itself. Around and around and around. A firecracker with an old, frayed fuse, but no doubt just as explosive as ever. Two broken angel wings, clearly from two different angels.

No. Dad was not an angel wings kind of man. Two broken eagle wings, clearly from two different eagles. But with a lack context, they are the wings of angels in my mind. Under the circumstances and left to my interpretatin, angels are more appropriate.

Why did Dad collect these items, number one, and save them all, number two? What was it about the yellow wire ring? The firecracker? The angel wings?

This bag might seem to be full of useless items, some broken or seemingly meaningless. But they had meaning to Dad. He saved them all for a reason. Perhaps he intended to glue the wings back on the angels. Find the wooden parts of the clothespin. Set off the one remaining firecracker. Or maybe he was waiting to see how someone else might piece together the remnants he gathered up along his way.

Cloudy with a patch of…

I was driving to work on Friday morning, minding my own business, when I accidentally hit a patch of grief (because—after all—no one hits these patches on purpose). As grief tends to be, it was sudden and unexpected.  And intense. There was no hiding the tears. But I was in the car on the highway, and the drivers around me didn’t notice and probably didn’t care either way. The tears flowed freely as I drove, and by the time I arrived at work, I was better.

But later that day, intense feelings returned, again while I was driving. This time, I was on the way to take prom pictures of my son, my youngest child. I realized this would likely be the last time I would partake of this particular ritual—meeting up with prom-goers and their families at the local spot with the most picturesque, fairytale-ish gardens. On each of the three years previous (one with my oldest child and two with my middle child), I have known there might be another year. But this time, I am fairly sure this is the last of this tradition. On the drive there, it hit me that with this child, I am entering a pattern of not just “last” for him, but “last ever.”

I may have had this realization subconsciously already, which would explain Friday’s inclination toward emotion. Or maybe there was just something in the wind that day that triggered my soul to react more deeply.

Whatever it was, one thing I’ve learned is that there is always a chance that grief (and emotion) will sneak up and surprise me. These patches, in a way, they bring comfort. They remind me of the things that make up a life—the things that are and the things that were. They remind me that feeling deeply is what makes me who I am. And they remind me that all of these things together make up this journey that is life.

Buddy Bench

Last weekend, I took part in an annual “Day of Service” with the students in my freshman class. On this day, all of our first-year students disperse to various organizations in order to perform community service work—from working with children or the elderly, to spring clean-up, both indoors and out. My class was split up between an indoor site and an outdoor site, and I put myself with the student group doing outdoor work preparing a summer camp for the upcoming camp season.

Our first task of the day involved raking leaves in the main area of the camp around the office—the area where visitors first arrive. It was raining in the morning—as it had been through the night—and the leaves were sticking together, heavy and wet. As we raked, the leaves rolled up toward us, making it easy to move them onto a tarp in large clumps. Once the tarp was full enough, we dragged it into the woods, and rolled the leaves out of it. We dragged the tarp back to our raking area and started again.

When we finished the main area, the Camp Director took us to a hill by the lake. On the hill, there were several benches placed in a half-circle overlooking the water. Our final task of the day was to clean the leaves and pine needles from under and around the benches. When we were done, the Camp Director told us that the benches were “Buddy Benches.” If campers were feeling lonely and didn’t have someone to play with, they would sit on these benches. Other children knew that those who sat here needed a friend. What a great idea!

This got me thinking… shouldn’t there be “Buddy Benches” for adults, too? How many times over the years could I have used a friend? Why couldn’t it be as easy as simply sitting on a bench and waiting for someone to come and sit next to you and talk. Or listen. Or just be a support system?

If you sit on the Buddy Bench when you are overwhelmed, someone will come and talk you through it.

Stop by when you are lonely or you’ve had a bad day. Have a seat when certain pieces of your life (work, finances, family, spiritual) just don’t seem to fit right.

Come by when you have received bad news, or you’re scared about something, or your health is declining.

Come to the Buddy Bench when your spouse leaves you for “greener pastures,” and you have to figure out how to raise a gaggle of children on your own.

Have a seat on the Buddy Bench when you have lost a loved one, and you don’t think you can go on.

So many people have been through these same things. They won’t make your pain go away, but they can gently guide you through and help you to keep going: step by step, minute by minute, day by day until you can see the light through your troubles.

A Buddy Bench would help you to recognize how many people can understand what you are going through because they have been through something similar. It can show you how many people care and are willing to help.

Because a Buddy Bench will help you to find the people who can best support you. It will give you a place to rest and find comfort and support. And … it will remind you that you are not alone.

