At first I thought the birds had simply found a pleasant, albeit ironic, perch. A metal sculpture of a great bird, a raven or a large crow, perhaps, secured to a black pole and grounded in a garden. I was looking for birds, camera in hand, eyes scanning the winter landscape, where leaves do not obscure feathers, but exposed limbs blend birds into bark. They are hard to spot.
And so I heard them first, a merry chirping of many birds, pleased, like me on this sunny, windless winter day to simply be. They weren’t doing anything other than sitting. I wasn’t doing anything other than walking, and that quite slowly, stepping carefully on the frozen pathway, pausing every few feet to take a photo of branches nearly in bud, rose hips frozen in time or a solitary feather skating on a thin slice of lake ice.
I had, in fact, pressed pause on my whole day. I was playing approved hooky from work, having realized earlier that morning that my brain was tired. I took the day off, with nothing in mind except a ramble with my camera, and maybe lunch at the neighbourhood café on the way home.
Sometimes, it is the days we enter with no expectation that grace us with the greatest gifts.
I have been among the metal birds countless times, sometimes walking past with a quick notion of admiration for the architects who imagined these sculptures into the small organized garden that is part of the wilder parkland along the lake where I live. In spring, I often sit on one of the garden benches, savouring the scent of lilacs, admiring the yellow daffodils and white tulips. It is a lovely place.
But on this day, when the benches were too cold for sitting, I had planned to simply pass by the garden on my way to the ponds where I knew ducks would be skating on thin ice, sometimes falling into cold water, and not minding a bit. Watching them would be amusing.
I was stopped by the choir, singing in cheerful harmony from somewhere in the garden. I scanned the bushes and low stonewalls, catching sight of small brown birds flitting here and there. Looking up, I saw two birds sitting on top of one of the black metal birds. Bird upon bird, I thought wryly. That will make an interesting photo.
Raising my camera to my eye, I set the zoom to its furthest reach, honing in on the bird’s tufted chin, catching the sparkle in its eye. My camera lens takes me so much closer to the birds than they would ever allow. If I stand still enough, in fact, they are not even aware I am there.
As I panned across the birds, both feathered and iron, another material appeared in my viewfinder: straw! It was as if the metal birds had stuffed their bellies. But I knew better. The small brown birds had done the stuffing, flitting between shrub and sculpture, carrying bits of dried grass and tiny twigs in their beaks, making careful deposits until they’d filled the empty belly of the bird, and made a home.
Birds within birds. I liked the whimsy of my discovery. And then, found cause to pause again.
The sculptures were home to many small birds, all crammed into what would have been a spacious home for one bird, but instead was a shared nest for five, six, maybe nine birds. It must have been warm and cosy inside, like a feather duvet, turned inside out.
Lately, I have had a few conversations with friends about the merits of living alone verses living with others. I tell myself I have the best of both worlds, independent in my own apartment, with good friends just down the hall, and above and below me. I am surrounded by people and we are in and out of each other’s lives according to our desires and sometimes, even, needs.
We live respectfully and carefully among each other, rarely getting in each other’s way or crowding into someone else’s space.
I consider my own apartment a cosy space, with soft blankets tossed on couches, low lighting at night, lots of pillows. But then, I wonder, can a home really be cosy if only one person lives there?
The little birds, swallowed up inside the big metal bird seemed cosy. And when they ventured out, to sit on its wings, they were often in pairs. There did not seem to be much desire to be alone. Nor did they seem constrained.
I have been keeping company recently with Mary Oliver, American poet and essayist. She has taken up residence in my home, but only through the pages of her book, Upstream. It’s a safe way to enjoy a houseguest. Or so I thought.
This morning, she rudely interrupted my morning ritual — coffee, an hour to read and think – with a statement that at first I appreciated, until I realized it was going to poke at me all day:
Let me always be who I am, and then some.
It’s the ‘and then some’ that is getting to me. I can always be who I am if I am the only one in charge. But the ‘and then some’? I do not know how to become that on my own. That requires others who share life with me. Perhaps, even, who share living with me.
In a week I will mark my 55th year. I sense this is the beginning of a new life phase, that I will begin to consider shifts in the way I am living my life because what has been no longer makes sense to me. Something new calls. I am not sure what it is, but I suspect the beginning of an answer exists in music flung skyward by birds singing – and living – together.