Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bird By Bird

Months. I have not put pen to paper or finger to key or even voice to tale for weeks end-to-end. I used to feel a leaden weight on top of me when this happened, perhaps guilt that I was not sufficiently pursuing, describing, writing reality. It's daunting enough to take in the universe through one eyes, ears, mouth, nose, fingers; letting it come out again in some kind of semi-coherent form is impossible. These days, I am more like a pregnant woman who feels the need to eat and eat, and let something grow and mature inside of me for a long while before it's ready to be birthed. It still might put a strain on my back, but at least it's pain with a purpose. Bob Dylan describes a period of time in his life when he did virtually nothing but read voraciously in a friend's library. He says: "I stored all those things away...figured I'd send a truck back for it later.

There is a point at which one must sit down and devote actual time to actual writing, to send for at least one of those truck shipments. I am not first one to feel overwhelmed by the pressure of this task, of course. In one of her delightfully meandering accounts of writing and life, Anne Lamott recounts a vivid story from her childhood:

"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to years, surrounded by binders and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'." 

So here I am. I will take it bird by bird, and I mean that quite literally.  I find birds perched everywhere in my life, from earliest childhood to just yesterday. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these are the creatures through which God most consistently speaks to me personally. I think of yesterday evening when the declining sun rays blazed through the fingered translucent plumage of a bird fluttering away from me in the wood, and my throat caught on the beauty, as it did for the Provencal poet of old, "Can vei la lauzeta mover...alas contral rei"" ("When I see the lark move...wings against the sun"). Carefree, beautiful, and temporal.

Another image alights in my memory: the minuscule, featherless body that curled up to die on our doorstep a few summers ago. Oliver taught us what mercy demands and how unconditional love simply sprouts in your heart and will compel you to joyfully fulfill those demands, no matter what the cost of time, effort, and heartache.

There is something about the fragility of these creatures. They appear so capable, soaring above the rest of us, singing gorgeously. Who in the animal kingdom wouldn't give an extra leg or a spare gill just to have the ability to fly or weave a sweet song? And yet under that impressive array of feathers are tiny, delicate bodies and the need for constant, almost frenzied nourishment.

Look at the birds of the air. That's what Jesus said to do. I imagine the moment when he first said this. Maybe a flock of sparrows had just swooped over their heads, finding shade from the hot Galilean sun. Maybe the disciples were fussing over how the monthly budget was going to work out, because the math never seemed quite right. (There were catches of gossip here and there that someone might be pilfering from the common purse.) "But we need this much for bread!" "We've got to help so-and-so's mother, too!" "My tunic - absolutely threadbare! I never would have let this happen before, before...Jesus". And just then, while their fragile, burdened shoulders are curved over account books, Jesus points to the chattering birds. Look! He says. The disciples don't all notice right away; some are still absorbed in working out the figures. (They always relied on Matthew for that.) Look! He says, more insistently. What? Heads pop up, wondering whether they are in for another puzzling lesson that will make them ache with desire to understand. Look at the birds of the air. They do not toil or spin, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Easy enough to understand; so hard to learn.

Centuries later, a bishop named Augustine lays the weight of a heavy head and heart under the fig tree and thinks back over his life of toil. What has it all been, but rhetorical spin to promote his own self at all costs? He remembers every detail he can eke out of those miserable, creeping hours and writes God into the story, in-between the pain. It was God who provided him with the ability to speak, an education, with a love for beauty, with books; even with the milk from his mother's breast. God fed him through His mother, and with the physical nourishment he took in a taste for Jesus Christ, a craving which wouldn't be satisfied till many years later. The father in heaven fed him. And why are you anxious about clothing? If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not much more clothe you? Stop hiding behind those fig leaves in shame and let me clothe you. Let me feed you.

There are birds in the house again. Every morning I get up and go first thing to the cage in the window in back. There are four little chickens, each a different color, each with two wings, which makes eight wings all flapping and declaring with one squawk the glory of God and the need for some exercise. They are getting a bit big for their confines, so we let them roam. Only a month ago, they were inside of a shell in Iowa somewhere. Then they were shivering, swaying balls of fluff coming home in a tiny brown cardboard box. Now the "girls" are more like adolescents, tall and gawky.

Just try to sit down and get some writing done. The girls will get you out of your chair. They are compelling, each with her own personality, wit and whims. The black one is small and sweet. The yellow one, a gourmand who rips at her food with relish. The brown-black one is large, crabby and bossy. (She must be disconcerted by the fact that the humans are bigger than her). And then there's Red over here, calm and collected, the peacemaker. It never gets old, to see them enjoying their food, growing and changing, new feathers sprouting each hour.

Why would my all-powerful and loving father in heaven be  any less attentive to me? His care and concern far surpasses the affection we may have for a group of pecking, squawking biddies. There is a reason God looked at His creation and said: this is good! We need all of these sparrows, swallows, warblers, chickadees, cardinals, crows, chickens, ravens, catbirds, hummies and finches. We must experience physical, breathing, winging, singing metaphors to really get it. Abstraction about God's care for us alone won't do. Look at the birds, their wings flapping wildly, the frantic pecking for food, satisfaction from an open hand. Look at them. And thank the father in heaven, bird by bird.

Addendum: I was struck by a very obvious fact upon re-reading this post. Birds are also the central metaphor in my book, Fledgling Song and would give me the opportunity to do a shameless plug for it. : ) You can find my novella here on Electio Publishing and here on Amazon if you've never read it before. If you have read it and have an opinion, please write a review on Amazon and help me tell the world. Spread the word!