We are all in this together. Come. Sit on the Buddy Bench and rest awhile.

{Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash}

Sprinkles of Love

I was at the grocery store the other day, walking past the bakery on my way to the produce department for some fruits and veggies. My eye caught on a giant tub of autumn sprinkles, the kind that someone might use on a cake or cupcakes for an all-school Halloween gathering. Or… whatever you are baking for fall that might be jazzed up with sprinkles.

At first sight of the sprinkles, my mind had zipped away from the bakery, the store, and into the past. Years ago, when C was in early elementary school, his teacher had planned a fall party. I can’t remember the occasion, but I was tasked with baking cookies masquerading as pizza (cookies in a Halloween costume, perhaps…). Easy, right? I’d planned to make round sugar cookies with red frosting. But the “cheese” was eluding me. Coconut? Different frosting? I was stumped. My parents happened to be visiting, and they went off to the grocery store to see what they could come up with.

When they returned, they had a large tub of autumn sprinkles as well as some other possibilities. Dad was most excited about the sprinkles. “We can take all the brown ones out, and you can just use the yellow and orange!” While that would be a great idea in theory, in practice it seemed a bit daunting.

“That’s a bit ridiculous,” I told him. “There are a lot of brown ones in there.”

“It won’t take long,” he assured me, though I wasn’t so sure. Those sprinkles were awfully small. But I didn’t say that.

The next day, the kids went off to school, and I went off to work. Back then, I was working mother’s hours, so I arrived home in the early afternoon—in time to get my kids off the bus. When I walked in the door that day, the kitchen table had become the work area for the sprinkle project. One bowl held the yellow and orange sprinkles. Another bowl held just brown. Mom took my entry as her excuse to rest her eyes, but Dad remained bent over a pile of sprinkles on a paper towel. Wielding a butter knife as his tool, he was pulling the brown sprinkles away from the others with the precision of a pharmacist counting and separating pills.

I am sure this project was far more involved (and tedious) than Dad expected, but he never uttered a word of complaint. He finished off that whole tub of sprinkles, so I’d have “cheese” for my pizza cookies—and they looked amazing! I’m sure none of the kids eating them even suspected the amount of work—and grandparent love—that went into each cookie.

And I had forgotten, as well, until I walked by that one random item in the grocery store last week. I was immediately transported back to that day so many years ago. It was a day much like today, and my memory of Dad, painstakingly separating sprinkles at my kitchen table, was as clear as if it had been yesterday. The love (and self-imposed duty) of a parent was captured in the memories grounded in a tub of autumn sprinkles.

Blind Spot

It’s raining, and I’m driving to work, making my way down the highway a bit faster than I should. Cars are passing me, but I continue at the same pace, resisting the pressure to succumb to their impatience. My exit is not far off, and I need to move one lane to the right. I turn to look over my shoulder to check that the lane is clear, and I am startled by a large, red truck hanging out in my blind spot. An entire truck, bright red and visible even amid the road spray from the rain. How is it that something so big and bright is able to hide right next to me?

This, I realize, is not unlike the route my summer has taken. My life will be traveling along on what seems like a good path, headed in a positive direction, but then I notice something big and startling hanging out in my blind spot. I try not to swerve from my path to avoid it; I try to remain calm.

The past few weeks, it seems, there has been much that is hiding in my blind spot. These “life issues” hover on the periphery of my life, just out of my vision. So close yet so hidden. Every now and then, when I least expect it, they poke their heads out to taunt me: “Here I am!” mocks Loss. “Gotcha again!” shouts Grief. “Be quiet!” whispers Insecurity. “Not good enough,” chants Inadequacy. Each and every time, as I am caught off guard, I retreat within myself.

But I am tapping into my resources. This summer, I have been involved in some work with encouragement, wellbeing, belonging, and courage. Research that has affected me very deeply. And an important part of each of these is vulnerability. Vulnerability is at the heart of much we face in our lives; it’s a valuable part of connection—both to others and to ourselves.

The (involuntary) break I’ve (accidentally) taken from my blog has not been good for me. I am happier when I am writing and posting regularly. I am more centered and able to deal with the challenges—big and small—that life tosses in my path. Not writing has allowed me to realize that maybe what’s hiding in my blind spots needs to be tackled head on.

And so, I open myself up to the vulnerabilities. I will stand and be brave in the face of all that is hiding—the sadness and sorry, the challenge and grief, the insecurities and failures. By allowing myself to feel all of my emotions and be vulnerable, I can live into joy.

