Yesterday morning, I sat outside while it was still cool and the air was full of song–I wish I could approximate the warbling trills, the notes and the way they quavered in the whispering trees. I sat there long enough that I began to see the birds, hopping from one slender limb to another in the still full lilac bushes.
It’s funny how that happens isn’t it. First you hear the song, full and expansive, and then you hear the single notes, and finally you begin to see. It takes a while. It takes a certain sort of stillness, an attention to the moment at hand.
Anyway, I had my eyes on a tiny little bird I thought might be a chipping sparrow. To tell the truth, a friend mentioned a chipping sparrow to me one day, and I fell madly in love with the name–chipping sparrow. I love the sound of that word–chipping. And while I never looked the bird up, I imagined I saw her everywhere. Anytime I saw a little bird, I thought to myself–I wonder if that is a chipping sparrow.
So I watched this little bird flit around in the green of the lilac bushes and I thought over and over–chipping sparrow. It’s likely that I even greeted her in my own sing-songy attempt at morning glory, “Well, hello chipping sparrow,” I probably said because I have taken to speaking to birds and trees and even rocks and cicadas and worms trying like hell to make their way across the massive concrete slabs we call sidewalks.
At some point during this birdsong/cool air/ sun-shining-through-the green-tops-of-pine-trees series of moments strung together in what almost seemed like a prayer, that little bird flew up from the lower branches of the lilac bush and lit on the chair directly across from me. I could have touched her.
I didn’t try. I still remember the day I ran around my grandmother’s yard with a salt shaker because my father told me if I could salt a bird’s tail, I could catch him. Let’s just pretend that only happened once.
“Look at me,” she seemed to be saying as she gingerly danced her teeny little bird feet on the chair’s back, giving me a full view of her chunky little body, her long beak, her warm cinnamon-colored back, “do I look like a chipping sparrow, lady?”
I’m not a birder, but I’ve had wrens in my hanging baskets before, and I knew this little chirper was a Carolina Wren. And as soon as, not a moment before, the knowledge came to me, as soon as I felt that delight and wonder at being able to name such a delicate and wild thing, Ms. Carolina Wren flew off (no, I do not know she was a she, but it’s my story). She didn’t fly far though. She flew to the ground beneath the lilac bushes, and she rustled around with a sister or two in the pine needles foraging for wren things, I suppose.
I sat there for a very long time or for a few minutes. Time slowed down or perhaps it sped up or maybe it did just what time does and kept marching on and soon I found myself mired in the day at hand.
And the day turned out to be a doozy. Last night, my daughter, Peanut, received some very sad news–two of her childhood friends were involved in a tragic accident. I sure would like to bring this essay around, to bring the little wren back, to illuminate the harsh wonder of the world we live in, but I can’t twist the story to my liking, can’t stitch it up all neat and fine.
All day long, after my encounter with the little wren, Emily Dickinson’s poem was in my head:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
I have always loved that image–of hope being a winged thing–but this morning I am wondering if we do hope a disservice by imagining it thus. Hope isn’t ethereal at all. Hope is dogged and rough and resilient. Hope resides in the dimmest doorways and the darkest corners of our lives. Hope grows up from the disaster and the dirt, the fertile floor of grief.
Hope demands of us, we would-be-practitioners, determination. As Vaclav Havel wrote,Â “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
I would contend that hope is in that late night knock on my door. My daughter reaching out for comfort when there is none to be had. That’s where hope settles in, that is where hope begins the growing of wings.