Jalopy

We are driving up the highway on our way home from a typical crazy trip out. The afternoon started with a long-awaited appointment, and spilled into a trip to the craft store for fabric paint for a school project, a hop into the grocery store for two necessary items for a cake, and a stop at the pharmacy, which (for future reference) closes early on Saturdays.

Just behind my peripheral vision, the clouds are on fire with the setting sun. Up ahead, the sky is tinged with residual pink, as if someone took a paintbrush and accidentally touched a couple spots with the wrong color. It is this time of day on this drive up the highway (as wonder streaks the sky with end-of-day color) when I am most likely to feel that Dad is present.

Suddenly, a large pick up truck pulls alongside my car, then passes me. He is towing a trailer on which rests enough of another truck to allow me to recognize it as an antique from the 1930s.

“There’s a jalopy,” I comment, speaking as much to myself as to my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat. The sight of the antique truck and the recall of the word “jalopy” bring to mind memories of being in the backseat as a child with Dad driving. He would comment on a jalopy on the road or sitting on someone’s front lawn.

“What’s a jalopy?” my daughter asks.

I smile to myself, remembering Dad. “Look it up when we get home.” It’s a Grampa word, I want to tell her, but I don’t.

“I don’t even know how to spell that. How can I look it up?” she asks.

“You’ll figure it out,” I say.

What a great word. Jalopy.

Solitude

It is dark and quiet and claustrophobic. A dim light glows from my iPad, currently in “night” mode, as the words of my book dance across the pages. There are other lights shining in my periphery, the reading lights of passengers across the aisle, and a row of gold and red “fasten seatbelt” icons starts above my head and runs toward the front of the plane. The constant low roar of the jet’s engines fills the silence that might otherwise be deafening, stuffing the cabin with its noise.

The book I am reading is one I have been poking my way through for a month or more. Poking. I am not a fast reader, but I have allowed this one to stretch out because it fits where I am in my life, and it allows me to both reflect and catch up with my emotions. If I finish it, the journey will be over.

The journey through Kelly Corrigan’s Tell Me More is one that celebrates life and death, and focuses on both happiness and grief. She talks of the love she had for her father (recently deceased) who supported her through the bumpiest of times—the back-sliding, the disappointments, the struggles of growing up. She talks of his life, his death, and how she’s been since. But there are other stories in the book. Losing her close friend, raising her children, parenting mistakes and triumphs. But it is the stories of her father that resonate most deeply with me because I am right there.

At various points through the book, I have cried. And now, sitting in the darkened cabin of an airplane hurtling through the night, I push my way to the end of the book, and I cry once more. The dark masks my tears, but I am not trying to hide. Grief is a part of a life—part of our deep and loving relationships. This writer, she gets it. The grief doesn’t go away. It quietly walks beside us, slipping into our consciousness every now and again when we least expect it.

As I read, as I work, as I parent, as I live… the grief is there. Every day, I relearn how to live with it as my life situations change around me. Here, stuffed inside the cavity of an airplane, the lessons are learned anew. When the plane lands and the passengers tumble out, I will reflect on this moment of solitude among the masses. And I will remember that grief is a shared experience.

Fleeting Thoughts

I am sitting on the couch all cozy under a blanket as I watch my cat. She is looking for something to play with or something to do to keep her busy. She contemplated eating the charging cord to my computer, but then she remembered she’s not that kind of cat. She is the kind of cat who enjoys pulling my kitchen towel onto the floor, so she moved into the kitchen, perhaps to do just that.

The energy it took to get through the day has drained me, and I am savoring a few peaceful moments before I move upstairs to reread one of the books I will be teaching next week. Peaceful moments equal reflection and writing time, and since I couldn’t corral my thoughts into something coherent, I am writing down the ones that make sense.

Today was one of those days when the world seemed to stand still. The weather dampened everyone’s mood as the rain poured down in buckets and froze on every surface, both horizontal and perpendicular. In fact, everything has been so slippery that school was tardy for itself today, with a two-hour delay that came in an unexpected pre-dawn phone call. Since then, it seems, the day has been working to catch up with itself.

Here in the Northeast, I am craving sunlight and warmth, the advent of spring. It is the dead of winter, and my body is bereft of vitamin D. Like my cat, I want to spend the day curled up in a sunbeam, soaking in the light and the warmth, feeling the positive transformation within the depths of my being.

For now, perhaps sleep will have the effect of a sunbeam. And maybe tomorrow, time will follow a more predictable path.